A judge in the Algerian coastal city of Tizi-Ouzou has issued an arrest warrant for Ali Arhab, the Algerian-born director of the France-based Christian satellite ministry Channel North Africa.
What initially appeared to be a simple case of mistaken identity has developed into something decidedly more sinister. The concern is that the Algerian government might be wielding a false criminal charge against Mr Arhab as part of its anti-missionary, anti-fitna, Islamist-appeasement campaign, the effect being that Mr Arhab will be unable to return to Algeria without risking imprisonment.
Religious Liberty in Algeria
According to The Constitution of the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria (approved by Referendum on 28 November 1996) Algerian citizens are free to observe their own religion.
"Freedom of creed and opinion is inviolable" (Article 36).
"The right to create associations is guaranteed" (Article 43).
However, unlike Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 36 of the Algerian Constitution does not make any reference to an individual's right to change their religion. Furthermore, Article 2 states "Islam is the religion of the state", and Article 9 prohibits "practices that are contrary to the Islamic ethics and to the values of the November Revolution". Together these render religious liberty illusory. (NOTE: the "November Revolution" marked the beginning of Algeria's war of independence, the goal of which, according to the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), was the establishment of Algeria as an independent sovereign state "within the framework of the principles of Islam" (Front de Libération Nationale, 1 Nov 1954).
Moustafa Bouchachi, President of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, recently protested the criminalisation of eating during Ramadan on the grounds that "The Algerian constitution prescribes freedom of religion. . ." Yet clearly the reality is more complicated.
See: Algerian men put to justice for breaking the Ramadan fast
By David E. Miller / The Media Line, Jerusalem Post, 7 Sept 2010
As David Miller of the Jerusalem Post reports, police in the Algerian province of Bejaya, in the Kabylie region east of the capital Algiers, recently arrested ten young men as they sat in a closed restaurant, charging them with eating in public in violation of the sanctity of Ramadan. The police were allegedly responding to complaints from locals who, they claim, had reported the "public desecration".
The men faced court in the town of Akbou on Monday 6 September but the verdict will not be known until early November. If convicted, the offenders face up to 2 years in jail.
As Miller notes, the incident reflects the growing trend amongst Muslim governments to cater to devout public sentiment in the Muslim world. (See here for a report on Morocco's persecution of fast-breakers.)
Protesting the charges against the alleged fast-breakers, Moustafa Bouchachi, President of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights noted: "There is no law in Algeria prohibiting eating on Ramadan, only one banning 'mocking Ramadan'. We believe that this lawsuit is unfounded. The Algerian constitution prescribes freedom of religion, so we think this is an affront to people's basic right, which we condemn."
Mouloud Benkadoum, a lawyer representing the owner of the restaurant, claims his client is being unjustly discriminated against. "The large hotels serve alcohol and meals in broad daylight during Ramadan," he told reporters.
According to Sallah A-Din Belabes, executive editor of Al-Watan, the arrests are simply a means by which the Algerian government can display some Islamic zeal and score points with Islamic fundamentalists. He believes that the fact that the arrests took place in the region of Kabylie, which he describes as "less religious than other parts of Algeria" (i.e. less Islamic fundamentalist), is significant. Doubtless the men were arrested to make a point locally -- that Islam will be observed in the Kabylie region "willingly or unwillingly" (Qur'an Sura 13:15) -- while scoring points with Muslim fundamentalists everywhere.
UPDATE: (22 Sept 2010)
Two Christian construction workers appeared in the provincial court in Ain El Hammam (50 km south of Tizi Ouzou) on Tuesday 21 Sept, charged with in eating during the daylight hours of Ramadan.
Hocine Hocini and Fellak Salem, both in their 40s, had been working on a private construction site when they ate their "illegal" lunch on 13 August.
"I am optimistic... I have no regrets, I am a Christian" Hocine Hocini, told AFP. "We are innocent, we have not hurt anyone. We are Christians and we did not eat in a public place."
Meanwhile, lawyers defending the two men have demanded their acquittal. They argue that existing Algerian laws do not prohibit citizens from breaking the Ramadan fast.
The police however, argued in favor of legal provisions that protect religious precepts from being disobeyed.
Algeria: A disturbing trial of Christians over Islamic Ramadan fast
Afrik-News, Wednesday 22 Sept 2010,
Christians and liberal Muslims repressed to appease Islamists
Appeasement of Islamists was doubtless the primary motive behind the draconian March 2006 religion law that imposes severe restrictions on non-Muslim worship and has seen several Algerian Christians dragged before the courts for praying together or possessing Christian literature.
Algeria's March 2006 religion law was adopted as a presidential order (without debate) less than six months after some 10,000 condemned Islamists were amnestied. Most probably the amnesty involved some quid pro quo wherein the government agreed to repress Christianity and advance Islamisation in exchange for "peace". If there was no quid pro quo, then the March 2006 religion law might simply have been the government's attempt at pre-emptive appeasement through the removal of a "provocation". Whatever is the case, it does appear that religious freedom may have been the price the government paid for peace with fundamentalist and militant Islamists.
See Algeria: severe new penalties for 'proselytising'
WEA Religious Liberty News & Analysis by Elizabeth Kendal, 24 March 2006
Algeria: Christians and the extremist threat.
WEA Religious Liberty News & Analysis by Elizabeth Kendal, June 2007
And Christians in Algeria – witnessing in difficult times
Aid to the Church in Need, 27 Aug 2010
When the 300-member "Tafat" ("Light" in Kabyle) Fellowship in Tizi-Ouzou (100km east of Algiers) came under attack in December 2009, the Algerian government blamed the victim. Maintaining that Islam is inherently tolerant and peaceful, the authorities insisted that the violence must be due to factors other than Islam: such as non-compliance with the law, political opponents out to discredit or destabilise the government, foreign conspiracies, or provocative Christian evangelism.
See: Nous ne sommes pas contre la construction des églises
El Watan 29 Dec 2009. Translation (google)
ARREST WARRANT ISSUED IN ALGERIA FOR ALI ARHAB
In March 2010, Ali Arhab received a phone call in France from his parents in Algeria, alerting him to the fact that a judge in his home city of Tizi-Ouzou had issued an arrest warrant for "ALI ARAB" on charges of "fraud" (swindling). The warrant would have been of no concern to Ali Arhab if it had not been for the fact that his parents were named on the warrant.
After some investigation, a lawyer hired by Mr Arhab's parents determined that the warrant was doubtless intended for a building contractor by the name of Ali Arab who, it appears, has several complaints of swindling registered against his name. With this established, the lawyer pressed to have the case cleared only to be shocked when the authorities chose instead to amend the nationwide arrest warrant to read "ALI ARHAB".
The lawyer is concerned that the judge and the public prosecutor might be acting on behalf of higher authorities who might be plotting against Mr Arhab on account of his Christian activities in serving Algerian churches. Mr Arhab has reason to believe that he has been under surveillance ever since the Religion Law was passed in March 2006.