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Religious Liberty in Africa (Part 2 of 3)

Report Published by Aid to the Church in Need

ROME, JULY 21, 2006 (Zenit) - Aid to the Church in Need released a report on religious freedom around the world.

Part 1 published on Catholic Online.

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Religious Liberty in Africa

Eritrea

Following a decree that imposed registration for all religious groups, since 2002 in Eritrea only the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Evangelical church affiliated to the World Lutheran Federation and Islam enjoy official acknowledgement by the state. All other organizations are effectively obliged to cease all their activities or to practice them in secret, constantly threatened by repression.

Four other groups -- the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Church of the Mission of Faith and the Baha'i -- although they have requested registration, are still waiting for approval. In particular, there is currently a presidential decree according to which Jehovah's Witnesses "have renounced their nationality," refusing to vote in the elections and refusing compulsory military service.

Relations between the Catholic Church and the Marxist government are tense due to the latent conflict with Ethiopia that has caused over 70 thousand victims, leaving the country in a state of social and economic destruction as well as overcome by anarchy.

In spite of the cease-fire declared in June 2000, citizens are called up for long periods of military service, something that the bishop of Asmara, Bishop Abune Menghesteab Tesfamariam, considers the cause of divisions within families due to fathers being away from home, an element causing difficult economic and social situations.

Furthermore, "the Christians who are at the front cannot attend Mass, especially the young, and if they are kept away for a long time may risk losing their faith," he said.

In what appears to be state interference in the life of the majority religious community, on August 7, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abuna Antonios, was dismissed from the Synod, only 17 months after being appointed and placed under house arrest.

Six different accusations may have been among the reasons that have resulted in this decision, such as not having excommunicated 3,000 members of Medhane Alem's Christian Orthodox community. In reality, at the basis of this dismissal were the accusations Abuna Antonios launched at the government and his request for the releasing of Christian prisoners of conscience. Consequently, the Patriarch was denied the faculty to bless his community which has also suffered persecutions. A number of priests who supported Abuna Antonios were in fact suspended from their appointments and deprived of their salaries.

The government believes that new religious movements of Protestant origin are a danger and according to the BBC correspondent, Jonah Fisher, expelled from Asmara in September 2004. "It seems to fear that people believing that they owe their loyalty to God might prove to be unpatriotic to the extent of not obeying conditions imposed by the state."

This attitude explains the numerous and serious episodes of persecution against evangelical sects, often implemented using the excuse of reticence to serve in the army. On November 3, the Compass news agency estimated that there were 1,778 people imprisoned due to their religious beliefs.

This number, doubled over a six month period, bears witness to a worrying escalation of the government's repressive activities. According to the American State Department's Report on Freedom of Worship there are 22 Jehovah's Witnesses currently in prison with no charges brought against them and eight of them are said to have been held in the Mai-Sewa military camp since June 2004; nine are thought to be accused of refusing to serve in the armed forces. A number of Jehovah's Witnesses were also arrested during the raid on May 28 against the Kale Hiwot for refusing to recant their faith.

Ethiopia

In a message sent to "Aiuto alla Chiesa che Soffre" in the month of December, Father Melaku Tafesse Amente said that "Ethiopia's Christian heritage is threatened by Muslims who have massively extended their influence over the country's culture and economy."

He explained that Islamic movements in the Middle East send money to subsidize the religious expansion addressed at controlling social life's main structures such as hospitals, school and the large commercial distribution networks.

Also according to Monsignor Lorenzo Ceresoli, the Apostolic Vicar of Awasa, in Southern Ethiopia, the objective of "consolidating the Church in an environment with a significant Islamic presence, but in which traditional religions are also present, if of the utmost importance."

A new Catholic church was inaugurated at the end of June, the real mark of cooperation between the ecclesiastic institutions and the government, the first after 450 years.

Finally, on September 13, the Foreign and Education Ministers, the archbishop of Addis Abeba, Archbishop Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, and the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Ramiro Moliner Inglés, signed an agreement for the creation of an international Catholic university in the capital.

