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Africa PDF Print E-mail

Mark Sigmon
Mission Network News

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

I would like to give a brief overview of the religious liberty situation in Africa and then illustrate some of the more egregious violations in countries there.

The United Nations predicts that by the year 2010 Africa’s population will reach one billion people. Of that number, they project that approximately 48 percent will be Christian, 40 percent Muslim, and approximately 10 percent of ethnic and tribal religions.

If we add other minority religions, this means that only one half of one percent of the entire population of Africa consider themselves nonreligious. We must conclude that Africans are a very religious people. Therefore, issues of religious liberty are vital to social, political, economic, and spiritual health in Africa. As you heard, each continent or region of the world has particular predominant forces that drive the religious oppression and persecution that occur there.

I suggest to you that religious persecution and oppression in Africa generally come from two sources: (1) militant Muslim activity, especially in the northern and eastern sections, and (2) ethnic and economic forces, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, some have said that in sub-Saharan Africa, persecution often results, more from political than religious forces. While there are political forces at work in other parts of the world, if you examine the situation throughout the almost 50 countries that make up the African continent, you find a plethora of ethnic and economic issues that contribute to religious persecution in ways unmatched elsewhere.

Who, then, are the targets of religious persecution in Africa? I suggest four. First are moderate Muslims. Where fundamentalist, militant Muslims seek to enact an Islamic state, their modern brothers and sisters are not easily tolerated. They are often scorned for their lack of commitment to the Islamic state and for disagreeing with the methods that the militants would use to achieve their goals.

Second are the tribal religionists. Those who worship according to inherited tenets of ethnic and tribal religions are often persecuted if they oppose the Islamization of their country. Or they remain beyond the arm of government control and are not in full cooperation with the political and economic goals that the government may have set.

Third, though they are a small percentage of the population in Africa, we must also mention the Jewish population. Immigration has led us to the point where now only approximately one-tenth of one percent of the African population is Jewish. Yet, in some countries, they are prime targets for religious persecution and lack of religious liberty. In Morocco, the Jewish population is somewhat tolerated; in other countries, it is not. Ms. Shea mentioned the situation in Egypt. Jews are also vulnerable to persecution in Algeria. While the Jewish population in Libya is negligible, Libya is one of the most outspoken countries in its anti-Semitism.

The fourth group that is the target of religious persecution are Christians. As we consider some of the specific countries in Africa and how religious persecution and lack of religious liberty are affecting their populations, we must, as Ms. Shea alluded to, mention Sudan. She called me last Thursday and asked to have Sudan even though it is part of Africa. I said certainly and hung up with a sigh of relief, because if I had had to cover Sudan, I wouldn’t have had time for anything else. An atrocity is taking place there that the world community should be outraged about.

Let me just mention one comment, made by Sen. John Ashcroft, chairman of the subcommittee overseeing relations with the African subcontinent. He says, “The humanitarian catastrophe driven by religious and ethnic hatred in Sudan is comparable in scope to the tragedies of Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia combined.” We must raise the banner for the Sudanese who are being persecuted. Children are being sold into slavery, and other atrocities occur on a daily basis. It has been estimated that 1.5 million Sudanese have been martyred simply for their faith in the last 15 years, and the atrocities continue.

Let me mention the situation in other African countries. I will go alphabetically through 10 that are most egregious in their activities toward their own population. First is Algeria. Algeria has a deep historic hatred between Christians and Muslims that continues to be fostered. Both sides, unfortunately, have initiated burning and looting of property. Fundamentalist Muslims are currently in power. Here is an example of the extent to which they are going in their efforts to suppress Christianity. A poster was produced recently showing a Bible being translated to give to the Kabil people so that they may be exposed to and become familiar with Christianity. An Algerian boy appeared on that poster. The government went to great lengths to find out the boy’s identity. It then arrested and killed him.

According to an update I received this week from Angola, a civil war is brewing that could have a wide impact on those of non-Islamic faiths.

Some people believe Chad has the potential to become another Sudan. Its Muslim president came to power in a coalition election but is now asserting Islam throughout the government and the country. As in Sudan, Muslims control and are predominant in the north, and persecution and pressure are being put on the Chadians in the south. The government is looting missionary compounds and is establishing Islamic schools in the south. It is mandating that all Chadians attend these Islamic schools.

In the Commoro Islands between Madagascar and the mainland, the police are increasingly involved in the government’s push for Islam. They ignore criminal complaints of non-Muslims and have been more frequently detaining Christians. Christian deaths and arrests occur daily.

In Libya, it is illegal for non-Muslims to meet in any capacity. There is even alarm in the Qaddafi government concerning those who, at times, seem to be more active participants in the Muslim faith. The government is suspicious of all religions.

Nigeria is another country that is experiencing great political turmoil as well as religious persecution. Deaths and torture are reported on a regular basis, especially in the north. As in Egypt, the government seems to be ignoring atrocities against non-Muslims. The government is forcing the Koran into the entire school system and insisting that as the population moves through different areas, they study the Koran.

In Rwanda, the civil wars that have taken place there, especially between the Hutus and the Tutsis, have been devastating for anyone not on the side of those in control and who have not been favorable to the particular political entities with which they find themselves living at the time. Christians have suffered from both sides. All non-Hutus at times and all non-Tutsis at times, have been persecuted. Their religious faith has been checked at the gate to determine which side they were on.

In Tanzania, where there is a militant Muslim population, there are ongoing riots and tensions between the Muslim and Christian communities, especially along the coast.

Finally, in Uganda, the Muslims in northern Sudan are supporting rebel forces in southern Uganda, with the goal of toppling the present regime and creating a new government. Through this cross-border connection, Sudan’s problems may spill over into Uganda.

That is a brief overview of some of the countries in Africa with the most obvious violations of religious freedom. I would like to close with a quote from the president of the last country I mentioned. Early in 1998, Y.K. Museveni, Uganda’s president, said this, and I think it is a good way to sum up the situation:

“Honorable ladies and gentlemen, I would like to share some thoughts with you about the spiritual situation of Africa’s peoples. I see the tribal differences, poverty, illness, lack of resources for educating our children, political and racial problems. It is obvious that the principles of Jesus Christ have not yet sufficiently permeated Africa. Now it may seem strange that I speak so openly about Christ. I know that many will think this is simply a religious statement, and not a very practical solution to the problems that I mention. Now, I am not a very religious person, I even have problems with very religious people, as those who know me can confirm. Everyone who claims to love God should also love each other. This is one of the basic characteristics of every follower of Christ. In him, I find the inner strength, principles and lifestyle which can help me, all of Uganda’s peoples, and all of Africa’s peoples to solve our individual and national problems.”