Africa is a deeply religious society. Individuals and groups across the continent profess and practice different religions, faiths and beliefs. Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and Article 18 of the ICCPR recognize the absolute right of all individuals to freedom of conscience(1). Freedom of conscience entails freedom to profess a religion or belief, freedom to change one’s religion or belief and also freedom to criticize any religion or belief and freedom to profess no religion or belief. Unfortunately, in many African states, individuals and groups are denied this basic human right. Intolerance, persecution or discrimination on the basis of religion or belief is common and widespread.
Forced conversion and profession of religious faiths, forced identification with family, official or state religions, particularly the dominant faiths of Christianity and Islam, are perpetrated with impunity by state and non-state actors.
Social and political pressure on individuals to be religious and to remain religious or to profess particular faiths is too high in Africa. Mechanisms to uphold and defend freedom of conscience and protect individuals who change their religions, or who criticize religions or renounce their religious beliefs or their belief in God or Allah, are weak or nonexistent in most African states.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union(IHEU) wishes to draw the attention of the Commission to the recent study on Religion and Public Life conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life(2). The study finds that many countries in Africa have high or very high restrictions on religious freedom. Countries in North Africa have the highest government and social restrictions. Religious minorities are targets of restrictions from government actions, policies and laws in, among other states, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria and Eritrea.
Freedom of conscience is a hallmark of a civilized society and an imperative for the evolution of a true and virile democracy. Freedom of conscience is inherently linked with freedom of expression(3), freedom of association(4) and other rights enshrined in the African Charter. No country can lay claim to promoting and protecting human rights without guaranteeing the freedom of religion or belief of all its people.
IHEU calls upon the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights:
Statement by Leo Igwe, IHEU’s representative for West Africa, on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Persecution in Africa at the 47th session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights meeting in Bajul, the Gambia, on 13 May 2010.
'Freedom of Conscience and religious persecution in Africa', Humanists International, Board of Directors, Bajul, The Gambia, 2010