As attention focused on an Afghan Christian convert who faced the death penalty for his conversion, Algeria quietly passed a law that punishes anyone who persuades a Muslim to leave his faith, with up to five years in prison, and banishes house churches.

The government said the law’s purpose is to prohibit “clandestine organizations” it claims are secretly trying to convert Muslims, according to London-based Alarab Online.

But the news agency said the cabinet is attempting to win over Muslim radicals ahead of a general election next year.

As WorldNetDaily reported, charges against Afghan convert Abdul Rahman were dropped Sunday with the court citing a lack of evidence. Last week, Western nations pressured Afghanistan for threatening to execute Rahman under Islamic Shariah because he converted from Islam to Christianity. Rahman arrived in Italy early yesterday after being granted asylum in the wake of death threats from Muslim clerics.

Christians in Algeria – who affirm the new law is the result of increasing influence of radical Islamists in the North African nation – say that to this point, the government has been relatively tolerant of Christianity.

According to the most recent U.S. State Department religious freedom report, published last year, the Algerian constitution declared Islam as the only state-sanctioned religion, and laws limited the practice of other faiths, including prohibiting public assembly for purposes of practicing a faith other than Islam.

“However, the government follows a de facto policy of tolerance by allowing registered, non-Muslim faiths, in limited instances, to conduct public religious services,” the 2005 report said.

The State Department said “non-Islamic proselytizing” was a deportable offense for foreigners, and the importation of religious texts faced lengthy delays for government approval.

According to the new law, passed March 21, the penalty is imprisonment of two to five years and a fine of up to about $12,000 for whomever “incites, constrains or utilizes means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion, or by using to this end establishments for teaching, for education, for health, of a social or cultural nature, or training institutions, or any other establishment, or any financial means, makes, stores, or distributes printed documents or audiovisual productions or by any other aid or means, which has as its goal to shake the faith of a Muslim.”

In addition, the Algerian government now will regulate all places where Christians can worship, with the officially-Muslim government having to explicitly approve any new Christian church.

House churches are explicitly banned.

The law says, “Collective exercise of religious worship takes place exclusively in structures intended for this purpose, open to the public and identifiable from the exterior.”

The new legislation also provides for the possible imprisonment and expulsion of foreign Christians for the same “offenses.”

Christians and Jews make up less than 1 percent of Algeria’s population, with the rest mostly Sunni Muslims.

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Previous stories:

2 more Afghan Christians reportedly thrown into jail

Congressman to Afghanistan: ‘We will not put up with this’

Charges dropped against Christian

Afghan judge won’t give in to pressure

Kabul may drop case, citing convert’s depression

Afghan prosecutors: Christian may be ‘mad’

U.S. cautiously backs Afghan Christian

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