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Sahara seige highlights plight of Algeria’s Christians: The Church of England Newspaper, January 27, 2013 p 1. January 31, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Church of England Newspaper, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East.
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Last week’s attack by Islamic militants on a natural gas refinery in the Sahara desert underscores the precarious plight of Algeria’s Christian population, church leaders in North Africa tell The Church of England Newspaper.

Anti-conversion laws coupled with after effects of the civil war between the state and Islamist extremists that left an estimated 100,000 dead during the 1990’s have made the public profession of the Christian faith dangerous. But over the past twenty five years the rate of conversions from Islam to Christianity has grown sharply, especially among the Berber people in the Kabylie region, sources in North African report.

No official statistics on the number of Christian converts are published by the state, however the missionary St. Francis Magazine in its December 2006 issue estimated the numbers being anywhere from 7,000 to 100,000.

Last week, the “Masked Brigade” a militant group linked to al Qaeda founded by Algerian terrorist Moktar Belmoktar seized the Ain Amenas refinery in the Sahara desert owned by the state oil company Sonatrach and operated by BP and Norway’s Statoil.

Communications Minister Mohamed Said stated the militants had demanded the release of jailed comrades and a ransom. However, they also planned to “blow up the gas complex and kill all the hostages,” he said.

On 19 Jan 2013 Algerian Special Forces stormed the plant, ending the four day. The Algerian state news agency APS reported that 685 Algerian and 107 foreign workers had been freed, while 32 terrorists and 23 hostages died over the course of the siege. Seven hostages were executed by the militants during the final assault as troops tried to free them.

However, the Associated Press reported the death toll was expected to rise as 25 additional bodies, many burnt beyond recognition, had been discovered by soldiers searching the plant for explosives after the battle.

The Foreign Office reported that three Britons had been killed in the siege and three more were missing. Twenty-two British oil workers were rescued and have been flown back to the UK, the foreign secretary reported.

The family of a Plymouth man, Allen McCloud, told the BBC they were “relieved” to learn he was safe, but had harsh words for BP and the government saying they had failed to keep the families informed. “The lack of information from all the relevant sources was very poor. We were kept up to date from friends who worked in the oil and gas industry and the news.”

The Bishop of Plymouth, the Rt Rev. John Ford told the BBC Mr. McCloud’s release was a “fantastic piece of news” but “it has come at the cost of so much harrowing experience of those who were also held and those who also died.”

Prime Minister David Cameron noted “people will ask questions about the Algerian response to these events.”

But in a statement to the House of Commons, Mr. Cameron said: “We need to be absolutely clear whose fault this is. It is the terrorists who are responsible for this attack and for the loss of life. The action of these extremists can never be justified. We will be resolute in our determination to fight terrorism and to stand with the Algerian Government, who have paid a heavy price over many years fighting against a savage terrorist campaign.”

Sir Tony Baldry, the second church estates commissioner noted the attack had been well planned. He asked the prime minister, “Does that not emphasise the need for us to work collaboratively with our friends in Europe, the United States and elsewhere to share intelligence to try to ensure that such groups have the greatest possible difficulty in accessing weaponry and that, as far as is possible, they are denied access to the international banking system? The international community is quite rightly imposing sanctions on countries such as Iran, but we also need to do everything we can, through the intelligence services and otherwise, to frustrate such non-state actors in trying to perpetrate acts of hostility against us and others.”

The prime minister said Sir Tony was “absolutely right”, and that British policy was to create as “little space as possible for terrorist organisations” to form, “whether in the banking system or in the availability of safe havens.”

But while international attention is focused on al Qaeda, the daily lives of Algerian Christians remain difficult. The Anglican Chaplain in Algiers, the Rev. Hamdy Doud told CEN: “We praise God for giving Algeria a spirit of religious freedom and respect the other faith. They help Christians and even ex Muslims to worship freely.”

“But on the other hand the work of Christian evangelism is not allowed outside churches,” he added.

Other sources in the country note that the official tolerance of the Christian religion has not been translated into tolerance of local Christians. In 2004, Minister of Religious Affairs Bouabdellah Ghlamallah denounced Christian proselytizing, warning that it could lead to bloodshed. Several weeks later, in an about-face, he said that proselytizing posed no danger, and that “everyone is free to convert to the religion he finds right for him,” the MEMRI news service reported.

On 17 April 2006, the daily L’Expression reported that during a visit to the city of Constantine, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said: “We will not accept our children being turned away from their religion to Christianity under the pretext of democracy,” and that “Algerians will not accept another religion aside from Islam.”

In 2008 Algeria passed an anti-conversion law calling for heavy fines and two-to five years imprisonment for anyone convicted of urging a Muslim to convert. The law has been used to jail Evangelical pastors and to close house churches that have come to the notice of the police.

The crackdown has been especially harsh in the Kebyle. Numbering some 6 million out of Algeria’s population of 32 million, the Berbers are a non-Arab people and were the original inhabitants of the country prior to the Arab invasions of the 7th century.

Missionary activity by the Roman Catholic White Fathers during the French colonial period produced only a handful of converts, but following the expulsion of missionaries in the early 1970’s an underground Protestant church began to take root with some mission groups placing the number of Christians at 100,000.

While there is debate over the scope of conversion to Christianity among the Berber people, the issue has sparked concern amongst Muslim and government leaders, and frequent newspaper comment. The Algerian daily El-Shourouq El-Yawmi gas denounced Christmas celebrations featuring the arrival of Santa Claus as a sign of the “Christianization” of the region and as “the death arriving from the West.”