Being a Christian in the Maghreb

Middle East Times
March 10, 2008

The plight of Christian communities in the Arab world has been quite well documented: from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Iraq. But the Maghreb is now also turning into a troublesome spot for Christians. Under the veil of a wave of alleged “proselytizing” that has converted tens of thousands of Muslims into Christians, the authorities have been pressured to become tougher on Christian residents.In the past few weeks, it is in Algeria where the controversy over an “Evangelization” movement has grown out of control. Countless articles have appeared in the domestic press evoking this “greatest danger,” as Algerian authorities have been clamping down on Christians. On Jan. 30, Father Pierre Wallez from the Oran diocese and the doctor who accompanied him were handed respectively a one-year deferred sentence and a full two-year sentence for having prayed outside of a prayer hall. This follows the decision to expel in November several Brazilian Catholic clerics without reason; decision that was reversed after the intervention of the Brazilian ambassador. Before that, in May 2007 the local authorities of the 48 wilayas (states) invited Catholics to leave the country because of the threat of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.Christian clerics have been having a tough time trying to obtain visas. But the turning point for the degradation of the condition of Christians in the country might have been the passing of a law in February 2006 restricting the conditions of practicing other religions than Islam. This law includes a five-year jail sentence and a 1 million dinar fine (about $15,000) for anyone who tries to convert a Muslim to another religion. In light of this, it is not surprising that the Christian community in Algeria does not feel welcome any longer. For Monsignor Henri Teissier, the archbishop of Algiers, the Catholic community feels under a pressure that borders on persecution.

This latest media frenzy (close to 30 articles/dossiers) has been devoted to this “proselytizing” campaign that allegedly resulted in the conversion of tens of thousands of Muslims. The Algerian minister of religious affairs sees the hand of American “Zionist Christians” in this campaign and reports that evangelists are offering 5,000 euros (about $7,700) to any Muslim who converts. There is no proof of that and Father Gilles Nicolas from the Algiers diocese thinks that this campaign is aimed at erasing any kind of non-Muslim presence in the country.

Morocco went through the same path in 2005. According to most reports then, American evangelical missionaries were allegedly going around the country, from major cities such as Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech, and Fez to remote areas in the mountains or the countryside, to convert Muslims. Hard statistics are tough to get: there are allegedly anywhere between 150 to 800 missionaries and from 7,000 to 58,000 converts. These discrepancies can be easily explained by the fact that both missionaries and converts have to go underground and stay constantly below the radar.

Even though Morocco is a much more tolerant country than, say, Saudi Arabia regarding freedom of religion, it nonetheless imprisons up to three years anyone trying to convert a Muslim. Because of this, Karen Thomas Smith, one of the four officially registered American pastors, explains that missionaries have to pass for businessmen or officials of NGOs. The Nationalist MP Abdel Hamid Aouad went even further when he declared that the evangelists’ ultimate goal was to convert 10 percent of the Moroccan population by 2020.

This statement seems totally out of whack and is clearly aimed at scaring the population. Nonetheless, it is true that there have been a significant number of conversions of North African Muslims to Christianity. The French daily Le Monde published in 2005 numerous fascinating interviews with converts in Morocco and Algeria. In one Yacine, a 30-something Moroccan executive who is very happy about the recent publicity on converts, said: “The essential point is that one talks in the open about Moroccan Christians. It is proof that it exists and that it is possible. No matter what they say about us. The taboo is lifted.”

Another convert in his 30s, Abu Ghali, pointed out that most conversions are initiated by Moroccans themselves, and added: “If Moroccans are given the opportunity to compare and choose, then you’ll see lots of them going toward Christianity.”

But from far the most striking testimony comes from a 45-year-old Algerian convert called Myriam. Back in 1985, she was a very pious Muslim and just learned that her best friend had been hiding the fact that she was a Christian. Myriam initially decided that her friend was “impure” and that she would never talk to her again. Then she wised up and “decided to pray for her friend to come back to Islam.” And at last, in 1987, Myriam decided to read the Bible and subsequently converted. She has since received numerous death threats and had to finally leave Algeria in 1994 for France where she studied theology. Today, Myriam is a pastor in the south of France.

The North African press has been quick to accuse U.S. evangelists for the alleged “massive” conversions, therefore playing into the hands of Islamists who advocate an end to the semi-freedom of religion in place in Algeria and Morocco. But also, this has had a very negative impact on the conditions of Christians in the Maghreb. Who knows how long they will stick around?

Author: Guitta, Olivier
Media Type: Print & Online

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