Multiple African Countries Experiencing Violations of Religious Freedom: Report

A pictorial representation of the African countries experiencing violations of religious freedom. Credit: Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International

The Religious Freedom in the World Report (RFR) 2021 has listed several countries in Africa among those experiencing “the most intense” violations of religious freedom.

In the report published Tuesday, April 20 by the Catholic pastoral charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, 23 of Africa’s 54 countries are among 62 countries with high cases of religious persecutions across the globe.

Of the 23 countries in the world’s second largest continent, 12 are listed as nations with “extreme persecution” characterized by “intense violations of religious freedom”; the other 11 are in the category of “severe cases of violation” of religious freedom.

At number three, the West African nation of Burkina Faso leads the list of African countries with extreme violation of religious freedom caused by Islamic extremism.

In a separate report on Burkina Faso, ACN officials note that though the various religious communities co-exist peacefully, the country has “since 2015 like other West African nations become a hotspot for violent extremists.” 


They note that the militants who first identified with the homegrown Ansaroul Islam in 2016 have expanded to include the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) and the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) entering from neighboring Mali into Northern Burkina Faso and then gaining influence in the other regions of the country.

The extremists “mainly Burkinabe fighters pursuing local interests, target state authorities, military and police, as well as civilians including village leaders, teachers (who are threatened because of the secular curriculum), Muslim and Christian leadership, and faithful,” the report further notes.

On the prospects of religious freedom in the West African country, the leadership of the pontifical foundation says that despite the commitment and desire of religious and political leaders to nurture “positive inter-religious relations ... the prospects for freedom of religion in Burkina Faso remain negative for the foreseeable future.”

Burkina Faso is closely followed by the Central African nation of Cameroon at position four on the RFR listing, making it the country with the second-highest extreme religious persecutions in Africa.

According to the report released in Rome and other 22 cities globally, the cause of religious freedom in Cameroon, which is predominantly Christian, is Islamic extremism.

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“Cameroon has enjoyed a stable and tolerant religious life until recently. This changed in 2015 with the rise of radical religious groups in the Sahel region espousing Wahhabi and Salafi ideologies, like Boko Haram, which has spilled into Cameroon from neighboring Nigeria and Chad, threatening the country’s historical religious freedom and tolerance,” ACN’s officials say in the report.

They add, “While religious fault lines are just one piece of the puzzle to understand Cameroon’s current political turmoil, they are certainly an important one. Violent attacks often have a religious element, as religious figures are targeted regularly for political reasons. The violence has intensified religious divisions, fomenting mistrust of traditional religious authority.”

Just like in Burkina Faso and Cameroon, Islamic extremism is the cause of extreme violation of religious freedom in the North-Central African nation of Chad, which ranks position five globally and number three among African countries.

In the April 20 RFR report, which covers the period of August 2018 – November 2020, the leadership of ACN attributes the violation of religious freedom in Chad to the presence of Boko Haram jihadist group that has been operating in the county since 2015.

At number seven in the biennial RFR report, which analyses the degree to which religious freedom is respected in the world across all religions, is the Indian Ocean island nation of Comoros whose religious persecution is attributed to authoritarian government and Islamic extremism.


The leadership of the Germany-based Catholic entity pins the violations of religious freedom in Comoros, a predominantly Muslim nation, to the country’s 2018 Constitution, which stipulated Islam as the state religion and Sunni Islam as the basis of national identity.

“Religious minorities are still denied freedom to practice. As a result, on 18th December 2019, the United States government decided to keep Comoros on its Special Watch List for governments that have engaged in or tolerated ‘severe violations of religious freedom,’” the report notes.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is at position eight in the report with religious discrimination reportedly caused by Islamic extremism.

According to the leadership of ACN, DRC’s religious freedom prospects are “negative” owing to the myriad challenges bedeviling the Central African nation such as poverty, corruption, the weakness of state structures, high levels of insecurity, and the outbreaks of the Ebola and coronavirus pandemics.

In the Northeastern African nation of Eritrea, which is at position nine, violation of religious freedom is attributed to an authoritarian government that has failed to implement the 1997 constitution that grants its citizens the freedom “to practice any religion and to manifest such practice.”

