Islamic leader condemns Christian evangelists

ISTANBUL, June 2 – For two hours yesterday on a street in Tiaret in western Algeria, police body-searched and interrogated a former Muslim on trial for practicing Christianity, a Protestant leader said.

The incident occurred a day after Algeria’s top Islamic authority denied that the woman’s case violated religious freedom and claimed evangelization was “a new form of colonization.”

Five plainclothes officers stopped Habiba Kouider yesterday afternoon on a street in her home city of Tiaret, 150 miles southwest of Algiers, said the President of the Protestant Church of Algeria in an online statement.

After examining the contents of the Christian woman’s handbag, police officers body-searched her and then proceeded to interrogate her.

“Why did you convert to Christianity, why did you forsake Islam?” the officers asked, according to comments by Mustapha Krim, published on the website collectifalgerie.free.fr.

Kouider, 35, recognized at least one of the officers as having escorted her to her court hearing on May 27. Krim said officials released Kouider at 5 p.m. following two hours of interrogation.

The Christian convert is on trial for “practicing non-Muslim religious rites without a license,” a charge that her lawyer says does not exist in Algerian criminal law. Police pulled her off an intercity bus outside of Tiaret on March 29 after finding several Bibles and books on Christianity in her bag.

Kouider said they were for personal use, but a Tiaret state prosecutor has claimed that she was distributing the literature to proselytize Muslims, outlawed under a 2006 religion law.

Scheduled to rule on the Christian’s case last Tuesday (May 27), a Tiaret court postponed the verdict after the trial gained international attention. Local human rights activists as well as French State Secretary for Human Rights Rama Yade spoke out on Kouider’s behalf.

“They want to avoid deciding because condemning Habiba is likely to discredit them, but to release her will be humiliating,” defense lawyer Khelloudja Khalfoun told Compass.

Algeria’s Catholic Archbishop Emeritus, Henri Tessier, who at times has made comments to distance his church from Protestant evangelization in Algeria, said he believed the case against Kouider was illegal, according to a May 28 article in daily El Khabar.

“I hope Habiba Kouider will be acquitted,” he told the newspaper. 

On Saturday (May 31) an Algerian leader responded to the outcry over Kouider’s case with accusations that members of the country’s evangelical churches sought to divide the country.

“There are some of the church evangelists and some reformist journalists who want to sow discord,” said Dr. Abu Amrane Chikh, head of the government-appointed Islamic Higher Council.

Claiming Christian evangelization was harming Islam in Algeria, Chikh said it was “unacceptable” because it violated Islam as the state religion and the religion of the country’s majority.

“[Evangelists’] distant political goal is to create a Christian minority coupled with some foreign institutions,” Chikh said. “This is a new form of colonization that is hidden behind freedom of worship.”

A former French colony, Algeria gained its independence in 1958.

Responding to a question about Kouider’s case, Chikh said it was Algeria’s sovereign right to regulate the worship of non-Muslims.

“There is no movement opposed to Christians as alleged by some tendentious minds,” Chikh said.

Copyright 2008 Compass Direct News