TIZI OUZOU, Algeria (Reuters) - A crowd of men in mostly Muslim Algeria burned Bibles and hymn books in an attack on a Protestant church, prompting the congregation to ask the government for protection from Muslim hardliners.
The attack in the city of Tizi-Ouzou, about 100 km (60 miles) east of the Algerian capital, came a few days after a spate of attacks on Christian targets in Malaysia and Egypt — though there was no evidence of a direct link.
A group of Islamists broke into the church, housed in an apartment block, late at night on Saturday, pastor Mustafa Krireche said on Monday.
“They came and smashed things up, they set fire to things. They think we’re going to leave. But they cannot break our faith,” the 41-year-old pastor told Reuters at the church, where fires were still smouldering.
Under Algerian law, all faiths are allowed to practise if they meet certain conditions. But there has been tension between the Protestant community in Tizi-Ouzou and officials who say the church is not licensed as a place of worship.
Protestant groups have been accused of proselytizing, which is illegal in Algeria, though their leaders deny it. Several Protestants were prosecuted last year for carrying large quantities of Bibles or converting people to Christianity.
“We have always been persecuted in this country. It is not acceptable, and the Algerian authorities must do something to stop the attacks against us,” said Mustafa Krim, the head of the Algerian Protestant Church Association.
Asked by Reuters to comment on the Tizi-Ouzou attack, a spokesman for Algeria’s Ministry of Religious Affairs said: “We have laws that regulate the practice of religions in Algeria, and these (Protestant) groups must respect the laws.”
“They should not pray underground,” the spokesman, Fellahi Ada, told Reuters. “The general trend is that Christianity is no longer attractive in Algeria.”
“This is why some circles outside Algeria are doing whatever possible to portray my country as a country where religious minorities are suffering, and that an international intervention is needed to protect them.”
Algerian security forces are fighting an insurgency by al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants. The insurgents mount sporadic bomb attacks and ambushes, though the violence has subsided significantly in the last few years.
A Reuters reporter who visited the church on Monday saw the burned remains of Bibles and religious books. A wooden crucifix lay on the blackened floor.
The pastor said the attack was the culmination of a long-running conflict with local Islamists who were upset that men and women mixed at church gatherings and who alleged the Protestants were trying to convert Muslim children.
Algeria, a Sunni Muslim country of 35 million people, has a history of religious tolerance.
The Catholic church, introduced by former colonial power France, is well-established however the Protestant community — which says it has 900 followers in Algeria — is more recent and many Algerians view its activities with suspicion.
Editing by Jon Boyle