Friday, April 07, 2006

Algeria bans converting Muslims to other religions

Thu Apr 6, 2006 8:31 AM GMT
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria, determined to keep religion and politics separate after years of Islamist violence, has passed a law forbidding non-Muslims from seeking to convert Muslims to another religion, an official said on Wednesday.
Mohamed Aissa, director of the ministry of religious affairs, told state radio the measure passed on March 20 was prompted by the activities of Christian evangelical sects, particularly in the restive ethnic Berber Kabylie region.
"We found out that in addition to Islam, Christianity has also been used as a tool to destabilise the country during the last bloody decade," said Aissa.
"Ten (Christian) sects are active in Algeria. They do not respect our laws. And some of these sects called for revolt in the Kabylie region," he said.
Algeria plunged into conflict when militants unleashed a holy war or jihad after the military cancelled legislative elections in 1992 that the radical Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.
Authorities at the time feared an Iranian-style revolution, and an estimated 200,000 people were killed during the uprising.
The new law lays down sentences of five years in prison and a fine of between 5,000 and 10,000 dinars for non-Muslims who try to convert Muslims to another religion.
"Never forget that the use of Islam as a political tool produced more than 10 years of terrorism. We want to be immunised against the use of religion, all religions, in Algeria as political tools to destabilise the country," said Aissa.
Before the measure was passed, there was no legal barrier to the conversion of Muslims to other religions, although state officials generally viewed the practice as subversive.
Berbers, original inhabitants of North Africa before the Arab invasion in the 7th century and who make up a fifth of oil-producing Algeria's 33 million people, have campaigned for more language and cultural rights.
The Berber region was hit by unrest fuelled by the death of a schoolboy in police custody in 2001.
Algeria is almost totally Muslim. According to officials, no more than 5,000 Christians, including expatriates, live in the country of 33 million.
The Roman Catholic, Protestant and Seventh Day Adventist churches were the only non-Muslim faiths authorised to operate in the country, the U.S. State Department has said in a report on human rights in Algeria.
"We are inviting representatives from the three churches in Algeria for dialogue and an exchange of views so that we can prevent the use of religion for purposes that have nothing to do with religion," said Aissa.
Algiers' archbishopric representatives were not immediately available for comment. But one of its officials, Gilles Nicolas, said recently the law "is not very reassuring".

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