There is no proof of charges, defense asserts; forgiveness offered to accuser.
ISTANBUL, July 18 (Compass Direct News) – Three Algerian Christians fighting a blasphemy sentence arrived at court in northwestern Algeria on Tuesday (July 15) to find that their hearing was postponed until October 21 because the presiding judge was on vacation.
Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, Youssef Ourahmane and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his Islamic fundamentalist ties were exposed.
The three are just a few of the Christians under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against Algerian Christians on religion-based charges. In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.
The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. More recently, on June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika addressing the violations of human rights against Christians in Algeria and their concern toward the 2006 Decree on non-Muslim worship that has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.
Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria. In the last year he has received three sentences; one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. He and the other two Christians were handed a three-year suspended sentence along with a 500-euro fine each.
The convert and plaintiff, Shamouma Al-Aid, had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006 when he attended a church near Oran city. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.
When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family and especially his older brother were persecuting him.
“We believed him and took him in,” said Ourahmane. “We took care of him; we helped him to do his baccalaureate.”
But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.
“He was in touch with fanatics while with us. He used us to get money and information,” said Ourahmane.
After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police, and Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted the prophet Mohammad and Islam and threatened his life.
But the lawyer of the three Christians told Compass that Al-Aid has failed to produce evidence of his claims and hopes to clear them in October.
“He has no proof,” said the lawyer.
Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police some text messages to support his claims but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.
Just over a month ago, Al-Aid went to the church where Essaghir is an elder.
“He was screaming and saying all sorts of things,” said Ourahmane. “We felt that maybe [fundamentalists] sent him expecting that we would be harsh and beat him up.”
Instead, the church called police, who came and took Al-Aid and Essaghir to the police station.
“I think it was planned,” said Ourahmane. “I think he’s a bit weak psychologically, so they use him.”
Asked about Al-Aid’s mental state, the lawyer told Compass, “I don’t think he is crazy, perhaps strange… perhaps there are others who are controlling him.”
The accuser told Compass by telephone that he was not ready to speak. “My story is long,” Al-Aid said.
Ourahmane said that before heading to court in Ain El-Turck west of Oran on Tuesday morning for the first scheduled appeal, he had spoken with Al-Aid, telling him that he was forgiven, that the accused still loved him and that he shouldn’t worry.
The three accused men’s lawyer, who asked to be unnamed for security reasons, said that although Christians are protected by the country’s constitution to believe as they wish, the court can interpret the law based on Islamic laws.
“There is a contradiction there,” he said.
Though no Christian has yet served jail time on religious charges, several still on trial or appealing their convictions have said that negative publicity has damaged their businesses and family life. The government’s handing of suspended sentences also allows the government to save face before human rights advocates by showing its prison cells empty of Christian “convicts,” say experts on Algeria.
In response to criticism, government officials have said that Christians are subject to the same legal restrictions as those imposed on Muslims in the Muslim-majority nation.
They claimed last week that Protestant evangelists were seeking to divide Algeria by using conversions to create a new religious minority.
Report from Compass Direct News