ROME, FEB. 13, 2008 (Zenit.org).- A Catholic priest was sentenced by the tribunal of Oran, a city in northwestern Algeria, to a year in prison for having “directed a religious ceremony in a place which has not been recognized by the government.”
Father Pierre Wallez is the first victim of legislation approved in March 2006 regarding the exercise of the practices of non Muslim worship, in this North African country of 33 million residents, 99% of whom are Muslim.
Speaking Saturday on Vatican Radio, Archbishop Henri Teissier of Alger, explained that “the most surprising thing is that the conviction was issued simply because the priest visited a group of Christians in Cameroon. He had not celebrated Mass, but was only joining them in a prayer. It was Dec. 29, a little after Christmas.”
The prelate clarified that the sentence will not be carried out, because the tribunal decided to modify it to a sentence of parole.
“Obviously we are all very shocked by the decision made against our brother,” the archbishop said.
According to a report by the Italian daily Avvenire, along with Father Wallez, a young Muslim doctor was condemned to a harsher punishment (two years without parole) for using medicines “paid for by Caritas,” sources from the Algers archdiocesan office said.
“They systematically reject entrance visas for our delegates,” stated the archbishop, “and in November they withdrew the residency permission for four young Brazilian priests who were working with the Portuguese-speaking African immigrants.”
In Algeria, Islam is the state religion, and freedom of worship is purportedly guaranteed by the constitution. The new law on worship sought above all to control clandestine evangelical proselytizing groups, which Archbishop Tessier said, “have made something of a racket because of the conversion of some of the faithful.”
The law, composed of 17 articles, prohibits the exercise of non-Islamic worship outside buildings approved by authorities.
An article allows for fines and prison for anyone “who changes the original function of places of worship” or “incites, coerces, or uses persuasive means to oblige a Muslim to embrace another religion.”
The same penalties are also applied to those who “produce, store, or distribute publications or audio or video material or other means oriented toward undermining faith in Islam.”