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An Algerian Christian detained five days for carrying a Bible and personal Bible study books was handed a 300-euro (US$460) fine and a one-year suspended prison sentence last week, an Algerian church leader said.
Last Tuesday (April 29) a court in Djilfa, 150 miles south of Algiers, charged the 33-year-old Muslim convert to Christianity with “printing, storing and distributing” illegal religious material. A written copy of the verdict has yet to be issued.
The Protestant, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told fellow Christians in his home city of Tiaret that police pressured him to return to Islam while in custody.
The conviction is the latest in a wave of detentions and court cases against Algeria’s Protestants and Catholics. Since January police and provincial officials have ordered the closure of up to half of the country’s 50 estimated Protestant congregations.
Officials in several instances have cited a February 2006 law governing the worship of non-Muslims. Clarified by subsequent decrees in 2007, the law restricts most religious meetings to approved places of worship and forbids any attempt to “shake the faith of a Muslim.”
On the morning of April 25, the Tiaret resident and eight-year convert to Christianity was stopped at a police roadblock in the vicinity of Djilfa while riding in a shared taxi. Officials took the convert into custody upon finding a Bible and several religious study books in his luggage.
A Christian from Tiaret told Compass that Djilfa police appeared to have previous knowledge of the Protestant’s Christian connections. Officers refused to let the convert call friends to let them know of his detention, naming a church member in Tiaret whom they claimed he would contact.
“We will call your family for you,” the officials said, according to the Christian source from Tiaret.
According to one Algerian human rights lawyer, police violated the convert’s rights by refusing him the telephone call.
“Any detained person has the right to call his family,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity.
A leader from the Protestant Church of Algeria, an umbrella association for mainline and evangelical congregations, said that Christians remained unaware of the detainee’s location for several days.
The Christian source in Tiaret said that Djilfa police verbally attacked the convert because of his faith during his five-day detention at city’s police station.
“They did not hit him, but they tried to convert him back to Islam,” he said.
Under Algerian law, police can detain a suspect up to 48 hours before bringing him before a state prosecutor, the human rights lawyer told Compass.
“It is not legal for them to hold him for five days,” said the lawyer, who clarified that any detention between 24 and 48 hours had to be approved by a state prosecutor.
After five days in Djilfa’s main police station, the Christian was brought before a state prosecutor and then a Djilfa judge. According to the convert, the judge convicted him of “printing, storing and distributing” illegal religious literature, though the charge remains uncertain until a written verdict is issued.
Before releasing him, the judge told the convert he would be given a 300 euro fine and a one-year suspended sentence.
According to the Tiaret Christian, the convert received the “printing” charge because he was traveling with a computer printer in his possession. The convert has yet to receive a written copy of the verdict, though observers said this was common in Algeria, as court verdicts are normally sent by mail following a ruling.
Because the sentence is suspended, the convert will only have to do jail time if convicted of another crime. But the Tiaret Christian said that the verdict constituted an ongoing threat to the Christian.
“A policeman could bring false accusations against him, that he gave one of them a Bible, and he would be thrown in jail,” the friend said.
Christians in Tiaret reported two separate instances in which undercover police officers pretended to be interested in Christianity and then detained Protestants for giving them Bibles.
Charges were thrown out for the first incident in March. In the second case a Tiaret court handed a Christian a two-year suspended sentence and a 100,000-dinar (US$1,540) fine on April 2. The written verdict was delivered on April 9.
At least five Christians from Tiaret have been detained or tried for Christian activities since January 2008.
According to unconfirmed reports, Tiaret police detained six more Christians today.
Christians constitute a tiny minority of Algeria’s population of 33 million. Catholics count several thousand congregants, mostly expatriates, while numbers for Protestants are less certain.
Conservative estimates place the number of Protestants at 10,000, though evangelism via satellite TV has reportedly led to a large number of isolated conversions unaccounted for in church attendance figures.
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