Gabon

The constitution of Gabon envisages freedom of worship and the government respects this right. Enrollment in the official register for religious associations is not compulsory, bur it is advisable. Over recent years the government has rejected requests from at least 10 religious groups, nine of which were small traditional religious groups.

In 1970, a decree was promulgated banishing the Jehovah's Witnesses, stating the fact that within this organization there is not sufficient protection of the individual who may be in disagreement with the group; there is however no evidence that the government then implemented this provision and effectively they are permitted to practice their religion as well as propaganda and proselytism activities.

Missionary groups are not prevented in any way from performing their activities.

The government severely punishes the practice still in use among the believers in tradition religions that involves inflicting ritual corporal punishment.

Gambia

There is no state religion in Gambia and in March the new Ministry for Religious Affairs was created as a now separate institution from the Ministry of the Interior. Religious groups are not required to register.

Religious teaching of both the Christian and Islamic doctrines is allowed in both state schools and private ones with no interference or restrictions; these lessons are financed by the state in public schools but religion is not a compulsory subject.

Missionary groups are allowed to operate in this country. There is one institution, the Gambian Christian Council, constituted by representatives of the Catholic, Anglican and Baptists churches, which addresses issues concerning all Christians.

Ghana

The constitution of Ghana guarantees freedom of worship and the government respects it although it does intervene when it is violated by private individuals working to promote understanding among the various religions. Registration by all religious association is requested, but this appears to be simply a formality and there are no reports of requests being rejected. State schools respect the religious rights of all students.

Fear of witchcraft remains widespread in the countryside: Women accused of being witches and of having caused grief -- such as illnesses, bad harvests, financial disasters -- may be driven out of their villages. They usually then go and live in "witch camps," villages in the North inhabited by those considered witches. The law protects these women and punishes those who exert violence against them although there are no reliable estimates of such episodes or on the number of those living in
"witch-camps."

The government's commission on human rights and the administration of justice estimates that there are about 1,090 "witches" living permanently in these refugee villages helped by both state and private institutions.

Djibouti

In Djibouti the constitution states that Islam is the state religion; it also establishes the freedom to worship for all religions, proselytism is however discouraged. Indicating the objectives of their activities, all religious groups must register with the Ministry of the Interior to receive a first permit that is valid for two years.

As far a family law is concerned, in February 2004 the Sharia -- the word used for the Islamic Courts -- was replaced by the Family Court that applies both Islamic Law and family law.

Foreign priests and missionaries are allowed to carry out charitable activities and also distribute religious publications.

Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea

Both in Guinea-Bissau and in Equatorial Guinea, the constitution recognizes freedom of worship and the government respects this right; religious groups must register with the exception of the Catholic Church and the Reformist Church, which enjoy a number of privileges due to their historical and social importance. Due to bureaucratic delays, procedures for registration can take a number of years and activities by non-registered groups can by punished with fines although this rarely happens. Permits are needed for each activity, both social and religious, outside the place of worship, but effectively this is not an obstacle and missionaries are free to operate.

Guinea Conakry

Although showing a degree of preference for Muslims who are a majority, in Guinea Conakry the constitution recognizes freedom of worship and the government respects this and good relations between the various religions contribute to the free practicing of all faiths, although in some areas of the country there is great pressure from the Islamic community to discourage public practice of other faiths. The government tends to support these local situations, especially with intervention from the Ministry for Islamic Affairs, while there is no analogous ministry for other religious confessions.

New religious groups must register with the Ministry for Territorial Administration, but non-registered groups are permitted to continue their activities although they can be forbidden by the government.

All schools, both state and private -- many belonging to religious groups -- must register with the ministry for civil and university education.

On Oct. 19, a number of Islamic believers attacked those participating in a Baptist function protesting that the service's music disturbed their praying in a nearby mosque.

Kenya

The drafting of the new constitution in Kenya caused tension between the various religious communities. On Aug. 22, the text for the new constitution was published after being approved by parliament and revised by the public prosecutor before the November referendum. Among the points that caused a lively debate, the most controversial was the greater importance given to the courts applying Koranic Law (Kandhi), competent for judging issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritance rights for citizens belonging to the Islamic faith.

