Prison sentenced upheld for pastor in Algeria for baseless "illegal worship" charges

By Edward Ross |
Pastor Youssef Ourahamane.
Pastor Youssef Ourahamane. | (ADF International)

A court in Algeria last week upheld a one-year prison sentence for a top church leader baselessly convicted of “illegal worshipping,” according to a legal advocacy group.

The Court of Appeal in Tizi Ouzou issued the verdict against Pastor Youssef Ourahamane of Emmanuel Church in Algeria, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International said in a press statement. Pastor Ourahamane has long been a top leader in the Église Protestante d’Algérie (Protestant Church of Algeria, or EPA) association, which has seen 43 of its churches forcibly closed by authorities since 2019, with only one remaining open.

“No one should be punished, let alone face prison, for exercising their right to religious freedom,” said Kelsey Zorzi, director of advocacy for Global Religious Freedom for ADF International, which is coordinating with other Non-Governmental Organizations to support the pastor. “The decision of the Appellate Court to uphold Pastor Youssef’s conviction and sentence amounts to a blatant violation of his rights under both Algerian and international law and must be condemned.”

Pastor Ourahamane, a convert from Islam, was sentenced on July 2 to two years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Algerian dinars (US$738) for leading his church, though prosecutors provided no evidence of a crime, according to ADF International. His sentence was reduced to one year in November.  

After Pastor Ourahamane appealed the conviction a second time to the Appellate Court in Tizi Ouzo, the judge last week upheld it and added a six-month suspended prison sentence to his one-year term, in addition to the fine.

Zorzi of ADF International expressed hope that the Supreme Court of Algeria would hear the case and acquit Pastor Ourahamane so he can resume duties as pastor.

“The international community must continue to advocate for the rights of all Algerians to freely live out their faith and worship in community without fear of persecution,” she said.

Security police in Algeria on orders from the Ministry of Interior have systematically targeted churches for more than five years, citing “health and safety” to justify locking church doors and declaring worship to be illegal.

“In one case, they physically beat a pastor in front of his young child because he was peacefully protesting against the closure of his church,” ADF International stated.  

Authorities have targeted Pastor Ourahamane with fabricated legal charges since 2008, according to ADF International. He asserts he is just the latest of 50 Christians to be convicted recently under charges of illegal worship, “shaking the faith” of Muslims or “embezzling” of tithing donations. He and others believe the convictions are a reaction to government concern over large numbers of Muslims converting to Christianity.

“In the 1970s, the government gave out licenses to churches which were largely full of expats,” Pastor Ourahamane said. “Today the government is concerned that our churches are almost entirely filled with large numbers of Algerian converts, and they therefore want to suppress the spread of the gospel among us.”  

Pastor Ourahamane appealed his conviction on March 26, his 36th wedding anniversary. Another pastor and four elders from his church on March 27 also appealed their three-year prison sentences and fines of 200,000 Algerian dinars (US$1,475).

Pastor Ourahamane has been leading congregations in Algeria for more than 30 years.

About 99 percent of Algeria’s 43 million people identify as Sunni Muslim. Islam is the official state religion, but Algeria’s constitution recognizes the right of all to worship and speak freely. The Algerian government limits religious freedom and expression through the enforcement of laws, including blasphemy and anti-proselytism statutes that intentionally target Christians and other religious minorities, according to ADF International.

Algeria criminalizes blasphemy, with punishments including imprisonment for up to five years and fines. The Criminal Code also censors publications by prohibiting content that is “contrary to Islamic morals.”

“In particular, the government has systematically cracked down on the evangelical Protestant Church through church closures and raids,” ADF International stated.

Algeria is a signatory to major human rights treaties, committing it to uphold the rights to freedom of religion and expression. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2024 Annual Report recommended Algeria be included on the State Department’s “Special Watch List” for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.