On Easter Sunday, Christians around the world celebrated the salvation-securing sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his victory over death as he emerged from the tomb. It is a festival laden with significance for Christians, who undoubtedly took the time to reflect on the extraordinary year behind us. In the United States, United Kingdom, throughout Europe, and around the world there have been brief periods in the past year during which churches and other places of worship were shuttered or faced limitations in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Religious meetings and services have been live-streamed with varying degrees of success as believers logged in to the “Temple of Zoom.” Our communities have been scattered. Our connection reliant on connectivity.
These have been challenging and painful times for the faithful, especially those who might live otherwise solitary lives and for whom fellowship with their co-religionists is a lifeline. The hardship has been particularly painful for those from denominations for whom the attendance of Mass in person is of vital significance and importance. It doesn’t sit well with right-minded citizens, accustomed to corporate worship, to be told that they can’t meet together. In England, at present, we can meet but in limited numbers, and with restrictions as we’re instructed that we can’t sing praises to God as a congregation, that we can’t share each other’s lives, joys, and struggles in those times of fellowship before or after the service.
Many have accepted such temporary limitations as a form of personal sacrifice for the defense and preservation of the weaker and more vulnerable amongst us for whom God calls us to have concern and compassion. Others have fought restrictions, motivated by an understandable unease for the wholesale erasure of the liberties to which we are accustomed. There have been times when it has been right for religious groups to challenge the authorities because of some injustice relating to restrictions on worship. Usually these will be unintentional if cack-handed misapplications, perhaps indicating religious illiteracy rather than intolerance. On a few occasions there might have been some prejudice motivating politicians or civil servants to make certain decisions relating to the freedoms of congregations to meet.
On reading the latest news from north of the border, my London-centric mind, guilty of casual and uninventive stereotyping, conjures images of hirsute and bekilted Scots Kirkmen beating their war-painted chests and bellowing, “Freedom!” I’m contrite for the cliché, and I celebrate with them their victory in the courts, where a number of churches challenged restrictions imposed by the Scottish National Party, which made it a criminal offense for churches to hold in-person services. The judge ruled that the ban on church worship during lockdown was unconstitutional, disproportionate, and an interference with human rights. The SNP should stop and reconsider the convincing impression it is portraying of an illiberal bully, showing contempt for faith and its free exercise.
Putting that unusual exception to one side, it must be hard to swallow for those who are abused, marginalized, imprisoned, tortured, enslaved, or facing death because of their religious identity in the Middle East and North Africa, on those occasions when they hear reports of religious leaders in countries comparatively utopian in their freedom crying “persecution.” It has aroused ire and frustration when religious leaders have willfully broken temporary and proportional laws, equally applied, and intended for the preservation of life during an extreme and unique time, encouraging their congregations to do likewise. There are reasons to be deeply concerned by the insidious, illiberal trajectory along which we continue in the West, and to mobilize strategically in response. Most COVID-19 restrictions in their current form are not the proverbial hill on which to die.
It is important to consider our circumstances soberly, applying good judgment, as it’s how we discern the difference between our experience during COVID-19 lockdowns and the picture of persecution we see in Algeria.
Protestant churches in Algeria have faced arbitrary closure by the state for over a decade. Legislation governing non-Muslim worship, passed by decree in 2006, established a commission formed of senior officials for the issuing of permits to non-Muslim places of worship. It is a reasonable assertion that this commission has never met in the 15 years since its establishment, and it has never issued a single permit for which dozens of applications have been dutifully submitted. At the time when the pandemic struck, there were 13 churches that had been closed on the order of the Algerian authorities. Then all places of worship were closed because of the virus. All mosques were permitted to reopen in February. The Protestant Church of Algeria was informed it may not reopen any of its 47 churches. It has been a strategy of death by a thousand cuts that escalated to decapitation when an opportunity presented itself. COVID-19 restrictions have been weaponized as a barely-veiled contrivance for the oppression of the Christian community.
The Algerian government and its representatives assert threadbare denials and shameless mistruths when challenged at the UN Human Rights Council about this abuse. They lean on clauses in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that allow for freedom of religion to be restricted on the basis of security, public order, and health. Of course, they are incapable of articulating how churches meeting peacefully in licensed premises would represent a threat to national security. Perhaps there is some clandestine menace in the churches’ persistent prayers for Algeria’s ever-ailing, oft-absent leaders, along with their preaching on quiet obedience to authorities.
Religious freedom is a foreign policy priority for a wide range of international governments. The International Religious Freedom Alliance brings together senior government representatives from nations including Australia, Brazil, the US, and the UK to name a few. In addition and therewith, the UK, the European Union, and various other governments have new Global Magnitsky-style sanctions within their arsenal that enable a targeting of sanctions against individual human rights abusers, and they are beginning to apply these in earnest. This means that citizens of countries with rights-abusing ministers, governors, and other officials aren’t as deeply affected by broad-brush sanctions against the state. It is also a notable development that China’s egregious human rights violations have sharpened minds on the issue of trade and aid relations with violating countries. Western politicians and the people who elect them are making stronger demands of their governments that to date have been in the habit of making public proclamations decrying human rights abuses whilst maintaining cordial relations with the abusing government in order to secure the pecuniary and otherwise strategic benefits. As we are well into an age of transparency, public awareness, and determined activism, such double-dealing hypocrisy is being consigned to diplomatic history. Of course, applying trade consequences to the abuses by Algeria’s government and wa’lis (regional governors) will represent a far smaller economic and security risk than will tackling China. The new Biden administration will have noted such issues as optimal opportunities to simultaneously conciliate the vast religious vote in the United States, making good on his pledge to unify America, whilst signaling a break away from Trump’s comparatively non-interventionist “America First” approach to international affairs.
But before all such measures available might be applied, there is still a short window of opportunity for Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and his Minister of the Interior Kamel Beldjoud, seen internationally as the driver behind the repression of religious minorities, to take the necessary steps for their benefit and that of Algeria. These steps would include the immediate and unconditional opening of all churches, including the 13 that were closed prior to the pandemic. With the same degree of urgency, court cases against individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs would need to be terminated as a contravention of international human rights law, and the victims of these prosecutions must be granted their unconditional liberation with others already serving unjust and unacceptable sentences. Once these measures have been undertaken, the 06-03 ordinance governing non-Muslim worship must be reviewed as a priority, with clauses that violate religious freedom, or that are utilized for the same, adjusted or removed from the ordinance. As part of this process, the commission that was supposedly established for the purpose of issuing permits must be made to perform its function and issue permits to places of worship unless there are genuine and legitimate reasons, published for transparency, not to do so. If it cannot fulfill its function, it must be disbanded and replaced with a body that can.
Whether motivated by paranoia because of the country’s not-so-distant history of extremism and violence, or the virtue signaling of a secular government for the mollification of religious hardliners, the oppression of religious minorities has to stop. Of course, such policies and attitudes do nothing to benefit the country, or bring more stability or security. Indeed, the opposite is true. Where religious freedom is embraced, extremism has no hiding place. Where diversity is accepted, intolerance makes way for mutual respect and human flourishing. Algeria must be warned, encouraged, and supported with all urgency by the international community to reconsider its strategies on religion, before it unwittingly follows some of its regional neighbors further down the dark path to Destination Despotism. Algeria is rapidly reinforcing a reputation as a human rights abuser and international pariah. It’s a road down which it is easy to stride but more difficult to retrace one’s steps.
Christians around the world should hold in mind and in prayer their brothers and sisters in Algeria who were barred from meeting together to celebrate Easter. They should speak out on their behalf, and they should give thanks for the freedom they themselves still experience.