The Christianization of Algeria – Research by a Correspondent of the Online Daily Elaph
This year has witnessed an intensification of the struggles throughout the Islamic world. The civil war in Syria has increased in its ferocity and is claiming hundreds of casualties among the population. In Egypt, the Islamists have increased their grip on the government, while their opponents’ demonstrations have proven fruitless. One may go on listing the many troubling developments in the Middle East such as the growing influence of Iran, and the unending political assassinations in Pakistan.
The above-mentioned news gets the attention of the media. However, other events that are taking place in the Islamic world are rarely mentioned in the West, such as the spread of Christianity in North Africa. On 13 November, 2012, the Arabic online daily Elaph published a report about the spread of Christianity in Algeria. Here are excerpts from the report, followed by my analysis and comments.
The reporter began with this headline:
“That Algerians are leaving Islam is a phenomenon not denied by the government or civil organizations; however it suffers from being a subject not openly discussed. Added to that, is a paucity of documented information necessary for a proper pursuit of our investigation.”
Algiers – The subject of Christianization remains a much discussed matter in Algeria, even though no official census exists that would reveal the actual number of people who have embraced Christianity. Neither the Ministry of Religious Affairs & Awqaf[i], nor the Algerian Episcopal authorities are willing to divulge their number.
While governmental authorities tend to minimize the size of this phenomenon, discussion of it is occurring among both politicians and religious leaders regarding its spread among Algerians, especially among the young people.
The Christianization of Young People
According to the field research of three Algerian experts, Jalal Mousa, Salaf Rahmouni, and Naseema Raqiq, there is a noticeable rise in the number of Algerians leaving Islam, reaching 10,000 people, and averaging six individuals per day, most of whom are young people. According to researcher Jalal Mousa, “the number of people who have embraced Christianity is estimated at 10,000.”
In his research, Mousa emphasized that “those becoming Christian move freely without any governmental surveillance, and in turn, concentrate their efforts on working among the young people, with the goal of establishing a religious minority who are willing and active in defending their rights. Their activities are accomplished through philanthropic organizations that seek to prevent young people from indulging in the use of alcoholic beverages and narcotics, and calling them to adopt good morals.”
According to some experts, the Grand Kabyle[ii] region has become a fertile field for evangelization by Western Christians who often visit the area. 19 Christian philanthropic organizations are also active, making a claim of an average of 6 converts per day.
The Number of non-Muslims has reached 500,000
The U. S. Bureau of Democracy & Human Rights of the Department of State estimates that the number of non-Muslims in Algeria has reached 500,000. They attend 300 churches, most of which are in the Kabyle region. [iii]
The minister of Religious Affairs and Awqaf, Ghoulam Allah tried to minimize the extent of this phenomenon by declaring “the wave of Christianization has subsided thanks to the alertness of the young people, adding that evangelists had exploited the young peoples’ circumstances by offering them inducements such as facilitating their visa applications for study abroad, coupled with offers of scholarships, on condition that they embrace the Christian faith; however most of these young people returned to Islam and wrote about their experiences!”
The Marginalization of the Amazigh and the Absence of Democracy
A researcher from the Kabyle area explains that the main reason for the spread of Christianization is due to the marginalization of the Amazigh coupled with the absence of democracy, adding that “those who have embraced Christianity in the region did that as a protest directed against the Algerian State that had marginalized them.” Furthermore, a radical group “is active in the movement for the establishment of an autonomous region where the Amazigh language is used and Christianity is its faith. This is what makes the subject of Christianization a political issue.”
In its turn, the Society of Muslim ‘Ulema[iv] claims that evangelization is not taking place only in the Kabyle region but is going on in other parts of Algeria. They warn that no one should underestimate the problem of Christianization since it has ulterior political and secessionist motives.
“Much Ado about Nothing”
Another opinion has been advanced by a professor at the University of Constantine. He claims that “the subject had been overstressed by some alarmists and semi-religionists about the extent of the Christianization in Algeria, so that some have imagined that Algeria was about to become a part of the Christian world, or a place for a clash of religions. In the final analysis it is ‘Much Ado about Nothing’”
The professor went on to claim that it is not up to the state as a governing body to deal with this matter, the task belongs to the entire Algerian society which must face the challenge of attempts to Christianize the country. He added: “No reasonable person should deny that the Christianization in Algeria has failed utterly, going back to the colonial era, even though illiteracy was rampant in the country, coupled with the inability of the intellectuals to confront such attempts. What was a failure then would certainly not be nowadays in the new Algerian state.” He also cautioned that “Islamists must cease imagining that any Algerian who frequents a church has become a Murtad (Apostate); for according to Islamic Fiqh (Jurisprudence) going to a church even to offer one’s Muslim prayers is not, per se, an act of Kufr (unbelief), any more than possessing a copy of the Injeel (Gospel) constitutes an apostasy, or a sign of embracing Christianity.”
