Compliance with building codes not enough to prevent closure.
TIZI-OUZOU, Algeria, October 19, 2018 (Morning Star News) – Authorities in Algeria sealed shut a church site on Tuesday (Oct. 16) even after Christian leaders complied with orders to meet building codes, sources said.
In Azaghar village near Akbou, about 185 kilometers (114 miles) east of Algiers in Bejaia Province, Kabylie Region, eight policemen sealed shut the doors of the Church of Jesus Christ, pastor Ali Benkhelat told Morning Star News.
Government officials had ordered the closure in February after local administrators visited the 300-member church’s worship site in December 2017 and January, he said.
“After their visit to our place of worship, they asked us to provide another emergency exit door and fire extinguishers, which we have done,” Pastor Benkhelat said. “We even had to close the premises for three weeks for different development work. If they let us work until today, it’s because they had nothing to reproach us for.”
The five-year-old church is a legal entity by virtue of its affiliation with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), but the government order stated that its building was originally meant to be used for a poultry business. Christian leaders said it was clean and never had chickens in it.
Police first went to the building owner, Da Amar, at 4 p.m. on Monday (Oct. 15) and asked him to go to the police station at 5 p.m., which he did, Pastor Benkhelat said. The officer on duty told Amar, who makes the building available to the church free of charge, that police would close the building the next day on orders from Bejaia provincial officials.
“This after having reminded him of a notification which had been delivered to him on Feb. 18, 2018, and in which he had been informed of the closure of the premises for reasons of nonconformity,” Pastor Benkhelat said.
Besides citing lack of an emergency exit and fire extinguishers, the Feb. 18 order mentions use of the building to receive foreign pastors as being against Law No. 11-08 of July 25, 2008 as a reason to stop using the building, “under pain of making a decision to close the premises within 15 days.”
After Amar called Pastor Benkhelat on Monday (Oct. 15), the church leader immediately made contact with EPA President Salah Chalah, who arrived from about 100 kilometers (62 miles) away with EPA Vice President Youcef Ourahmane on Tuesday (Oct. 16).
The owner, pastor and EPA representatives went to the Akbou police station to try to get the closure order reversed.
“We presented the necessary documents, including the affiliation of the church to the EPA, but unfortunately their decision only obeyed an order issued by the head of Bejaia Province,” the EPA’s Pastor Ourahmane said.
The closure order this week was issued by a new Bejaia Province head who took office on Oct. 1, the Christian leaders said.
“It was ordered to proceed with the closing of the premises of the church with the sealing of the main entrance door,” Pastor Benkhelat said. “A brigade of eight gendarmes thus appeared around 11:30 and proceeded to execute the established order.”
The sealing of the church building comes amid a rash of church closures in the past year in Algeria. Three churches closed in Oran have since been allowed to re-open, but church buildings closed in Maatkas, Tizi-Ouzou Province, in May, and in Riki on July 11 remain shut, Christian leaders said. The Riki church, near Akbou, continues to hold worship services in the open air outside their closed premises.
On May 26 authorities ordered the closure of a church building in Ait-Mellikeche, also in Bejaia Province.
In addition to orders to close Protestant places of worship, Algerian authorities are trying to block evangelical activity in the country, Christian leaders said. In Oran Province, pastor Rachid Segheir visits provincial offices weekly to appeal for the reopening of his bookstore, which was closed and sealed by police in Oran city.
All churches affiliated with the EPA have been visited by investigators and ordered to comply with requirements for non-Muslim places of worship or face closure.
A 2007 executive decree requires all non-Muslim places of worship in Algeria to register with the state, according to the U.S. State Department, but a government freeze on new EPA members has kept churches from registering.
At the same time, the case of a Christian previously acquitted of frivolous charges again surfaced this month.
Idir Hamdad, a 29-year-old convert from Islam, had been acquitted on July 8 of importing unauthorized (Christian) items without a license, but a prosecutor appealed the decision. A judge on Oct. 9 rejected the appeal, acquitting Hamdad again and ruling that he was prosecuted solely for his faith, though the court did not reveal the decision to his lawyers until Thursday (Oct. 18).
Algeria ranked 42nd on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.