TIZI-OUZOU, Algeria, April 5, 2021 (Morning Star News) – After Slimane Bouhafs was released from prison in 2018, having served nearly two years for violating Algeria’s blasphemy laws, further persecution drove him to Tunisia.
Threats on his life continue there, and he is stuck in legal limbo – missing his daughter’s wedding on Friday (April 2).
“My daughter who gave so much to me, who has always supported me, she is getting married without me being able to be by her side,” Bouhafs said in tears on Thursday (April 1). “It is a very great pain that I am suffering.”
Initially sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 for messages he posted on Facebook favoring Christianity over Islam, Bouhafs benefited from advocacy efforts that drew international attention, and he received a partial presidential pardon in 2017 that resulted in his release on April 1, 2018. Like many Christians branded as blasphemers of Islam, his troubles did not end with his release.
“Hateful people still wanted my life,” Bouhafs, 54, told Morning Star News. “Once I found two tires on our car gutted with a knife. I was getting threatening phone calls. I registered the numbers and filed a complaint, but the prosecutor did not care; no follow-up.”
After his release, the government cut off disability benefits he had received due to a condition that caused him to stop working as a security guard in 1999, he said. Before that, he had worked as a policeman until 1994.
“For 19 years I usually received my due [benefits], but since my release, nothing,” he told Morning Star News. “The Algerian Islamist state stole part of my life and even my salary. I was left without a penny.”
Fearful for himself and his family, he decided to seek asylum in Tunisia, as obtaining a visa for Europe or North America was impossible, he said. Bouhafs arrived in Tunisia in October 2018 – where he has been threatened repeatedly by phone and on social media, he said.
“Once, three people on a motorbike accosted me in the middle of the street, in front of a multitude of people coming and going,” Bouhafs said. “They asked for my papers with threats. I gave them my papers and told them I was a refugee. After taking a look, they handed them to me. It was then that they insulted me and threatened me without anyone intervening.”
One of the men had an Algerian accent, he said.
“I went straight to the police station to file a complaint. Unfortunately, there at the police station I was more mistreated,” Bouhafs told Morning Star News. “After finding articles on Google and finding out that I am a Christian and had been in jail accused of undermining Islam, the agents stood up against me, and they also insulted and mistreated me. I could only leave the premises forgetting the complaint.”
He began filing for asylum with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in November 2018, but his case was held up by several administrative delays, he said.
“During that period, I was very ill to the point where I was admitted to the hospital for 11 days,” he said. “I was experiencing indescribable anguish and stress. I only thought of one solution, suicide. I was given treatment which allowed me to resume.”
Occasionally he was able to receive visits from family members, he said, but the coronavirus pandemic has closed the borders, and he is now isolated.
Following publication of his case in an Algerian newspaper in June 2020, administrative processes improved, and he was able to obtain a refugee card in October, he said. Bouhafs said he did not understand why the UNHCR has not found a host country and authorized his departure.
“Honestly, I do not understand why they do not let me go, why I do not have my ticket, when countries have agreed to receive me. I find that unfair and humiliating,” Bouhaf said. “I ask that the authorities concerned act quickly, without further delay, to allow me to reach a country of asylum, and that my family can join me.”
Bouhaf is the father of three children, a 30-year-old son and two daughters, 28 and 19.
His oldest daughter, Thilleli, recalled the trouble her father’s conversion in 1999 brought family members, who remain Muslim.
“My mother is a Muslim, but she suffered a lot because of my father’s conversion,” Thilleli told Morning Star News. “He had been threatened by several people. Once he was assaulted by an individual with a knife, in 2003. The case took several years in court, but with no positive outcome. Even the investigating judge mistreated my father at every hearing.”
A group of Muslims in their village began talking about killing him for abandoning Islam, she said.
“Our family was totally isolated; after that, we were forced to flee to settle in town, in Béjaia,” Thilleli said. “It lasted three years.”
Bouhafs’ journey to faith in Christ began with caring for a terrorist, he said. He had enlisted in the police force in 1990, just before the outbreak of civil war between the government and Islamist rebels, Algeria’s “Black Decade” (1991-2002), with top estimates of deaths reaching 260,000.
“I loved my country, and I wanted to fight terrorism to save my country,” Bouhafs said. “In 1994, we arrested an Islamist terrorist whom I took care of, treating and feeding him because I felt sorry for him then.”
His encounter with the Muslim prisoner led him to question Islam, he said.
“My talks with this person changed my life and my convictions as the Muslim that I was,” he said. “What I saw and heard in this person, added to that all the victims slaughtered, burned and killed by the terrorists, had pushed me towards the door to leave this religion. Since that year, I no longer wanted Islam, or rather Islamism.”
In 1998 he accompanied a friend to a Roman Catholic priest’s house in Béjaia, who provided him with books containing testimonies of people who had encountered Christ. Later Bouhafs obtained a Bible, and his studies led him to put his faith in Christ in 1999 and find fellowship in a Protestant church, he said.
“My soul finally found the peace I so longed for, but at the same time a storm broke out against me,” Bouhafs told Morning Star News. “All of the society I lived in had suddenly risen up against me.”
He received all manner of insults and death threats, he said.
“I was persecuted on all sides; I felt unwanted everywhere,” he said. “Not just me, but even my children and my wife had to endure persecution, even though they did not join me in my Christian faith. But to these pains was added the joy of seeing many people from the region agree to follow me to become Christians. For me, it was a great victory.”
The pressures nearly led to the break-up of his marriage, he said.
“Because of my faith, my poor wife suffered,” Bouhafs said. “I went to the gendarmerie station in Bou Salem on several occasions to lodge a complaint against all these attacks, but the gendarmerie did not respond. They did nothing.”
He was arrested on July 31, 2016 in a café by plainclothes police, and it was only under interrogation at the gendarmerie brigade’s Bou Salem quarters 15 kilometers (nine miles) from his home that he began to understand the accusations against him, his daughter said.
Officers took him to the Beni-Ourtilène court of justice, where he was tried and sentenced by 6 p.m., essentially in secret and without an attorney, then taken to prison in Setif, advocates said. He was sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars (US$750) for Facebook posts deemed blasphemous to Islam and Muhammad.
“My father told me that that day was the longest and most painful day of his life,” Thilleli told Morning Star News. “On top of all that, he was gone without his meds, which made him nervous and stressed.”
Bouhafs added, “When I was in prison, I suffered a lot. I even came close to death after being poisoned. I suffered doubly from my disease and stress.”
The Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH) advocated for his release on grounds that he had merely expressed his opinion of preference for another kind of religious worship, noting that the Algerian constitution recognizes freedom of worship. His attorney demanded charges be dropped based on “the irregularities and formal defects observed during his arrest and then of its judgment at first instance on July 31, 2016 at the Beni Ouartilane court,” though ostensibly his sentence was reduced by two years merely on grounds of “mitigating circumstances.”
LADDH advocated for a presidential pardon on the basis of Bouhaf’s poor health, and the partial pardon granted on July 4, 2017 reduced his sentence further, so that he served less than two years.
Since leaving Algeria a year later, Bouhafs has been waiting for more than two years for a country of refuge to open its doors to him and his family.
“Honestly, I’m stuck – I am as scared here as I was in Algeria,” Bouhafs said. “I am as threatened here as I was in my country.”
Algeria ranked 24th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, up from 42nd place in 2018. Tunisia ranked 26th on the list.