Moreno Religious persecution in Africa is particularly interesting since countries there go from one extreme to another in terms of religious tolerance. The growth of Islam is reconfiguring Africa’s religious landscape—at the cost of religious liberty.
Frontline Fellowship, an evangelical group based in South Africa which operates in Sudan and other countries, provides these estimates: Christians are restricted and pressured (often violently) in 17 African countries considered “officially Islamic.” Out of Africa’s 750 million people, 260 million are Muslim (half of whom live in the sub-Saharan region). The African population could thus be roughly categorized as 50 percent Christian and 35 percent Muslim. Animists (who overlap with the Christians and Muslims) make up the rest, together with very small percentages of Hindus, Jews, and Bahais.
The situation varies from country to country, but three of Africa’s largest states are representative of conditions there now: Egypt, an example of the longstanding Muslim stronghold in Northern Africa; Sudan, an ethnically mixed country under harsh ride from its Muslim majority; and Nigeria, more representative of black Africa, which is increasingly being islamicized by its military regime.
The Arab Republic of Egypt gained independence from Great Britain in 1922, and in 1956, it declared itself an Islamic state. Religious minorities include six million Christian Copts, constituting ten percent of the population and forming the largest Christian minority in the Middle East; five to ten thousand Bahais; 5,000 Shiite Muslims; non-Coptic Christians; a small Jewish community; plus atheists and agnostics. Egypt’s 1971 constitution guarantees equality of opportunity to all citizens regardless of race, ethnic origin, language, religion, or creed. Although the government applies Islamic law to all Muslims, it does not force adherents of other religions to comply.
For Egypt’s Islamic fundamentalists, this is not enough, as the government is well aware. A former Egyptian minister of religious affairs bluntly told me that, while he recognized there were problems with religious liberty in Egypt, “We are trying hard to provide for an environment of religious freedom. If the Muslim fundamentalists took over the country, the first one to be killed would be me.”
Under such pressures, Egypt lacks the legal safeguards to make its constitutional provisions regarding freedom of religion a reality. For example, the government requires every Egyptian citizen to carry an identity card which states the bearer’s religion. Recent abridgments of religious liberty in Egypt fall into five main categories: prohibition on conversion from Islam, torture and loss of life, lack of social and economic freedom due to religion, curtailed freedom of worship, and censorship of religious texts. Persecution of Coptic Christians and others continues to this day, including the recent interrogations and torture of 1,000 Christians in El-Kosheh in relation to the murder of two Coptic men in Upper Egypt, and the indictment of three Coptic clergymen relative to the same crime.
Sudan is an even more difficult case. It is widely listed as a top violator of religious freedom. The Christian south experiences regular persecution by the Muslim-controlled government. Apostasy is punishable by death, and mass displacement, genocide, massacres, and even slavery are common.
Sudan became a republic in 1956 and then alternated between military and civilian rule until 1971, when it became a one-party state. It is the largest country in Africa, and racial and ethnic tensions have weakened the already poor economy and created poor health conditions. Although Islam is the dominant religion, recent statistics indicate a growing population (currently 20 percent) of Sudanese who claim to be Christian.
Through dress codes, required study of the Koran, and educational discrimination against non-Arabic-speaking students. Islamic fundamentalists in the National Islamic Front are advancing the cause of a wholly Islamic nation-state through the schools, colleges, and local governments. The Sudanese government denies this, claiming that a tolerance of Christianity and other faiths exists at all levels of government and of Sudanese society.
The Sudanese constitution of 1986 promises that “all persons shall enjoy the freedom of faith and the right to perform religious rites within the limits of morality, public order, and health as required by law,” but the application of Shari’a (Islamic law) to all Sudanese people renders this provision empty. The 1991 Criminal Act, which incorporated Shari’a into the criminal law of Sudan, made apostasy by Muslims punishable by death.
The Sudanese government also suppresses religious liberty by denying permits to build new churches (none have been built in northern Sudan since the 1970’s), and by imposing burdensome requirements and licenses on missionary groups as well as requiring hard-to-obtain work permits of foreign missionaries. The government forcibly indoctrinates military trainees, pressures prisoners to convert, and has allegedly withheld food, services, and humanitarian aid to non- Muslims who do not convert. The northern Sudanese also use cultural cleansing to justify the enslavement of the black Christian population that lives in southern Sudan. Most recently, two Roman Catholic priests were prosecuted by the Sudanese Military Tribunal under fabricated charges of “masterminding a plot to bomb electrical installations” in the capital of Khartoum.
Nigeria, too, is religiously polarized, despite a history of constitutionally protected religious liberty. (Both the 1979 and 1989 constitutions contain provisions allowing for freedom of belief, practice, and religious education.) Tensions between Christians and Muslims are strong. During Nigeria’s early history, author Ahanotu reports, “the colonial state of Nigeria created an environment that marginalized religion in the political process. This process continued with the emergence of the independent state of Nigeria.” However, the cultural differences, resulting from religious ones, soon led to conflict as Muslims who felt discriminated against, both legally and economically, revolted. Civil war broke out in 1966, partly due to the strife between the predominantly Muslim Hausas and the predominantly Christian Ibos. Since 1978, violence between Muslims and Christians has led to the deaths of thousands.
Although many believe Nigeria has a Muslim majority, the government, fearful of reviving religious tensions, has not taken a census for over 20 years. It is estimated that 48 percent of Nigerians practice Islam; 17 percent, Roman Catholicism; 17 percent. Protestantism; and 18 percent, animism and other faiths.
A major point of contention between Muslims and Christians concerns the Islamic law courts. Both the 1960 and 1963 constitutions allowed Shari’a courts at the state level, but did not include them in the federal system. In 1978, a Constitutional Assembly allowed Shari’a courts of appeal for the states, but again did not incorporate Shari’a courts into the federal system.
Though Nigerian law forbids discrimination on the basis of religion, this has not prevented violence. In September 1994, Muslim youths in Potiskum attacked churches with firearms, machetes, knives, and stones, leaving nine churches burned. The Christian Alliance of Nigeria reported that the incident was “part of the grand Muslim design to eradicate and wipe out Christianity in the northern [Nigerian] states.” The threat of further violence has caused both Christians and Muslims to form vigilante groups in some northern parts of Nigeria. In an indication of continuing persecution of Christians, 13 Christians in Edo, in southwestern Nigeria, were recently arrested for “disturbing other traders with their public prayers.”
As the current situation in all three of these countries shows, Africa is undergoing a major transformation. Though multitudes gather for Christian services, though spiritual revival has been going on for decades, and though half the continent claims to be Christian, the Islamic influence is strong in Africa, and Muslims are already a majority in 17 countries—over a third of the continent.
It is important to note that some Muslim- dominated governments in Africa, in spite of strong religious influence, are actively fighting to preserve a more secularized state and to resist the influence of fundamentalist Muslim movements. But freedom and liberty of conscience on the continent will largely depend on whether Egypt and other countiies with similar conditions continue to stand strong in favor of a more secularized state, whether the Muslim North or the Christian South wins the war in Sudan (or what kind of compromise is achieved), and whether countries such as Nigeria stand for liberty for all or give up in the face of totalitarianism. South Africa, by far the most prosperous country in Africa, is also a major battleground where the fate of religious freedom in Africa could be decided.
One thing is certain: As Islam imposes Shari’a law on parts of Africa, it not only curtails the rights of non-Muslims but also takes away the liberty of conscience of Muslims themselves, who are no longer able to make up their own minds, to change their religion, to choose what to believe—to exercise their rights as free citizens. Such a trend does not offer a promising future to an otherwise potentially rich and prosperous continent.