The Suffering of an Algerian Christian
On the other hand, we are informed by a Christian in the region of Setif, an activist in an Amazigh organization, who had left Islam, and openly chose for himself the Protestant faith, that “his embracing of Christianity was a free act and out of conviction,” adding that it had cost him greatly, as he now faces many problems and persecutions. He shared with the Elaph reporter copies of letters he had sent to international organizations, including the United Nations, requesting freedom and protection for the Christian minority so that it can worship freely. He criticized the measures of the Algerian authorities to limit their freedom by not allowing their restaurants to be open during Ramadan, even tough, according to him, 4,000 Christians signed the petition. “Why do Muslims living in Europe fast freely during Ramadan, while Algerian Christians are not able to eat (in restaurants) during the month of fasting? This convert wants his son who attends the local school to be excused from taking a class on the Islamic faith. He spoke of the difficulties he encounters in the village; his family had disowned him, and the village residents don’t speak to him. And when a Christian in a nearby village had recently passed away, it took a great deal of effort to have him buried in the local cemetery. He ended by claiming “that North Africa is under occupation, and that this region should be liberated from that occupation!”
Muslim ‘Ulema take a serious view of anyone who goes back on Islam by adopting another faith. An apostate is called Murtad, and according to Sharia, he or she, faces the death penalty. For example, Elaph reported on 28 April, 2013, about a fatwa that was promulgated by the Supreme Moroccan Assembly of the ‘Ulema, headed by King Muhammad VI, affirming that the punishment for a Murtad must be followed. This pleased the Moroccan Salafists, but elicited strong denunciations by the human rights activists in the country.
By the middle of 2013, it has become evident that the gainers in the period following the “Arab Spring” have been the Islamists. One may point to Tunisia, where the protest of a poor vendor against his mistreatment by the police, ignited the impetus for change that traveled eastward to Egypt. The rule of Hosni Mubarak ended without bloodshed, elections were held, and as a result, the Muslim Brotherhood took power. The plight of the large Christian minority in the land got worse, with attacks on their persons, and their houses of worship.
While the cause of political freedoms received a serious setback, dissatisfaction with Islam among certain parts of Muslim communities is growing. Globalization has brought a new world of communications such as the Internet, satellite TV, and the new media, allowing the young generation in the Arab world to learn about worldviews radically different from Islam, especially that of the Christian faith. This is noticeable in Algeria as the research done by Elaph’s correspondent has shown.
Reactions to the report have been varied. Algerians doing field research on this phenomenon admit that a substantial number of young Algerians are leaving Islam, and some are embracing Christianity. On the other hand, a university professor disputed the veracity of the research, and concluded that the whole matter was “much ado about nothing!”
I believe that the university professor has sought to belittle the problem by ignoring facts that had been well-known and documented, namely that a large section of the population, the Amazigh (known also as Berbers) have been marginalized ever since Algeria gained its independence from France in the 1960s. Most of the converts to Christianity come from that group.
It is ironical that at a time when Muslims who have settled in Europe, North America, and Australia, enjoy freedom of worship, and of engaging in Da’wa (Islamic missions), there is no quid pro quo, when it comes to Muslims freely leaving their faith and embracing Christianity. Once a Muslim always a Muslim is a tradition that goes back to the origins of Islam. No sooner that Muhammad had died in June, 632, several Arab tribes that had sworn allegiance to him, went back on the young Islamic Umma. Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, responded by initiating “Huroob al-Radda” (The Wars against the Apostates) and forced them back into the fold of Islam. Ever since, Islam has not allowed a “Murtad” (Apostate) to remain within the community: he or she, must either repent, or face death! How does this fact harmonize with the oft-heard mantra, Islam is a religion of peace; in Islam, there is no compulsion in religion?!
[i] Awqaf refers to an agency in Muslim societies that looks after buildings or other gifts willed to religious institution.
[ii] Kabyle is a French term that refers to the mountainous regions inhabited by the Amazigh, the original inhabitants of North Africa.
[iv] ‘Ulema, plural of ‘Alim refers to Muslim experts in the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sharia.