By BosNewsLife Africa Service with BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
ALGIERS, ALGERIA (BosNewsLife)– Tensions remained high in a northern Algerian city Monday, January 3, after a Muslim mob reportedly prevented Christian converts from holding a Christmas service and threatened to kill their church pastor.
Algerian media said dozens of Muslims formed a human chain Saturday, December 26, outside the recently opened worship site of the Protestant Tafat congregation in Tizi-Ouzou, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Algerian capital, Algiers.
“Here is the land of Islam, go pray somewhere else!” demonstrators shouted, as Christians tried to enter their recently opened church to celebrate Christmas, reported Algerian news paper El Watan.Christians said church pastor Mustafa Krireche also received death threats.
Security forces reportedly rushed to the scene to prevent a violent confrontation. It was not immediately clear if or when the church, located in a residential area, would be re-opened. “We are still refused access,” Krireche told reporters. Worshippers at the local mosque defended the protests saying the recently opened church was a “disgrace” to Muslims.
“These are all local residents who have risen to protest against the opening of this place of worship among homes,” El Watan quoted one Muslim as saying. “What happens there is a disgrace and an insult to Muslims,” added the unidentified man. He said Muslims were shocked to “found an old [person] kissing a cross.”
He accused the church of offering “money or cell phones to students to earn their sympathy” so they “enlist”.”We will not let them practice their religion, even with permission. There is a mosque for those who want to pray, we are in the land of Islam,” the man said.
Other demonstrators quoted by Algerian media complained of loud music and of the “many foreigners” entering their neighborhood.
Pastor Krireche confirmed there was music. “This is part of our praise service, but if someone complains we will stop,” he told reporters. He said however that authorities had given permission for the worship services, which are attended by some 300 people. “If the authorities want to dissolve our association, they have to do that through the courts. We want to find a quick solution.”
There are over 60 churches in the Kabylie region, where most Algerian Christians live, as well as house groups, according to Protestant estimates. The Kabylie region is populated by Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa.
Last week’s confrontation is no isolated incident. Churches and rights groups say there has been a crackdown on Christian converts in this mainly Muslim nation since 2006, when a controversial law was passed demanding non-Muslim congregations seek permits from regional authorities.
Under the controversial legislation Algerians can also be fined up to 1 million dinars (about $14,000) and sentenced to five years in prison for printing, storing or distributing materials intended to convert Muslims away from Islam.
Barnabas Fund, an advocacy and aid group working in especially Islamic nations, linked the crackdown to opposition to the spread of Christianity in the country. “The Church in Algeria is composed mainly of converts from Islam and their children…But the Algerian population is overwhelmingly Muslim, and radical Islamists are now pushing for more restrictions on Christian activities, especially mission.”
Barnabas Fund said there is “an increasing climate of violence in some areas of Algeria with threats and attacks directed towards Christians.”
Several Christians have been detained in recent years, including for worshiping “illegally” or distributing Bibles and other Christian literature, churches and other groups say.
The state-appointed Higher Islamic Council has defended the measures saying especially Protestant evangelicals “are secretly trying to divide Algerians to colonise the country.”There has been international pressure on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to allow more reforms.
However after having amended the constitution to remove the two-term limit on the presidency in November 2008, Bouteflika effectively allowed himself to remain head of state for life, critics say.
Over a million Algerians were killed in the fight for independence from France in 1962, and the country has recently emerged from a bloody internal conflict that followed scrapped elections in 1992.