The population of Algeria consists almost entirely of Arabs. Arabs in Algeria are chiefly of Berber derivation, particularly in the Kabilia and Aurès areas and in the Sahara oases, or admixtures of Berbers with invaders from earlier periods. The Berbers, who resemble the Mediterranean sub-race of Southern Europe, are descendants of the original inhabitants of Algeria and are divided into many subgroups. They account for 99% of the population. The Kabyles (Kaba'il), mostly farmers, live in the compact mountainous section in the northern part of the country between Algiers and Constantine. The Chaouia (Shawiyyah) live in the Aurès Mountains of the northeast. The Mzab, or Mozabites, include sedentary date growers in the Ued Mzab oases. Desert groups include the Tuareg, Tuat and Wargla (Ouargla).
Europeans are of French, Corsican, Spanish, Italian and Maltese ancestry. Algeria's European population was estimated at less than 1% of the population in early 1999. About half the Jews in Algeria were descended from converted Berbers, and the remainder were mainly descendants of Spanish Jews. Within a month after Algeria became independent, about 70,000 Jews emigrated to France and 10,000 to Israel. Almost all the rest left Algeria during the next seven years; fewer than 100 Jews remained as of 1998, and virtually all synagogues had been converted to mosques.
The sole official and majority language is Arabic, with many variations and dialects, but many Algerians also speak French. Arabisation has been encouraged by the government. About one-fifth of the population speaks a wide variety of Berber dialects, particularly in Kabilia, in the Aurès, and in smaller, relatively protected areas in the mountains and the Sahara. Berber is a distinct branch of the Hamitic language group; dialects vary from district to district. In antiquity, the Numidians wrote Berber in script form.
About 99% of the population adheres to Islam, the state religion. Except for a small minority of Kharijites (Ibadhis) in the Mzab region, most Muslims are adherents of the Maliki rite of the Sunni sect, with a few Hanafi adherents. The law prohibits assembling for purposes of practising any faith other than Islam. However, there are Roman Catholic churches that conduct services without government interference. Non-Muslims usually congregate in private homes for worship services. Proselytising of non-Muslim faiths is illegal. Foreigners who practice non-Muslim faiths are generally shown a greater degree of social tolerance than non-Muslim citizens.
Many citizens who practice non-Muslim faiths have fled the country because of the civil war. The number of Christians and Jews is thus significantly lower than in the early 1990s. The small Christian community, which is mostly Roman Catholic, has approximately 25,000 members, and the Jewish community numbers fewer than 100.