The ban on religious services for Muslims and members of dozens of smaller religious groups in Angola caused an international uproar at the end of November. The international media came to see Angola as the first country in the world to ban Islam.
A total of 194 religious denominations, including the Islamic Community of Angola, plus various sects and religious associations that had applied to be granted legal standing, had their requests deferred by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. A statement issues by the ministry on 28 October said that for these denominations to continue religious activities would constitute the crime of disobedience on the part of all participants.
Since the Law on the Practice and Freedom of Conscience, of Faith and Religion came into force in 2004, the Angolan government has not granted recognition to any church or religious sect. The Angolan state requires that in order for a religious denomination to be recognised, it must present proof of a minimum of 100,000 adherents.
The last time the Justice Ministry granted recognition to new religious faiths was in 2000, through Executive Decree 74/00. The beneficiaries were the Igreja do Nazareno Internacional de Angola (International Nazarene Church of Angola), Igreja Messiânica Mundial (World Messianic Church), Centro de Devoção Rainha Santa Isabel de Luz (Centre of Devotion to Queen Saint Isabel de Luz) and the Igreja Evangélica Avivamento Bíblico (Evangelical Church for Biblical Revival).
Angola has a population of more than 18 million, while the number of Muslims in the country is not thought to exceed 50,000, most of them foreign nationals from West Africa. All of the 86 churches and sects recognised by the government are Christian. The Angolan state does not recognise Islam.
Muslims in various parts of the world expressed anger at the government’s measure that refused to recognise Islam as a religion that can be practised in Angola. The international community took up the issue through diplomatic contact with the Angolan government, which offered clarification. However, there is still very little concrete information available about the ban on Islam and other religious groups. Maka Angola has investigated the sequence of events that led up to the decision.
Islam as a threat
Maka Angola conducted a brief investigation into the debates with sovereign institutions concerning Islam, the presence of which was first officially recorded in Angola in 1978. The investigation also compiled a list of the various administrative decisions surrounding the authorization, closing and prohibition of worship and the demolition of mosques.
Because Islam in Angola is practised mostly by West Africans, it has escaped the control of political power. It has also been an easy target for negative stereotypes as a gateway for illegal immigration from elsewhere in Africa. References in the press and in public discourse link Islam to terrorism, slavery and other wrongs that “offend” a still undefined Angolan culture. These stereotypes have allowed the formation of a mutual understanding between the government, opposition, civil society and Christian churches regarding the need to keep out a supposed common ill.
These stereotypes have been nurtured in a society that notoriously lacks a culture of debate in the formation of public opinion. Such a culture would allow from the outset a basic public understanding of the necessity to separate faith from the acts of an individual.
Following the guarantee of religious freedom in the 1992 Constitution, the first attempts to use the law to limit or to prohibit the practice of worship by certain denominations or sects date from 1998, in the Culture Ministry’s Circular 4/98. This circular informed all provincial governments that they must prohibit the practice of religious activity by non-recognised churches.
In November 1999, the then Justice Minister and now Ombudsman, Paulo Tchipilica, sent a confidencial memorandum to the Council of Ministers with proposals for halting the spread of Islam in Angola. The weekly paper Angolense, revealed the content of the memorandum in which the minister reiterated that Islam was a religion that tended to fundamentalism and which was not recognised by the government. According to Angolense, the minister called upon the government to dissolve the institutions that were being used as a cover for Islamic practices, to make their officials criminally liable, and to demolish mosques. According to the newspaper, the working group of the Council of Ministers issued contrary instructions to prevent Tchipilica’s proposal from being implemented. Angolense wrote that “this group [of the Council of Ministers] refuses to consider the activities of Islam in Angola as being tainted by fundamentalism”.
The Law on the Practice and Freedom of Conscience, of Faith and Religion (Law 2/04), approved in 2004, unequivocally establishes the right to religious practice by citizens and religious faiths. According to the law “it is licit and optional for people to meet to practice worship or other specific ends of the religious life”. The law also establishes that “meetings promoted by the religious faiths referred to in the previous clause do not require official authorization nor the participation of the competent authorities, as long as they are carried out in places of worship or other appropriate places.”
Legislators did not address the question of what happens to religious groups whose requests for recognition are refused by the state. This situation of legal limbo has created a framework of arguments and ambiguities that allow the government to act in an arbitrary manner. This limbo also allows the government to act in response to any situation without assuming the consequences.
