A judge’s decision this month to indefinitely postpone the appeal of a Christian sentenced under Algeria’s defamation and anti-proselytizing laws shows how the judicial system keeps Christians locked up without officially punishing or acquitting them, according to sources.
In Abdelkrim Siaghi’s appeal of his five-year sentence for insulting the prophet of Islam, and for giving a Muslim a CD about Christianity, a judge has been unable to find any evidence against him and has postponed hearing dates several times. A scheduled Dec. 1 hearing was postponed indefinitely on that day, when judges were expected to pronounce a verdict, according to Siaghi’s lawyer.
Authorities arrested Siaghi in April after he purportedly gave a CD about Christianity to a Muslim. Siaghi had gone to a phone shop to buy minutes for his mobile phone, and the merchant there initiated a conversation on religion. Unhappy with Siaghi’s non-Muslim answers, the merchant tried to force him to pay homage to the prophet and to recite the Muslim creed, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.”
Siaghi refused and said he was a Christian, according Mustapha Krim, president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA).
“The merchant felt offended in his faith and would hear nothing more,” said Krim. “He filed a complaint that Abdelkrim had belittled the prophet, and in the absence of other witnesses, charges were brought against him.” The merchant also said that he saw Siaghi give a CD to someone but never appeared in court to testify to that effect. Siaghi’s lawyer said there was no proof of the charges against the Christian.
Giving credence to these allegations is a law that was passed in 2006 known as Ordinance 06-03, which outlaws proselytism of Muslims, as well as the distribution, production and storing of material used for this purpose. “My view is that once more this 06-03 law of 2006 shows its pernicious character by allowing any Muslim who does not like Christians to claim they are insulted or simply ‘shaken in their faith,'” Krim said. “It is imperative that the law be abolished or changed.” The restrictive law also prohibits churches from operating without registration. For example, in May the governor of Bejaia ordered the closure of seven churches for lack of compliance with registration regulations. The order was never enforced, and the churches continued to meet for worship.
Last year four Christian leaders in Tizi Ouzou received two and three months of suspended jail time for worshiping without a permit. Thus the Christians were officially punished but served no time.
In the case of Habiba Khouider, who was charged for illegally practicing worship after authorities found her in possession of her personal Christian literature, prosecutors in Tiaret have not called her for a hearing since 2008. Also in 2008 a Christian leader in Tiaret, Rachid Essaghir, received suspended sentences in two separate cases against him for sharing his faith. Though Christians appeal these verdicts, they are rarely conclusive.
Experts on Algeria’s treatment of Christians say that Algerian courts customarily have preferred to defer deciding in favor of Christians so as not to aggravate local Muslim sentiments. Judges have also been slow to pronounce final verdicts in order to keep from provoking international criticism over religious freedom. Krim told Compass, “For the judge, this is an honorable way out.”
Father, please continue to give Christians in Algeria steadfast trust and hope in You in the midst of hardship and uncertainty, especially for our brother Siaghi who anxiously is awaiting the court’s verdict on his appeal. Lord Jesus, there has been much conflict this year in Northern Africa and throughout the Middle East; as we come together today in prayer, we humbly ask for all Christians in Algeria, and around the world, the freedom to openly worship You without fear or hindrance. Amen