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ALGIERS (Reuters) - Algeria's government has rejected accusations from rights groups that it persecuted the Ahmadiyah religious sect during a recent spate of arrests, saying those detained were targeted for breaking the law not for their beliefs.
International rights groups have expressed concern in Algeria about crackdowns and religious persecution of Ahmadiyah, a Muslim sect also found in Pakistan and Indonesia as well as in communities in Europe but who some Sunnis accuse of apostasy.
The Ahmadiyah identify as Muslims, but believe another prophet followed the Prophet Mohammed, who founded Islam. That view runs counter to the Muslim religion's central belief and is considered problematic by most mainstream Islamic organizations.
Algeria's Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa told diplomats and reporters this week that any arrests in Algeria's Ahmadiyah community were for individual crimes and not a crackdown on their religious community.
His comments came after some Algerian political leaders had said there was no place for the Ahmadiyah in Algeria, where most people are Sunni Muslims. In the past, officials have suggested the community was involved in illegal proselytizing.
"All those Ahmadiyah individuals' activities in our country were illegal, we are not targeting the Ahmadiyah, but rather individuals," Aissa said at a conference this week.
Those arrested have been investigated for offences including unauthorised fundraising and the illicit use of private homes to conduct unauthorised secret meetings
He said 123 Ahmadiyah were under investigation and 21 had been arrested. The minister said some of the community had sympathies with Islamic State and ties to former Algerian militant groups or were non-Muslims.
But Fareed Ahmad, the group's national secretary for external affairs based in London, told Reuters they were deeply concerned about a "vilification campaign" against Ahmadiyah in Algeria.
"We are a peace-loving Muslim community and have consistently campaigned against extremism around the world. We urge the authorities to release the 26 Ahmadi Muslim who have been unjustly imprisoned in the past six months," he said.
"They are loyal Algerian citizens who are committed to the peace and prosperity of Algeria."
The High Islamic Council, the highest religious authority in Algeria considers the Ahmadiyah a non-muslim group.
More than 90 percent of Algeria's 40 million people are Sunni Muslims The question of Islamic activism outside mainstream, state-sanctioned Sunni Islam is sensitive following a 1990s civil war with armed, ultra-conservative Islamists that killed more than 200,000 people.
Editing by Patrick Markey and Ralph Boulton