updated 6/25/2008 2:54:00 PM ET 2008-06-25T18:54:00

The trial of two religious converts accused of illegally promoting the Christian faith opened Wednesday in Muslim Algeria.

The defendants had been convicted in absentia for illegal practice of a non-Muslim religion in 2007 but asked for a new trial, as Algerian law allows, their lawyer said.

Rachid Mohammed Seghir, 40, and Jammal Dahmani, 36, both converted from Islam to Christianity and are charged with praying in a building that had not been granted a religious permit by authorities, the court said. They are also accused of proselytizing, or trying to spread the Christian faith among Muslims.

The trial, which was already postponed twice, opened early Wednesday in Tissemsilt, 155 miles southwest of Algiers, the capital.

Lawyer confident
The lawyer defending the two said she felt confident her clients would not be jailed.

"Things have taken a good turn, and it's good sign this affair will be solved," defense lawyer Khelloudja Khalfoun told The Associated Press on the phone from Tissemsilt.

The trial was adjourned until July 2, when the verdict was expected.

Only a tiny fraction of Algeria's 34 million people are not Muslim, with Christians and Jews making up 1 percent of the population, according to a U.S. government estimate.

Algeria's constitution allows freedom of worship. But a law passed in 2006 strictly regulates how religions other than Islam can be practiced.

Faiths targeted
The law is viewed as primarily targeted at Protestant faiths, which have become increasingly active in Algeria. It provides for jail sentences of up to five years and a $15,570 fine for anybody trying to incite a Muslim to convert to another faith.

The Open Doors Christian activist group said the two defendants are evangelical Christians who were first prosecuted when Bibles were found in one of their cars in 2007 during a routine check. It says Protestant missions have faced growing obstruction in Algeria.

Habiba Kouider, a 37-year-old kindergarten teacher who converted to a Protestant denomination, is also on trial in the central Algerian town of Tiaret, and several other converts are being prosecuted in separate trials.

Algeria has a tradition of tolerance of other religions but went through a decade of near-civil war between the secular army and radical Islamist groups in the 1990s. Religion is a sensitive political issue in the country.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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