02/17/2010, 00.00
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The Algerian Church has the same right to spread its message (as Muslims do)

by Samir Khalil Samir
Algeria’s Minister of Religious Affairs is incensed when the bishop of Algiers calls for the repeal of laws that limit freedom of conscience and worship in his country, where a Protestant church was recently set on fire. The minister tells him to do what his French predecessors did for years, namely prevent Muslims from converting to Christianity.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Abdallah Ghoulamallah, Algerian Minister for Religious Affairs, organised on 10-11 February a conference on the topic “Freedom of Worship, between Divine Legislation and Positive Law”. It is important to note the use of expressions like “freedom of worship” in lieu of “freedom of conscience” and “divine legislation”, which refers to “Sharia” or “Islamic Law”.

The ministry invited the four bishops of Algeria to the event; they are Ghaleb Bader, archbishop of Algiers; Alphonse Georger, bishop of Oran; Claude Rault, bishop of Laghouat-Ghardaia; and Paul Desfarges, bishop of Constantine-Hippone.

He also invited members of the clergy from France like the Archbishop of Lyon Philippe Barbarin, the bishop of Créteil Michel Santier, who is in charge of inter-faith dialogue, Fr Christophe Roucou, in charge of the SRI (Service des Relations avec l’Islam), and Rev Claude Baty, president of the Fédération Protestante de France, plus two friends of Muslims, Fathers Michel Lelong and Christian Delorme. Invited at the last moment, the two bishops could not make it. Other prominent figures from different backgrounds were also invited.

The purpose of the event was to show that Algeria was a tolerant country.

The address by the archbishop of Algiers

Jordanian-born Mgr Ghaleb Moussa Abdallah Bader was ordained archbishop of Algiers on 17 July 2008. He holds a Doctorate in Canon Law and one in Philosophy from the Angelicum. His main research was on the great 10th century Arab Christian philosopher Yahya Ibn ‘Adi. He is familiar with the system of religious tolerance in place in the Kingdom of Jordan. In a speech full of nuances, he spoke about Ordinance Nº 06-02 bis, which strongly limits non-Muslim worship, expressing a desire to see things get “back to normal”. Such legislation might be justified under exceptional circumstances, he said, but that was not the case in Algeria. “Why go back to a normal situation? Is it not time to review, if not repeal this regulation?”

We know that for more than three years the right of Christians to worship has come under tight government control. The minister claims that Christians are not the target, but in fact, they are the ones who are affected by it. Recently, on the night of Saturday 9 January and Sunday 10 January, the Tafat Protestant Church in Tizi Ouzou was ransacked and then set on fire. Despite complaints by Reverend Krireche, the authorities did nothing.

On 25 January, the country’s four Catholic bishops said that they “were profoundly saddened” and “very concerned by the obstacles put up here and there against Christian worship.”

“They cannot hide their outrage,” they said, “over the profanation of Christian symbols. They are equally outraged when they hear about the profanation of symbols of the Muslim religion in this or that country around the world. They want to express their compassion and feelings of goodwill towards their brothers and sisters who have been attacked in their religious life. They are confident and continue to hope that the path of conviviality and profound respect among all will continue.”

The reaction of the Minister of Religious Affairs

Bishop Ghaleb Bader’s address greatly upset Minister Ghoulamallah. In his speech, he praised the bishops of Algiers who were in office before and after independence (Card Léon-Etienne Duval and Mgr Henri Teissier), “who never questioned [Algeria’s] reality and laws, who were close to the Algerian people.” He added, “I hope the archbishop who comes from an Arab country will learn from Teissier, who is still with us, and ask him for advice on what Algerians can and cannot accept”.

We cannot but be taken aback to see a minister lecture a bishop, even a new one, and ask him to follow his predecessors. Of course, a lot of forethought is needed in such situations, but one must be quite clear in upholding fundamental principles. At the same time, we can understand that French bishops might have adopted a different attitude than an Arab bishop, given France’s colonial past.

Final thoughts

Often, a distinction is drawn between Catholics and Protestants, with the latter accused of “proselytising”. Even if that were true, there is no comparison between proselytising done by Protestants and that done by Muslims, not only towards Christian minorities in Muslim nations, but also in traditionally Christian nations. What is unacceptable are the very human means that a propagandist may use to spread his faith, taking advantage of others’ weaknesses. Yet, if all we do is “propose” our faith without ever imposing it, the more so if we offer to share our happiness with others, then that cannot be construed to be proselytising. In any event, it is not up to the state to legislate in the matter.

It is high time that everyone be allowed to enjoy freedom of conscience, not just freedom of worship (under external control). Islam claims to be a “tolerant religion”; some even claim it is the most tolerant religion, arguing that Christianity forced non-Christians to convert . . . citing the inquisition and colonialism as evidence. In doing so, they forget for example that the French state forbade Christian Churches to convert Muslims to Christianity for almost a century.

In practice, there is no Muslim state that grants Muslims and non-Muslims the same degree of freedom. Because politics and religion are interwoven with one another in Islamic tradition (and this despite claims by some Western intellectuals that Islam is more secular than other religions), the state is an agent of propaganda for Islam through the media as well as its laws and regulations.

In Algeria (as elsewhere), the Churches, and more broadly Christians, simply want to be left alone. They want the same right to announce the Gospel to anyone willing to listen to their message as Muslims have the right to announce the Qur‘an to anyone willing to listen to theirs. It is good that the bishop of Algiers, following the example of Pope Benedict XVI, had the courage to tell everyone, quietly but with resolve and clarity, that freedom of religion remains as fundamental a right as freedom of conscience and the equality of citizens.

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