On 15 March 2007, with the emergence of various groups representing Islam in Angola, the Justice Ministry called a meeting designed to bring all Muslim believers into a single body. According to the chairman of the Islamic Documentation Centre, António Pedro Mussidi, who was at the meeting, the 21 Muslim representatives agreed to merge the five existing groups. However, they disagreed on how their leadership would be constituted. They took a vote, right there in the Ministry of Justice. Fourteen representatives voted for the head of the Islamic faith in Angola to be appointed by the government, while the other seven delegates voted against this proposal
“It was our fault, the Muslim representatives present at the meeting, who voted for the government to appoint a leader for us. The Constitution does not allow the government to get involved in the internal affairs of religious faiths,” Mr Mussidi said.
In a meeting with Members of Parliament on 31 March 2009, the Culture Minister outlined the government’s official position, referring to Islamism rather than explicitly to Islam.
“Our concern is with the expansion of Islamism and the consequences that this could cause in the organization and structure of Angolan society,” the minister said.
This was followed by a series of official statements that portrayed Islam as an alien religion and a threat to Angolan culture. On 5 October 2009, the President of the Republic, José Eduardo dos Santos, set up the Inter-Ministerial Commission for the Study and Treatment of the Phenomenon of Religion. The commission was also to address the issue of illegal immigration. However, the president has never taken any action in response to the commission’s report.
Meanwhile, on 10 February 2012 the Angolan imams decided to resolve the impasse created by the government’s failure to name a Muslim leader for Angola. The imams decided to appoint an Angola, Mateta Zola Khamis to this role with immediate effect.
The foreign imams, led by Diakité A’dama boycotted the initiative, Maka Angola understands. They maintained the stance that they were waiting for the government to appoint a leader. Data show that citizens of Guinea Conakry form the largest group of Muslims in the country, followed by Malians, Mauritanians and Senegalese. There are smaller communities of Somalis, Egyptians, Algerians and Burkinabes.
The commission’s working group first met in February 2013. Maka Angola has learnt that the group found the practice of religious freedom in Angola as “alarming” and a risk to national sovereignty. The meeting felt it was unfortunate that the Angola’s current 2010 Constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice (article 41.1).
The particular concern over Islam was such that the commission was granted a budget of 80 million kwanzas (US$800,000) to study Islam, and only 21.5 million kwanzas for all the other religious groupings together.
However, the attempts to limit the activities of certain religious denominations go back more than a decade earlier. Religious freedom was guaranteed in the 1992 Constitution, yet in 1998 the Culture Ministry issued an order to the provincial governments prohibiting religious activity by churches that did not have official recognition.
As the commission continued its work during 2013, provincial governments, including that of Luanda , demolished a total of 11 mosques.
Exclusive Recognition of Christians
On 8 November the state daily newspaper, Jornal de Angola, listed the 94 religious denominations and associations whose process of legal recognition had been deferred by the ministry, including the Islamic Community and a variety of small Christian sects. On 19 November, the Minister of Culture, Rosa Cruz e Silva, explained to Parliament how the government’s inquiry into religions was linked to its migration policies, and announced plans to stop “the emergence of congregations whose devotions are contrary to the habits and customs of Angolan culture”.
With reference to Islam, the minister confirmed that “its temples will be closed until further orders,” according to a report on the state news agency, Angop.
On 26 November, the national director for the Administration of Justice, Vitorino Mário, gave an exclusive interview to Angolan National Radio, in which he delivered the government’s ultimatum for non-recognised religious groups to close their places of worship. He said that religions whose applications had been deferred and which already were operating places of worship “must close them, this is very clear”.
Vitorino Mário referred to the ministerial decision that ordered the closure of places of worship and an end to all religious activities. The decision also stated that non-compliance would “incur the crime of qualified disobedience”. Regarding the punishment for non-compliance, he made clear that “a whole church will not be arrested” but the leaders would be held criminally responsible.
“We expect that the churches themselves will take the initiative to close the places of worship, the places where they are practising their activities on the margins of the law,” Victorino Mário said. He added that discussions with the unsuccessful applicants were possible, as president Dos Santos had instructed, but only after worshippers had stopped all religious activities.
Vitorino Mário recognised that the law provided for the legal practice of worship without the need for governmental authorization for the opening of places of worship. However, he presented a different interpretation of the law. “What there is, is a legal obligation only to open a place of worship if the church has the proper recognition.”
