ALGIERS, April 5 (Reuters) — Algeria has passed a law prohibiting efforts to convert Muslims to another religion, the country’s chief of religious affairs said on Wednesday. The move seems aimed at maintaining stability after the Islamist violence that had plagued the country for a decade.
Muhammad Aissa, director of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, told the state radio network that the measure, passed on March 20, was prompted by the activities of Christian evangelists, particularly in the restive ethnic Berber region of Kabylie.
“We found out that in addition to Islam, Christianity has also been used as a tool to destabilize the country during the last bloody decade,” Mr. Aissa said.
“Ten sects are active in Algeria,” he said, referring to Christian groups. “They do not respect our laws. And some of these sects called for revolt in the Kabylie region.”
In 1992, violence erupted in Algeria after the military, fearing an Iranian-style revolution, canceled legislative elections that an Islamist group, the Islamic Salvation Front, was expected to win. An estimated 200,000 people were killed during the next decade.
The new law calls for sentences of five years in prison and a fine of $70 to $140 for those who try to convert Muslims to another religion.
“Never forget that the use of Islam as a political tool produced more than 10 years of terrorism,” Mr. Aissa said. “We want to be immunized against the use of religion, all religions, in Algeria as political tools to destabilize the country.
Before the law was passed, there was no legal barrier to the conversion of Muslims to other religions, although state officials generally viewed the practice as subversive.
Berbers, who constitute about a fifth of Algeria’s 33 million people, were the original inhabitants of North Africa before the Arab invasion in the seventh century. They have campaigned for more rights related to the use of their language and the practice of their culture.
Algeria is almost totally Muslim. According to officials, the country has no more than 5,000 Christians, including expatriates.
The Roman Catholic, Protestant and Seventh-day Adventist churches were the only Christian organizations authorized to operate in the country, the State Department has said in a report on human rights in Algeria.