Algerian Christians Acquitted of Eating during Ramadan

Judge throws out case against men arrested during Islamic fasting period.

ISTANBUL, October 5 (CDN) — An Algerian court today acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor’s demand that they be punished for “insulting Islam.”

Authorities on Aug. 12 arrested Salem Fellak and Hocine Hocini for eating lunch on a private construction site where they were working. Ramadan, Islam’s month of fasting during daylight hours, started this year on Aug. 11.

The incident took place in Ain El-Hammam, a town in the province of Tizi Ouzou about 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of the Algerian capital. Tizi Ouzou is part of Kabylie, an area of Algeria where the country’s Protestant church has grown with relative freedom in recent years.

Officers at a nearby police station saw the two men eating and confronted them for not fasting. When police realized the two men were Christians, they accused them of insulting Islam, according to local French-language press reports.

“I do not apologize for anything, and I regret nothing,” Fellak said before the verdict, according to Dernieres Nouvelles d’Algerie. “I have the right to not fast. I am a Christian, and until found guilty, the Algerian constitution guarantees respect for individual freedoms.”

The Algerian Constitution gives the right to all citizens to practice their faith, although it declares Islam the state religion and prohibits institutions from behavior incompatible with Islamic morality. Proposing other faiths to Muslims is also forbidden.

After police arrested Hocini and Fellak, authorities interrogated them for two hours and “admonished” them, according to a French-language news site. Authorities took them to court, where a state prosecutor questioned them. When the men explained to her that they were Christians, she said that Algeria was a Muslim country with no room for Christians and that they should leave the country, according to a local news site.

Today the judge at the court in Ain El Hamman, however, dismissed the case since “no article [of law] provided for a legal pursuit” against the two Christians, according to the BBC.

A small group of Christians standing on the steps of the courthouse reportedly shouted “Hallelujah!” when they heard the outcome of the case. After the verdict, Fellak said he was happy and that he had done nothing wrong, according to Reuters.

Local media also reported cases of Muslim Algerians arrested for eating during Ramadan.


Worshipping without Permit

The charges against the two Christians and a case of four Christians on trial for worshipping without a permit in Tizi Ouzou Province have some wondering what has caused authorities to turn their attention to this small community.

This Sunday (Oct. 10), the four men will appear in court for holding Christian meetings at a residence without permission. One of the men, Mahmoud Yahou, has told a local newspaper, “This story concerns all Christians in our country. We are a community intimidated around the country.”

Yahou cited other recent cases of persecution, including that of Habiba Kouider, who in 2008 was tried for practicing Christianity “without a license.” Her case is still pending. Another Christian, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, has three court cases against him, all in appeals process since 2008.

In most cases, 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.

“This law of 2006 is contradictory to the constitution,” said a regional researcher who requested anonymity. “It creates a gray zone in which the government and police have room to act against the church. This law gives permission to the government to condemn believers for their faith or illegal worship even if the constitution guarantees religious freedom.”

Also in Tizi Ouzou city, church leaders who were expanding their building to fit their growing congregation received a letter in August from the governor of the province ordering them to stop all construction and demolish the extension.

Algerian Christians and observers say that the two court cases, along with the order to the Tizi Ouzou church to cease expansion of their building, are unusual because they happened in such a short span of time and because the region is regarded as more tolerant of Christianity.

“Perhaps a new wave of persecution is coming,” said the regional researcher. “It’s difficult to know, but in a few weeks we encountered a few problems.”

An Algerian church leader told Compass the government is finding more subtle ways to pressure Christians.

“I think they don’t want to do anything openly,” said the leader, who requested anonymity. “So they are using opportunities they can find, like not giving authorization to build the church in Tizi Ouzou, [and the men] not fasting during Ramadan.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives

Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.


Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.


Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.


Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News