Police stand by as church torched, desecrated
ALGIERS, ALGERIA – Islamists looted and burned a Protestant church in Algeria, the congregation’s leader said Monday, suggesting they were inspired by a recent spate of religious intolerance in the Arab and Muslim world.
The church – hosted in an apartment block in the city of Tizi Ouzou some 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Algiers, the Algerian capital – was ransacked and set ablaze on Saturday night, several Algerian newspapers said.
The independent El Watan daily published a picture of a smouldering pile of pulpits and desks that had been brought outside for destruction. It quoted the pastor of the local Pentecostal community, Mustapha Krireche, as saying worshippers fled the temple because local police had left a gathering of anti-Christian rioters unchecked.
The congregation was worshipping in the apartment block because it had not received official government approval to operate a church.
Mustapha Krim, the head of the Algerian Protestant Church association, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Monday that looters also set fire to a pile of Bibles and religious textbooks, and desecrated Christian crosses.
He said the looting showed “Islamist intolerance considers there is no room for Christian religious practices in Algeria,” and alleged it was “fuelled by what just happened in Egypt,” where six people were killed in a church shooting during Christmas celebrations.
In mainly Muslim Malaysia, nine churches have been attacked recently – the assailants used firebombs and in one case, paint – amid violence against the country’s Christian minority.
The Protestant Church in Algeria filed five separate complaints for arson and looting with local authorities, Krim said Monday. “Authorities don’t want to get involved because they’re worried of getting in trouble with the Islamists,” Krim said.
There was no official comment from Algeria’s government on the church looting. A senior police officer in the town of Tizi Ouzou confirmed the police hadn’t intervened, despite the complaints. He said authorities couldn’t intervene because the church hadn’t been authorized as a place of worship. “What happened is appalling, but the apartment wasn’t an authorized house to practice a religion,” the police officer said, requesting anonymity because Algerian law bars security forces from talking to the media.
The officer said local authorities had ordered the church to shut down in November because the apartment hadn’t received approval to function as a place of worship.
The officer denied police were caving in to Islamist pressure, pointing out that security forces regularly battle Islamist militants in the mountains around Tizi Ouzou, considered the stronghold of the local Al Qaeda offshoot.
Krim said the 300 Pentecostal practitioners in the area used the apartment because authorities had refused to provide them with another venue.
An overwhelmingly Muslim nation where Islam is the religion of state, Algeria allows the practice of other faiths in authorized venues. A few Roman Catholic churches are still open, left over from the French colonial era.
But small Protestant groups have been accused of proselytizing, or trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, which is illegal in Algeria. Several Protestants were prosecuted last year for illegally carrying Bibles or converting people to Christianity.
Krim said the Algerian Protestant Association was officially registered in 2003 and is tolerated by authorities, but often turned down by the Ministry of Religious Affairs when it files requests for houses of worship.
What was the majority faith in Algeria? Answers on a postcard.