A case that began with police in Algeria stopping a Christian suspected of carrying Bibles in his car ended yesterday with a large fine for the church leader.
A judge in Tiaret, 600 kilometers (372 miles) southwest of Algiers, on Wednesday (May 16) denied pastor Nouredine Belabed's appeal of a sentence of a 100,000-dinar (US$868) fine and payment of court fees under a controversial law that forbids "undermining the faith of a Muslim." Belabed had received the sentenceon March 8, including a three-month suspended prison term reduced from what had been a two-year prison term.
The 37-year-old father of three was traveling with a companion, identified only as 26-year-old Khalil, to Tiaret on March 14, 2015 when gendarmes stopped their vehicle, Pastor Belabed told Morning Star News. National Gendarmerie in Tiaret had contacted officers in Sidi Abderrahmane to report two suspects driving an Opel Zaphira coming from El-Bayadh toward Tiaret with Christian books on board.
"We went to El-Bayadh to see our Christian brothers, but also to answer the call of a man who contacted us to know Christ," Pastor Belabed told Morning Star News. "I do not know him, but we are used to working that way. But once there, he called me to apologize for not being able to come. Back at a gendarmerie checkpoint at a junction, we were stopped to search the vehicle from top to bottom. I was sure someone pointed us out."
A thorough search followed, ending with the officers seizing 56 books, according to a police report delivered to prosecutors at a court in Frenda, 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Tiaret. The books included the Gospel of Mathew, Bibles, a Bible commentary, a book on church history and some pamphlets.
Pastor Belabed told officers that he had bought them at a Christian bookstore in Algiers after a meeting with other church leaders at the headquarters of the legally recognized Protestant Church of Algeria (l'Église Protestante d'Algérie, or EPA). He told them he meant to distribute them free to other Christians or any other person who wanted to know Christ, he said.
"They detained us at the gendarmerie brigade from 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. after photocopying each of the books we were carrying," he said. "Since then we did not hear of this case. I thought they had forgotten us."
Nearly two years later, around Christmas of 2017, he was informed that a security warrant had been issued on him and that he had been sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars (US$434) by a court in Frenda. The judgment was dated October 27, 2015.
"It was at the police station that I was informed," he said. "The two of us had been sentenced for possession and distribution of Christian articles in order to destabilize and undermine the faith of Muslim according to article 02/11 of the Law 03/06."
Law 03/2006, commonly known as Law 03/06, calls for a prison term of two to five years and a fine of 500,000 to 1 million dinars (US$4,343 to US$8,687) for anyone who "incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion, or using for this purpose the institutions of education, health, social, cultural, or educational institutions, or other establishment, or financial advantage; or makes, stores or distributes printed documents or films or other audiovisual medium or means intended to undermine the faith of a Muslim."
Christian leaders say the charge is unconstitutional, citing the Algerian constitution's Article 42, which guarantees freedom of belief, opinion and worship.
During interrogation Pastor Belabed told officers he converted from Islam to Christianity in 2003, and Khalil said he had converted in 2009.
Judge Rebukes Pastor
While the pastor secured an attorney with the EPA's help, Khalil fled the country for Europe with others in a makeshift boat at the risk of their lives, Pastor Belabed said.
After he fought the sentence with legal defense, in March a court in Frenda convicted both Christians of undermining the faith of a Muslim and sentenced them to pay the fine and court fees; the two-year prison sentence was cancelled in favor of the three-month suspended sentence, while the fine of 50,000 dinars was doubled.
The pastor opted to appeal, and the case was transferred to the Tiaret Criminal Court. On May 9, he appeared before the same judge who had sentenced him in 2015.
"When I saw and recognized the judge, knowing that it was the same who had sentenced me in Frenda, I was scared," Pastor Belabed said. "But, encouraged by the Lord, I tried to defend my cause somehow. But the judge was harsh and said, "Why do you carry those Christian books, Are not you ashamed?' The judge used intimidation and told me repeatedly, 'You're not ashamed to do that? Algeria is a Muslim country.'"
He replied that he was a Christian who loved Muslims and did not seek to harm their peace, he said. The pastor said he told the judge, "I did not do anything wrong, judge. The Bibles I carried were intended for members of our community, our Tiaret church, which is affiliated with the EPA. I did not give them to others or try to evangelize anyone."
The May 16 verdict did not appear to mention Khalil.
"Nouredine B. alone was found guilty for carrying and distributing Christian articles in order to undermine and destabilize the faith of a Muslim, in accordance with Article 11/02 of Law 03/06, and for that he is ordered to pay a fine of 100,000. DA ($ 862)," the verdict read.
Pastor Belabed said he would not file any more appeals.
"I am tired," he said. "The police keep watching us, my wife and me. They watch all our movements. I do not want to inflict more on my family than that; I decide to choose to pay the fine."
Algeria ranked 42nd on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2018 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.