This interpretation is problematic because as long as a religious group does not have a place of worship, it will not be able to attract the numbers of worshippers that it needs in order to apply for legal recognition. In such an interpretation, the very process of gathering the faithful is against the law. In other words, there is no room for the recognition of more religious faiths in Angola.
Vitorino Mário also made clear that religious groups with deferred applications would also have their new applications rejected because of the seriousness of what they were asking.
Regarding Islam, he insisted that “this matter has been treated with due care and with a very precise and specialized approach”.
According to his statement:
“The Angolan state’s problem, it is necessary to emphasize, is not Islam, it is a series of problems linked to this religion which do not suit the constitutional framework that is currently in force in this country. And this treatment has the required approach from the constitutional point of view, from the legal point of view, and we will hope that what is decided, as a result of the studies that have been done and of the proposals that have been drafted within the internal legal framework, will allow us to take very direct decisions.”
Vitorino Mário stated clearly that “never, at no moment, has the Islamic religion been recognized in Angola. Consequently, all religious activity linked to Islam in Angola takes place at the margins of the law”.
Denial or Contradiction?
As the news spread around the world, an international outcry and protests by Muslim groups in several countries prompted the government to issue a denial on 29 November. Again it was Minister Rosa Cruz e Silva who spoke on behalf of the government. She denied that mosques had been destroyed, despite material and photographic evidence to the contrary, of 13 mosques, and insisted the government “in accordance with the Constitution and other laws in force and with international law, respects Islam as well as other religious faiths.
In an official statement on 29 November, the government explained that foreign citizens of the Islamic faith, in Angola illegally, were practising illegal economic activities in premises built without permission from the relevant authorities. The statement also added that muslims were using these premises as places of worship for convenience and to stop the authorities from closing them.
The chronology that Maka Angola has put together shows that Muslims have repeatedly sought authorization for the building of mosques. Several of these were destroyed despite having been built with the necessary authorization.
On the subject of illegal immigration, the weekly Novo Jornal (edition 308, 13 December) has revealed how much it costs to enter Angola secretly. Crossing the northern border costs between 2,000 and 10,000 kwanzas (US$20 – US$100) according to data from the National Police, the paper reports. According to the article, the police accuse local communities of facilitating illegal immigration, while the people hold the Border Police responsible.
Local poverty and corruption are the reasons why Angola’s borders can be breached for the price of a meal.
Linking Islam to the fight against illegal immigration and the supposed “preservation” of cultural values represents a simplistic political ruse on the part of the government.
There is no political will to fight the corruption which, along with poverty and bad governance, is one of the main causes of the unrest that can be seen in border areas, as much from communities themselves as from the local authorities.
The government has been trying to hide the fact that it has lost control over the mass illegal immigration of Chinese, Portuguese, Brazilian and Vietnamese citizens. The Asian citizens work mostly in construction, while the Portuguese and Brazilians are mostly working in jobs or businesses that are protected or owned by individuals in the state. In contrast, most Muslims in Angola are West African citizens who survive on the edges of the formal economy, running small shops or snack bars in poor neighbourhoods. In the Lunda provinces of north-eastern Angola, they work mostly as diamond buyers for Israeli and Lebanese businesses.
The scapegoating of Muslims needs to be understood in the light of various factors. Most young Angolans lack the job opportunities that seem to be open to immigrants. The salary gap between Angolans and foreigners has generated xenophobic feelings and undermined the ruling MPLA’s credentials as a patriotic nationalist movement. Last year the government expelled more than 37,000 Africans, 300 Asians and 20 Europeans, according to official figures. Among the Africans were 16,000 Congolese expelled from Lunda Norte province along. The Congolese have been variously accused of spoiling the “Angolan cultural framework” and damaging the economy, as part of an effort to deflect attention from internal problems. Most people are no longer convinced by this excuse. The policy of deliberately expelling and mistreating Congolese citizens prompted the Democratic Republic of Congo to hit back in 2009 when it expelled more than 50,000 Angolans, many who had been settled in the Congo for more than 30 years.
This time around, West Africans associated with the Islamic faith are being used as the excuse. They are people who have no impact on the economic interests of powerful individuals, and their countries have not the slightest influence over the Angolan government. Nevertheless, this mischievous strategy of blaming Islam merely displays the political ignorance of many people in government. They have not considered what the consequences might be.