Christians raised a number of objections believing that the state must be secular and there should not be separate courts for some of the citizens.

A few days before the referendum held on Nov. 21, the Catholic Church asked President Kibaki not to take part in the political campaign for the referendum and to allow citizens to make up their own minds on the proposed constitution.

On Nov. 21, Kenyans rejected the new draft constitution which, in addition to recognizing Islamic courts also envisaged increased power for the president and opened the way for possible legalization of abortion.

Lesotho

The constitution in Lesotho includes freedom of worship; the government respects this right and protects it from both public and private abuse. Religious groups are allowed to operate also without registration, but in this case they forego a number of tax benefits. There is a strong Catholic presence in the education sector with about 600 primary and secondary schools amounting to 40% of all schools.

Liberia

In Liberia, too, the constitution recognizes freedom of worship and the national transitional government has tried to guarantee this right. Although no single religion is declared the state's religion, government ceremonies all begin with prayers and hymns, usually Christian ones and occasionally Islamic. Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving are national holidays while Islamic holy days are not.

All religious groups -- except for autochthon ones -- must be registered and provide a statement in which they clarify their organization's objectives. The government allows, but does not request, religious education in schools. Religious education, above all Christian, is provided also in state schools but is not compulsory.

Libya

The government in Libya implements a form of restriction of freedom of worship, but in spite of this the authorities are tolerant toward other religions with the exception of ultra-extremist Islamic groups that are repressed.

In the course of 2005, no significant changes were reported as far as freedom of worship is concerned. Believers in religions that are not Islam are usually allowed the freedom to profess their own faith and there is no jurisdiction forbidding conversion from Islam to other religions.

There are no places of worship for the faithful of the Hindu, Buddhist and Baha'I religions, although the followers of these cults can practice their own faith in private homes and display their religious symbols in markets and in windows. Only the Islamic religion is taught in schools.

Madagascar

At the beginning of 2005, the Fianarentsoa Prefecture in Madagascar allowed the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God -- never officially acknowledged as a religious organization -- to restart activities suspended in Aug. 2004, after a number of members had publicly burned a copy of the Bible during a ceremony organized for destroying "Satan's material."

After this episode the faithful announced their intention to ask for the Church to be officially recognized and the Ministry of the Interior has confirmed that it has received numerous requests in this sense.

Malawi

In the month of May a conflict started in Malawi between the government and the Rastafarian leaders after the adoption of hairstyles with long hair was forbidden in state schools. The Rastafarians -- who consider the so-called "rasta plaits" as a fundamental expression of their religiosity -- have described this prohibition as "discriminatory" and have threatened to take legal action. The government has answered that this prohibition -- concerning long hair in general and not only "rasta plaits" -- cannot be considered as detrimental to a right.

Mali

In Mali, the constitution recognizes freedom of worship, and defines the country as secular also allowing religious practices that do not undermine social stability and peace. Respectful of this right, the government requests religious associations to register, although this does not involve any tax benefits or similar advantages. Non-respect of this provision is a punishable offence.

There are groups of missionaries operating in the national territory without suffering any interference from the government, although they are not openly involved in any conversion activities. Both Muslims and non-Muslims are free to proselytize.

Morocco

The constitution in Morocco guarantees the freedom of worship and the government generally respects this right, although it does apply a number of restrictions. Islam is the state religion although the non-Muslim communities are allowed to openly practice their own faith. All attempts to convert Muslims to another religion are forbidden.

According to article 220 of the penal code, all attempts to prevent one or more persons from practicing their faith is forbidden and can be punished with imprisonment for a period ranging between three and six months.

Those who covert to Christianity, or to other religions, are usually socially ostracized.

Muslim citizens are not permitted to study in Christian or Jewish schools. The authorities allow the presence of the Bible in French, English and Spanish, but confiscate editions written in Arabic and do not allow these to be imported to the country in spite of the fact that no law forbids these books.

