Religious Freedom Across Africa: The Worst Of The Worst

By Andrew Friedman AFKI Original Published: June 3, 2014, 4:02 am
Women in Jos, Nigeria, mourn as they march against sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in 2010. Photo: CNN

On May 15, a 27 year old pregnant woman named Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death by hanging in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. What crimes warranted Ibrahim’s horrific sentence? Treason? Multiple homicide? The answers are apostasy and adultery.

By the Court’s reasoning, Ibrahim was born a Muslim due to her father’s religion (despite the fact that, according to the Telegraph, he abandoned the family) even though she was raised a Christian by her mother. By attempting to marry a Christian man (the adultery charges stem from the Court not recognizing the marriage) and refusing to renounce Christianity, she had converted to Christianity, making her an apostate and an adulterer, leading to her sentence of death by hanging.

As tyrannical as this situation sounds, Ibrahim is not alone in being persecuted and prosecuted for her religious beliefs. A recent survey of apostasy laws by Pew Research showed that, as of 2012, 21 countries criminalized such behavior. This included six countries on the African continent, Egypt, Sudan, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia and Comoros.

In part two of this AFKInsider mini-series we examined some of the shinning lights in Religious freedom in Africa. Part one looks at the worst offenders on the continent when it comes to these fundamental rights. There are forces in these countries actively seeking to dissuade believers from practicing their faith through law or social pressures.

Among social pressures, most often there exists a culture of impunity that protects violence against the religious.

To start, let us examine the country that allows Ibrahim to be given such a horrific sentence.

“Tier 1 Country of Particular Concern”

Sudan is designated a “Tier 1 Country of Particular Concern” by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. According to the 2014 annual report, this is due to “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.” This includes a “restrictive interpretation of Shari’ah law on Muslims and non-Muslims alike” that includes “amputations” and “floggings” as punishments.

In addition to the legal regime that institutionalizes a lack of religious freedom, in the reporting period there was a high incidence of harassment of Christians by Sudan’s National Intelligence Security Services.

This included at least 2 raids on churches, a confiscation of a church and the bulldozing of another. Additionally, individual Christians from the country’s borderlands with South Sudan continued to be deported across the border. This treatment fits into Sudan’s general record on human rights, as it is a mainstay on Freedom House’s Worst of the Worst list of human rights violators.

Joining Sudan on the “Tier 1 Country of Particular Concern” list is Eritrea. The tiny state on the Horn of Africa also represses more than just religious freedom, also joining Sudan on Freedom House’s Worst of the Worst list.

Eritrea maintains four officially recognized religious denominations, Sunni Islam, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. Religious organizations outside these four are forced to register and maintain detailed financial and membership records.

Officially recognized religions


Despite a number of such groups filing applications, none have been approved since 2002, hindering their ability to practice and build places of worship. Members of faiths that are not officially recognized report imprisonment, torture and pressure to recant their faith in order to be freed from detainment. Even the officially recognized religions are not immune from government interference, with the Department of Religious Affairs responsible for appointing religious leaders and regulating internal affairs.

The final sub-Saharan state that makes its way onto the Tier 1 list is Nigeria. While the Nigerian government does not have the Sudanese government’s penchant for religious persecution, Nigeria is so designated for the culture of impunity surrounding sectarian violence and threats against Christians by Boko Haram.

According to the Commission’s 2014 Annual Report, the government “…tolerates severe violations through its failure to bring to justice those responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, or to prevent or contain sectarian violence.”

Further, the report claims “Boko Haram benefits from this culture of impunity and lawlessness as it exploits religious tensions to destabilize Nigeria.”

According to reports, violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria has resulted in more than 16,000 deaths, since 1999 and the government has only secured 225 convictions.

During the reporting period, while there were no large scale massacres, “hundreds of persons were killed in dozens of episodes of this violence, chiefly Christians attacked by [Muslim] herdsmen. No prosecutions are known and security agents were reported at times to have participated.”

Religious freedom is an internationally recognized human right that has been a part of international law since the earliest human rights documents. The right to freely exercise ones faith exists in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, many other international documents and every regional human rights agreement, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

This has not prevented several countries across the continent from severely hampering the ability of believers to practice their religion.

In a moment of “mercy,” the Khartoum Court that convinced Meriam Ibrahim of apostasy and adultery allowed her to have her child and nurse for two years before her hanging is carried out. Ibrahim’s husband told the Telegraph that she gave birth to her child, a girl, on Tuesday, while her legs remained shackled.

That this constitutes mercy is simply unacceptable. The right to freely choose and change one’s religion is a human right. Sudan is not the only country south of the Sahara where this freedom is infringed.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.

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