Religion in Algeria

Religion in Algeria is dominated by Muslims at about ninety-nine percent of the population. There are also almost 100,000 Christians, mostly pentecostal protestants. There are nearly 20,000 Jews in Algeria, who mostly live in Béjaia. As Islam is the religion of almost all of the Algerian people, it pervades most aspects of life. It provides the society with its central social and cultural identity and gives most individuals their basic ethical beliefs.

Since the mid-20th-century Algerian War, also called the Algerian Revolution, regimes have sought to develop an Islamic Arab socialist state, and a cabinet-level ministry acts for the government in religious affairs. Although the Boumediene regime consistently sought, to a far greater extent than its predecessor, to increase Islamic awareness and to reduce Western influence, the rights of non-Muslims continued to be respected. The Bendjedid government pursued a similar policy.

Freedom of religion in Algeria is regulated by the Algerian Constitution, which declares Islam to be the state religion (Article 2) but also declares that “freedom of creed and opinion is inviolable” (Article 36); it prohibits discrimination, Article 29 states “All citizens are equal before the law. No discrimination shall prevail because of birth, race, sex, opinion or any other personal or social condition or circumstance”. In practice, the government generally respects this, with some limited exceptions. The government follows a de facto policy of tolerance by allowing, in limited instances, the conduct of religious services by non-Muslim faiths in the capital which are open to the public. The small Christian and tiny Jewish populations generally practice their faiths without government interference. The law does not recognize marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men; it does however recognise marriages between Muslim men and non-Muslim women. By law, children follow the religion of their fathers, even if they are born abroad and are citizens of their (non-Muslim) country of birth.

Within Islam

The Government of Algeria appoints imams to mosques and provides general guidance on sermons. However, during the period covered by this report there were reports that adherents replaced government-appointed imams with ones whose views more closely aligned to the sentiments of local practitioners. The Government monitors activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, bars the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours, and convokes imams to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for “disciplinary action” when warranted.

Amendments to the Penal Code in 2001 established strict punishments, including fines and prison sentences, for anyone other than a government-designated imam who preaches in a mosque. The Ministry of Religious Affairs coordinated with imams in certain regions to reduce religious extremism following reports that Salafist members called for the boycott of specific prayers, the division of mosques between Salafi and non-Salafi members, and the right to lead religious lessons and hold religious seminars. Harsher punishments were established for any person, including government-designated imams, if such persons act “against the noble nature of the mosque” or act in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion.” The amendments do not specify what actions would constitute such acts. By law, the Government is allowed to pre-screen religious sermons before they are delivered publicly. However, in practice the Government generally reviews sermons after the fact. The Government’s right of review has not been exercised among non-Islamic faiths.

In 2003, the Government sanctioned a number of imams for inflammatory sermons following the May 21 earthquake and for interpretations of the Qur’an “likely to offend public cohesion.” The Ministry of Religious Affairs provides some financial support to mosques and during the period covered by this report sought to expand its control over the training of imams through a government-run Islamic educational institute. At the end of the period covered by this report, no school had actually been established.

For non-Muslims

Religion plays an important role in Algerian society, making it relatively homogeneous. For the average Algerian, being Algerian means being Muslim. However, this is not always so.

People without religious affiliation tend to be particularly numerous in Kabylie (a Kabyle-speaking area) where they are generally tolerated and sometimes supported; notably, Matoub Lounes is widely seen as a hero among Kabyles, despite (or because of) his lack of religion. In most other areas of the country, the non-religious tend to be more discreet.

The study of Islam is a requirement in the public and private schools for every Algerian child, irrespective of his/her religion.[1]

Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men (Algerian Family Code I.II.31),[2] and apostates are disinherited (Family Code III.I.138). A marriage is legally nullified by the apostasy of the husband (presumably from Islam, although this is not specified; Family Code I.III.33).

The majority of cases of harassment and security threats against non-Muslims come from the now nearly destroyed Armed Islamic Group, an organization fighting the government who are determined to rid the country of those who do not share their extremist interpretation of Islam. However, a majority of the population subscribes to Islamic precepts of tolerance in religious beliefs. Moderate Islamist religious and political leaders have criticized publicly acts of violence committed in the name of Islam.

Missionary groups are permitted to conduct humanitarian activities without government interference as long as they are discreet and do not proselytize openly. If they do, they are sometimes arrested and sometimes left alone.  Many of the “home churches” in which Christians worship are in contact with the Government, and none report being intimidated or threatened.

Eating in public during Ramadan (particularly for people who “look Muslim”) is legal but attracts public hostility in most areas, except for some areas of Kabylie; most restaurants close during Ramadan.

“Offending the Prophet,” however, is still a criminal charge. If indicted, the defendant faces up to five years’ imprisonment and a heavy fine (Abdelkarim Siaghi case – May 2011).

In general noncitizens who practice faiths other than Islam enjoy a high level of tolerance within society; however, citizens who renounce Islam generally are ostracized by their families and shunned by their neighbors. The Government generally does not become involved in such disputes. Converts also expose themselves to the risk of attack by radical extremists.