Religious freedom in Africa

Lecturer at the Faculty of Law of the Université de Sherbrooke. Researcher at the Research Chair in Law, Religion and Secularism of the Université de Sherbrooke.

Religious requests cross actually all over the world. It marks in a particular way African continent because of the religious pregnancy of its societies. Religious freedom has been early a priority of young African democracies of 1990. All African constitutions guarantee the freedom of religion and all African countries have also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the rights to “adhere in the religion of one’s choice” and even the “right to change religion” (art.18).

However, despite these significant legislative evolutions, religious freedom is being tested in several African countries. The most notable and recent regressions concern, particularly in West Africa and the Lake Chad basin, where the Boko Haram Islamist terrorist group is implanted and also in the Central African Republic, where a religious war broke the country since 2013. Another terrorist group, the Al Shabab is implanted in the eastern region of Africa. The religious intolerance in Africa is not only the fact of terrorist groups (either Muslim and Christians), but also caused by different restriction of religious freedom by religious rules; it’s the case of the Maghreb region where the offense of blasphemy has been adopted in criminal law, like in Algeria (2012) and recently in Morocco.

In all these cases, the violation of religious freedom is generally caused by exacerbated conservatism or nationalism (I) and a religious radicalism with an unpredictable future.

I. Exacerbated nationalism in Africa

It is a strategy of some governments to control religious movements essentially in Muslim African countries. Draconian rules passed in different parliaments and close control of religious institutions decided. In Sudan and Eritrea for example, religious minority movements are harassed, and police raids and incarcerations have become regular. The introducing of blasphemy and apostasy in different African criminal law is the illustration of the religious situation of countries where Islam is the majority. In 2017, the Islamic Conference Organization (ICO)  took distance from the United Nations Human Rights commission, by adopting  a resolution condemning “the offense of defamation of religion”. The same year, the American federal of religious freedom report listed over 70 countries in the world where apostasy and blasphemy offenses are practice and among them, twenty African countries are concerned. In 2006, the Algerian parliament took a prescription introducing a penalty for all religions reaching out. The same Algerian parliament prescription reserve Algerian citizenship to only Muslims. The penalty is more violent in Mauritania, Libya and Egypt where the criminal law predicts a death penalty to all religious proselytizing and where intolerance towards religious minorities is a current fact.

The violation of freedom of religion in Africa is also a consequence of a religious radicalization of some African societies.

II. Radicalization as a religious freedom violation cause

Religious radicalization in Africa is a fact of many Islamist and Christians groups or movements. It is the case of Islamist groups like Boko Haram in Western and Central Africa, Al Shebab in Eastern Christians radical groups like Anti Baraka in Central African Republic or the Lord Resistance Army in Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. All those radical groups, both Christians or Muslims, are responsible for many religious intolerance acts in their influence area and occupied regions. Their only presence provokes massive movements of non-tolerated religious groups.

The pregnancy of religion in African societies needs a particularly careful monitoring of question from African authorities because of its sensibility. The religious war in the Central African Republic since 2013 is the object lesson of the importance of the religious question in the African continent.

Lecturer at the Faculty of Law of the Université de Sherbrooke. Researcher at the Research Chair in Law, Religion and Secularism of the Université de Sherbrooke.