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Instead, ACN’s officials say, the government of President Isaias Afwerki prefers to govern through decrees, with a 1995 proclamation recognizing only four religious communities, namely the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, the Catholic Church, and Sunni Islam.

“Other religions are not allowed and are considered illegal. Furthermore, the religions that are allowed to operate, do so under certain restrictions,” the leadership of the 74-year-old entity says adding, “the situation of freedom of religion is dire and does not seem likely to improve in the near future.”

In Libya, an authoritarian government and Islamic extremism have led to violations of religious freedom that have seen the North African nation ranked 13 among countries with extreme persecution on the basis of religious affiliation.

The report attributes the violation of religious freedom in the predominantly Muslim nation to the political upheavals in the country, which have created loopholes for violent extremist groups and terrorist organizations to expand their influence, including the Islamic State group (Daesh).

“Although the Constitutional Declaration prohibits any form of discrimination based on religion, the ongoing fighting between rival governments has restricted effective application of the interim constitution,” officials of the pastoral charity, which aspires for a world in which Christianity can thrive everywhere, say.

They add, “Islamic religious education is obligatory in state-run schools as well as in private educational institutions. Other forms of religious education are not offered in educational establishments.”

In Mali, which is ranked 16 in the RFR report, Islamic extremism is the major cause of religious freedom violations characterized by inter-communal conflicts over resources pitting the Muslim Fulani against the ethno-religionist Dogon people, who include some Christians.

Just like in Mali, religious freedom violations in Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria and Somalia, which are ranked 17, 19, 20 and 23 respectively, is attributed to Islamic extremism.

“Whilst religious freedom is generally respected by the government and traditional inter-religious relations respectful, repeated attacks by different criminal armed groups and jihadist militias marked by merciless brutality is challenging the status quo, especially in the northern province of Cabo Delgado,” ACN’s officials note in the April 20 referencing Mozambique.

According to ACN officials, the insurgents in the Southern African nation, among them members of the “most prominent” jihadist group-Al-Sunna wa Jama’a (ASWJ), are estimated to have conducted at least 139 attacks, killing more than 350 civilians and military men since October 2017.

In the report, which is in its 15th edition, the leadership of the Catholic entity observes that although the predominantly Muslim nation of Niger is a secular state, its location in the crisis-ridden Sahel region has made it a hotspot for Islamic insurgency.

“In a continued effort to counter the rapid growth of Wahhabism (religious reform movement) in the country, the government has sought to standardize Islamic practices through an Islamic forum of more than 50 national Islamic organizations,” the report by ACN indicates.

In Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, officials of ACN, which  support the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in need, through information, prayer and action, note that in the Northern part of the country where Islamic law was introduced 20 years ago, the situation “has  become worse.”

“What Sharia law has done is to divide us more in this country. You go to communities, people have withdrawn into the womb of their religions,” Fr. Atta Barkindo, the Director of the Catholic-run Kukah Centre, which promotes interfaith dialogue, has been quoted as saying in the RFR report.

“As long as Nigeria’s political elites are not genuinely guided by a desire to promote the common good rather than pursue interests along political, ethnic or religious lines, no substantial improvement to the human right of religious freedom can be expected,” ACN’s leadership says.

The RFR report, whose first edition was published in 1999, also highlights violations of religious freedom in Somalia where its “turbulent recent history, from a failed state following a protracted civil war to a recovering state today, has greatly impacted the religious freedom of its people as well as every other aspect of Somali life.”

“While in principle the constitution of the Federal Republic of Somalia guarantees freedom of religion, it is severely limited in practice because of the strong social pressure to adhere to Sunni Islam; this leaves religious minorities vulnerable to harassment and marginalization,” ACN officials say.

They add in reference to Somalia, “Prospects for human rights, including freedom of religion, are substantially negative for the foreseeable future.”

The other 11 African countries listed in the RFR report as having severe cases of the violation of religion include Algeria (27), Djibouti (32), Sudan (52), and Tunisia (57) due to authoritarian governments; and Madagascar (42), Mauritania (43), and Mauritius (44) due to Islamic extremism. 

Others include Egypt (33), Ethiopia (34), Morocco (45), and Tanzania (55) whose violation of religious freedom is caused by authoritarian government and Islamic extremism.