Rising tension between Christians and Muslims in the Arab world have come out in the open with the expulsion of foreign Christian charity workers from Jordan and the conviction of a Catholic priest in Algeria. Although the cases seem different, the background is similar. Evangelical Christians have been increasingly active in the Islamic world, doing charity and development work and also seeking to convert Muslims. The missionary part is usually a crime in Islamic countries and local authorities — rightly or wrongly — often suspect the charity part is a cover for this proselytism. This sets the stage for clashes over religious freedom, national laws, Christianity, Islam and modernity — an increasingly frequent mix in a globalised world. It also has serious effects on the long-established but fragile Christian communities living in those Muslim countries.
In Jordan, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said this week that Christians had come to Jordan under the “pretext of charitable and voluntary activities, but they had violated the law by undertaking preaching activities and were expelled”. This followed a long report by Compass Direct News, an agency that focuses on persecution of Christians around the world, that Jordan had “deported or refused residence permits to at least 27 expatriate Christian families and individuals in 2007, a number of them working with local churches or studying at a Christian seminary“.
One report said those involved were from the United States, South Korea, Egypt, Sudan and Iraq. “It is puzzling that certain small groups with a few hundred members and which are foreign to Christians in Jordan and to the history of Muslim-Christian relations, permit themselves to speak in the name of Christians and act as protectors of Christianity as if it were in danger,” it quoted the Council of Churches, the highest Christian body in Jordan, as saying. AsiaNews says: “According to the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, the group of eight missionaries was distributing Christian material among the Bedouins to the north and east of the capital Amman.”
The Catholic Archbishop of Algiers Henri Teissier told William Maclean, our chief correspondent for North Africa, that increased activity by evangelical Christians in Algeria had caused problems for Catholics. “For the last two years, we have serious difficulties made for us by the Algerian administration every two or three months,” he said this week. “I think it’s due to the fight against the proselytising by evangelical groups … We are not responsible for this evangelism. But the administration continues to take measures against us … (Evangelicals) have arrived in Africa. And the first to have suffered from the actions of these groups are Catholics.”
Teissier was commenting on the case of French priest Pierre Wallez, who was given a suspended one year prison sentence last month for praying with Christians in western Algeria in a place not authorised for religious worship. The Christians were illegal migrants from Cameroon based on the border with Morocco, part of a shifting community of mostly Ghanaian, Nigerian and Cameroonian migrants who have been visited by Roman Catholics priests in the area for years.