Up to 19 churches and congregations were told to close their doors since November until they are issued the permit which non-Muslim groups must have to pursue organized worship, said Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA). Two independent congregations registered under the EPA banner were among the latest churches ordered to cease their activities, Krim added in a statement.
Among those closed were, "Thirteen chapels, including 11 in [the city of] Tizi Ouzou," Krim told reporters. "No reason has been given for this decision," he said, adding that he had made a formal request for explanation from the Algerian state’s representative in the Tizi Ouzou region.
Religious Affairs Minister Bu ‘Abdallah Ghoulamullah has defended the policy and church closures in Tizi Ouzou, saying the churches "might give foreign powers a pretext to intervene with Algeria’s domestic affairs."
It came just days after local police reportedly detained two Algerian Christians traveling by public bus from Tizi Ouzou to the Bejaia area for carrying 11 Bibles. Earlier this month, American Protestant Hugh Johnson, the former EPA leader, was told to leave the country for allegedly bringing in a copy of the Bible’s New Testament without permission.
The 74-year old pastor has pledged to appeal that decision. In a statement, the Ministry for Religious Affairs denied that religious reasons were behind the decision to expel Johnson. It said Johnson must leave as his resident visa has expired and because he is no longer involved in any formal church activities.
However fellow Christians point out that Johnson has remained involved in his church and that he discreetly imports Christian books.
Minister Ghoulamullah has denied allegations that the pastor’s expulsion is part of a legal and wide-ranging campaign against evangelists. “We don’t have problems with anyone,: he reportedly said. “The protestant church has been operating in Algeria since 1974." The minister said the government’s main concern is the evangelists’ attitudes that "violate Islamic" values.
In 2006, Algeria passed new religious legislation which says that anyone "trying to call on a Muslim to embrace another religion," could be sentenced to prison for two to five years and receive a fine of up to $12,000 in local currency.
Several Christians are known to have been tried under that law. There has been concern among Muslim leaders over the spread of Christianity in the country, although the number of Christians officially remains very small.
The Protestant Church reportedly claims to have 50,000 followers, 10,000 of them active churchgoers, spread across 33 congregations. The Ministry for Religious Affairs and Catholic sources say there are some 11,000 Christians in Algeria all told among an overwhelmingly Muslim population of 33 million.