According to the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur, many thousands have converted, while nationalist Member of Parliament Abdelhamid Aouad has requested the authorities' intervention stating that by 2020 the percentage of Moroccans converted to Christianity could reach 10%. According to a report published in the "Gazette du Maroc," there are about 800 foreign missionaries working in the country.

Mauritania

In Mauritania, the constitution establishes that the country is an Islamic republic and acknowledges Islam as the religion of its citizens and of the state. The government restricts freedom of worship forbidding the distribution of informative material and all proselytism that is not addressed at the Islamic religion. In spite of this, non-Muslims -- foreigners who are resident in the country and a few autochthons -- are allowed to practice their religion publicly and freely.

The government considers Islam a fundamental element for national cohesion and does not guarantee the registration of religious groups, while NGOs -- both secular and religious -- must register with the Ministry of the Interior. The juridical system consists in a modern legislative system that must however respect the provisions of Islamic law.

According to Article 11 of the law on the press, the government can apply restrictive measures on imports, on the press and on the distribution of the Bible or other non-Islamic publications; consequently, it is not possible to sell the Bible publicly, but it is not illegal to own one privately.

The Catholic Church's representatives are not pleased with the government's forbidding of proselytism.

Local authorities are involved in the repression of Islamic extremism and in the month of March, 60 people were arrested and accused of being linked to Islamic terrorism. Among them there were also important religious leaders, sheikh Mohamed El Hacen Ould Dedew, and Moctar Ould Mohamed Moussa, who both remained in prison until the end of 2005.

In spite of an uncooperative attitude as far as religious proselytism is concerned, Mauritania is the only country in the Arab League that has diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, to the extent of receiving a visit last November 17 from a delegation from the Jewish State.

Mozambique

Although it guarantees freedom of worship the constitution of Mozambique forbids political groups with religious characteristics, considering them a threat to national unity. In this country there are 675 religious denominations and 121 religious organizations registered with the Ministry of Justice. According to recent statistics, half of the population states that it professes no religious faith although recent studies state that most people recognize or practice some form of traditional indigenous religion.

Religious instruction in schools is forbidden. There are very few priests and few religious orders.

Niger

The constitution of Niger recognizes freedom of worship, but forbids the creation of political parties inspired by religion. The government has generally guaranteed the respect of this right, but no religious group is subsidized with public funds, although Islamic associations can produce programs broadcast by state TV; Christian programs are usually only broadcast on festivities such as Christmas and Easter.

All religious organizations must register with the Ministry of the Interior. Furthermore, the government must authorize the building of places of worship, although it has never been known to refuse the necessary permits. Foreign missionaries operate freely -- although their organizations must be registered as associations -- and there are groups of missionaries who also operate providing humanitarian aid. The Christian community in Galmi, in the province of Tahoua, manages a hospital and has been working there for over 40 years.

Religious instruction is not allowed in state schools. Christmas, Easter and Sundays are acknowledged as national holidays as are Muslim festivities.

In spite of the presence of extremist Islamic groups of Wahabit origin, there are no reports of clashes with Christian groups.

Nigeria

The constitution of Nigeria, the most populated state in Africa, clearly emphasizes that there is in this country freedom of worship, which also includes the freedom to express and promote one's own religion through teaching. The federal government maintains a respectful attitude toward this right, although there are some restrictions applied for issues concerning security or public order.

Although there is no official state religion in this country, Nigeria is still currently a member of the Islamic Conference Organization -- an international organization with a permanent delegation to the United Nations representing 57 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent -- with the objective of safeguarding the interests and the development of Muslim populations throughout the world.

The country's belonging to this organization has often been challenged by Christians, who consider that this violates the state's secular status.

Inter-confessional tension and clashes are very frequent, both in the Muslim majority northern states and in the mainly Christian south.

The main Islamic form is Sunni, while the Christian population includes Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and growing numbers of evangelicals, Pentecostals and Mormons.

