ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) – An Algerian court on Tuesday acquitted two Christian men of eating during Ramadan in spite of a prosecutor's demand that they be punished for "insulting Islam."
Authorities arrested Salem Fellak and Hocine Hocini on Aug. 12 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.
On Tuesday, however, the judge at the court in Ain El Hamman 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.
Worshiping without Permit
The charges against the two Christians and a case of four Christians on trial for worshiping without a permit in Tizi Ouzou Province have some wondering what has caused authorities to turn their attention to this small community.
This Sunday, 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."