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Algeria’s 50-year ruling party pulled out an election win and appears to have turned back a challenge from a strongly jihadist party.
Declaring an Algerian Spring, the government announced that preliminary results show the National Liberation Front, the party that has ruled Algeria since its independence from France, took 220 out of the 462 seat parliament. Another pro-government party took another 68 seats.
The radical Green Alliance won only 48 seats.
As good as that news appears to Western observers, International Christian Concern’s Middle East analyst Aidan Clay believes either way, the election results won’t make life easier for Algeria’s Christians unless certain specific changes are made in the law.
“Algeria’s Christian population, which consists of about 45,000 Catholics and between 80,000 – 100,000 Protestants, is slowly obtaining greater religious freedoms to worship and practice their faith,” Clay said, noting positive developments at the federal level.
Clay illustrates his point by citing a 2011 government decision.
“For example, in May 2011, the governor and police commissioner in the Béjaia province demanded that seven unregistered Protestant churches be permanently closed. However, the decision was not only overturned by the secular ruling elite in the Ministry of Interior, but documents of legalization were presented to the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) in July, enabling them to apply for official registration for the first time in twenty years,” Clay said.
Clay also cites a reversal of a blasphemy conviction.
“In another example, a five year prison sentence given to Siagh Krimo, a Christian convert from Islam who was charged with blasphemy, was postponed indefinitely after Christians and moderate Muslims protested the decision outside the Ministry of Justice in Algiers,” Clay said.
“The outcry for human rights and religious freedom again persuaded the ruling elite to overturn the provincial judge’s decision in hope that the charges of blasphemy filed against the Christian would be forgotten,” Clay said.
But, Clay says, the federal government’s actions do not reflect popular sentiment in the rest of the country.
“Both examples show that, while the secular federal government has at times tried to temper anti-Christian animosity, provincial authorities and courts, on the other hand, which are often led by Islamists, tend to stress and impose restrictive laws to limit the freedoms of the country’s religious minorities,” Clay said.
Former Pentagon analyst and American Enterprise Institute’s Middle East scholar Michael Rubin says that even though there were reports that Algeria invited 500 observers, the election process in the North African country is still restricted.
“I wouldn’t read too much into this,” Rubin said. “Elections in Algeria are not fully transparent; the Algerians tried to restrict many observers.”
The UAE-based Gulf News reports that the Green Alliance charged the government with election fraud.
Clay says that even if the elections were open, the Christians are still concerned.
“There is fear among Algerian Christians that an Islamist-majority parliament may favor provincial authorities and place further pressure on the ruling elite to enforce laws that can be used to criminalize Christian worship, activities, or conversion from Islam,” Clay said.
Clay says that regardless of the election results, until some of the country’s religion laws are repealed, the country’s Christians are still “living dangerously.”
“No matter what the election’s outcome was, there will not be positive change for Algeria’s Christian minority until certain laws in Algeria’s constitution and penal code are repealed,” Clay said.
“Among them is Ordinance 06-03, which was established in 2006 to regulate the worship of non-Muslims by requiring churches to obtain government permission to hold services. While EPA churches are now allowed to officially register, the ordinance can be enacted against churches at any time. The seven churches in the Béjaia province were closed in accordance to this law,” Clay said.
“Another restrictive law is Article 144, Section Two of Algeria’s Penal Code, which criminalizes acts that ‘insult the prophet and any of the messengers of God, or denigrate the creed and precepts of Islam, whether by writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means.’ Siagh Krimo’s five year prison sentence for blasphemy was issued in accordance to this law,” Clay said.
Clay says that Algeria’s Christians were still urged to vote.
“EPA President Mustapha Krim recently told me: ‘As Christians and Algerian citizens, it is our duty to vote. We must take part in the decisions of the country that we belong. I hope there will be progress in a democracy and that the newly elected deputies will work together to improve the situation of the country,'” Clay said, quoting Krim.
Clay says that now is the time for Christians to campaign for an overturn of the restrictive laws.
“More than ever, it is imperative that the Algerian government stands behind Article 36 of its own Constitution, which states that freedom of creed is inviolable, by repealing Ordinance 06-03 and Article 144 bis 2 of the Penal Code,” Clay said.
“We fear that after the elections, which may render an Islamist majority in parliament, it will become increasingly more difficult for the Algerian government to repeal these oppressive laws and uphold the equality of all religious faiths,” Clay said.
Rubin points out that the climate in Algeria reflects a holdover from the colonial era, and may have voted for stability over “change.”
“More importantly, the dynamic in Algeria is different than elsewhere in North Africa: Algerians are still reeling from the civil war of two decades ago, and so are less likely to risk rocking the boat, even as they remain dissatisfied with the ruling order,” Rubin said.