Differences in religion are strictly linked to ethnic and regional diversity. The north, where the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups live, is mainly Muslim; the central part of the country is inhabited equally by Muslims and Christians, and the East -- the homeland of the Igbo ethnic group -- has Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists making up the majority of the population, although many of them simultaneously practice also their traditional rituals as well as Christian ones. The southwest, inhabited by the Yoruba, has no dominant religion: Christianity, Islam, and the traditional religions are equally practiced by the population.

There are no reports of any particular restrictions to the activities of Christian missionaries, of which there are about one thousand in the whole of Nigeria, especially in the State of Plateau. Many missionaries have decades of experience in this country. There are far fewer foreign Muslim missionaries and they usually spend much less time in the country than the Christian ones.

The authorities in the 36 states that compose the confederation maintain great autonomy in making decisions. Both Christians and Muslims are required to register with the Corporate Affairs Commission to be able to build churches and mosques.

Especially ever since the Sharia was re-introduce in the states in the north, a worrying increase in tense relations between the various religious communities has been reported in this country. In recent years inter-confessional clashes have caused over 10,000 deaths. This trend continued throughout 2005 and during the first months of 2006, when there was no lack of violent episodes.

The second half of February 2006 was characterized by extremely violent interreligious attacks throughout Nigeria. According to reports from the Ansa news agency on February 19, the previous day 16 people were murdered by a crowd of thousands of Islamic extremists who had taken to the streets to condemn the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed.

The authorities ordered a curfew in Maiduguri, the capital of the state of Borno, the epicenter of protests that became a massacre and where at least 15 Christians were killed in the streets and in the churches where they had gathered to pray. Shops and public offices were attacked and devastated, between 11 and 15 churches were set on fire, a number of faithful are said to have been killed while they were praying; others were lynched in the streets.

Central African Republic

As expected, the president of the Central African Republic, Francois Bozizč, who came to power in 2003 following a coup d'état, won the presidential and legislative elections held on March 13. The Control Commission for the elections appointed in the month of February also included the bishop of Bossangoa, Bishop Paulin Pomodino, president of the episcopal conference and since 2002 the leader of the commission for national dialogue, involved in the reconciliation of this nation torn apart by civil war between Bozizé himself and Ange-Felix Patassé.

The good relations between the Catholic Church and the institutions are proven by the proclamation of three days of national mourning by President Bozizč when Pope John Paul II died.

In June, as reported by Eglise dans le Monde, President Bozizč participated in Bangui in the consecration of about 50 Protestant deacons, also offering to pay for the restoration of the church and providing garments for the members of the choir as a mark of gratitude to the faithful who had voted for him in the elections. Another Protestant church will be built near the Bangui airport.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Approved with the referendum held on Dec. 12, 2005, and promulgated by President Joseph Kabila on the 18th , the new constitution of the Democratic Republic of Congo guarantees freedom of worship and promotes civil rights; these are positive signals that also include the introduction of equal rights for men and women within the institutions and the fact that sexual violence will be considered a crime against humankind.

The government has generally respected freedom of worship, both during the transition period and in the months that followed the ratification of the new constitution. Missionaries and local religious personnel are allowed to freely undertake their activities involving evangelization and human promotion, although they are often the victims of violent attacks and aggressions, above all the result of urban criminality and the unstable and guerrilla-like situation still destabilizing the eastern regions.

In the course of 2005 and on numerous occasions, Monsignor Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kisangani and president of the episcopal conference, spoke out to report the degradation of the country's institutions and to promote a culture respecting civil rights, justice and peace.

This context encouraged also the spreading of brutal practices against children and the elderly unjustly accused of witchcraft. According to the Report on Freedom of Worship published by the American State Department, incidents in which people suspected of witchcraft have been expelled from their home, tortured, killed or even burned alive, have multiplied.

In particular, a number of Protestant evangelical churches exploit this fear in the population to practice rituals and exorcisms they charge for, often locking the presumed guilty parties in cages, where they are left with no food or water and often beaten or tortured.

Part 3 of this report will be published on Saturday.

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