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U.S. State Department releases religious freedom report on Gambia

May 20, 2021, 11:38 AM

On May 12, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report, an annual publication documenting the status of religious freedom in every country, which covers government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

The release in summary reads below:

The constitution provides for the freedom of religious choice, as long as doing so does not impinge on the rights of others or the national interest, saying it prohibits religious discrimination, establishment of a state religion, and formation of political parties based on religious affiliation.

Two years of drafting a new constitution and a parliamentary debate described by media as polarised and acrimonious came to an end when the legislature in September rejected the new constitution. Although not the main issue of contention, the omission of the word “secular” in the draft generated debate during the ratification process. Some members of the Christian community had advocated the inclusion of the word “secular” in the description of the republic, stating that the omission of the specific reference to the secular nature of the state left open the possibility of minority persecution and the unilateral formation of an Islamic government, although other provisions of the draft constitution guaranteed religious freedom and non-establishment of a state religion. Some Muslim commentators said the country “should remain a non-secular state” in recognition not only of its 95-percent Muslim majority and interpretations of Quranic law, but also of the overwhelming importance of religious faith in the country to both Muslims and Christians.

There continued to be tension between the majority Sunni Muslim and the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim communities. The Supreme Islamic Council (SIC), a religious body tasked with providing Islamic religious guidance, continued to state the Ahmadiyya community did not belong to Islam, and the council did not include members of the community in its events and activities.

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Approximately 95.7 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom are Sunni, with a small Ahmadi Muslim population. The Christian community makes up 4.2 percent of the population, the majority of whom are Roman Catholics. Religious groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Hindus, and Eckankar members. Some individuals mix indigenous beliefs with Islam and Christianity.

The constitution states, “Every person shall have the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice” subject to laws that may impose such “reasonable restrictions” as necessary for national security, public order, decency, or morality. The constitution also states that such freedom “not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others or on the national interest, especially unity.” The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, the establishment of a state religion, and religiously based political parties. It provides for the establishment of qadi courts, with judges trained in the Islamic legal tradition.

There are no formal guidelines for registration of religious groups. Religious groups that do not provide social services are not legally required to register. Faith-based groups that provide social services as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must meet the same eligibility criteria as other NGOs. By law, all NGOs are required to register with the NGO Affairs Agency and register as charities at the attorney general’s chambers under the Companies Act. They are required to have governing boards of directors of at least seven members responsible for policy and major administrative decisions, including internal control. This law also requires that all NGOs submit to the NGO Affairs Agency a detailed annual work program and budget, a detailed annual report highlighting progress on activities undertaken during the year, work plans for the following year, and financial statements audited by NGO Affairs Agency-approved auditors.

The law does not require public or private schools to include religious instruction in their curricula. The government, through the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, provides religious education teachers to public schools to teach an academic course on major world religions. The majority of public schools offer this course, and most students take the class. Some private schools also offer classes in religious education and tolerance and provide an overview of major world religions.

In September, the National Assembly rejected the draft of a proposed new constitution, for which consultation and drafting began in 2018. During debate over the draft, the Gambia Christian Council (GCC) and the SIC disagreed over the inclusion of the word “secular” in the draft constitution to describe the nature of the state. The 1997 constitution currently in effect does not include the phrase.

The GCC stated that the draft constitution lacked three key guarantees and safeguards: the country’s secular identity as currently guaranteed in law by an act of parliament, protection against discrimination and persecution of minority groups, and the protection of the state against another unilateral declaration of an Islamic Republic. Christian commentators also said that the introduction of a sharia high court in the draft constitution to run parallel to the High Court would be discriminatory to both Christians and women.

SIC leaders continued to state that all religious organisations in the country were entitled to freedom of expression and assembly. The SIC continued to state that Ahmadi Muslims did not belong to Islam, and it therefore did not include Ahmadi members in SIC events. Ahmadi Muslims said they believed themselves free to practice their religion without interference but expressed frustration with the SIC’s refusal to integrate them into the broader Muslim community.

Intermarriage between Muslims and Christians continued to be common. However, due to cultural and gender norms, women were generally required to convert to their husband’s religion and raise all children in the husband’s religion. It was not uncommon for persons of different faiths to live in the same dwelling, and observers said religious differences were widely accepted among family members and neighbors, with each jointly celebrating the religious events and holidays of the other.

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