The Angolan 2010 Constitution states:

Freedom of conscience, religion and worship shall be inviolable. No-one shall be deprived of their rights, persecuted or exempted from obligations due to their religious beliefs or philosophical or political convictions.[…] No authority shall question anyone with regard to their convictions or religious practices, except in order to gather statistical data that cannot be individually identified.

However, the Angolan government chose to take a different path through placing restrictions on the recognition of religious groups that ended up by having Islam, the world second largest religion, as an illegal religion whose mosques can be demolished at government’s will.

Such legal complications harm Angola’s global image, yet political and economic repercussions might by far exceed such harm. Angola might be creating hatred with about 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, which might impact its foreign relations and investments.

Background

 

The Republic of Angola is located in Southern Africa with a long coast on the Atlantic Ocean. Despite that the last official census was conducted in 1970, the official estimatesput the current population count at about 20 million, 55 to 70 percent of which are Catholics, 25 percent combining Christianity with traditional beliefs, 10 percent Protestants, 5 percent belonging to Brazilian evangelical churches, in addition to other small minorities such as Muslims and Jews.

Angola suffered from a 27-years civil war that tore the country apart since its independence from Portugal in 1975. The two main parties at conflict, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the rebel group Unita, forged strong foreign alliances. The MPLA was supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba, while the Unita was backed by the US and South Africa.

With the death of the Unita leader Jonas Savimbi, and after several failing attempts to reach peace, a ceasefire was signed in 2002 and the MPLA got to rule the country and transform the Unita into the largest opposition group among about other 14 parities. Ever since, there have been complains of lack of electoral transparency and intimidation directed towards the Unita.

The years-long conflict claimed the lives of about one million Angolan, displaced more than four millions, and forced half a million into refuge.

Political Situation

The current President José Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for the last 30 years. In 2010, the MPLA-dominated parliament approved the current constitution that changed the selection criteria for the president from direct popular elections to allowing the largest party in the parliament to select the republic’s president from itself. Hence, the parliamentary elections became the critical point where the population theoretically gets in control of their rulers.

Two years after, the ruling MPLA managed to secure 72 percent in the August 2012 parliamentary elections — down from 82 percent in 2008 — and according to Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World Report, the “polls suffered from serious flaws, including outdated and inaccurate voter rolls.”

Neither opposition delegates nor domestic observers were allowed to monitor the vote or the ballot count, in addition to biases in official media coverage in favor of the ruling MPLA, according to the same report. Voter turnout, consequently, dropped from 80 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2012.

The 2012 parliamentary election was preceded by arbitrary arrests and “enforced disappearance,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The organization’s reportpublished in July 2012 added that, “over the past year, Angolan uniformed police and plainclothes agents have reacted to the youth protests with increasingly violent crackdowns, despite their small scale, and have arrested many youth leaders, journalists, and opposition leaders.”

In fact, HRW alone has several reports about human rights infringements committed at the hands of the authorities, especially since 2008.

Questions about the political legitimacy of the aging ruling regime in Angola meld well with the nature of the economy of the country.

Economic Boom?

Angola is very rich in oil and diamonds. Oil was first extracted in Angola in 1955, and the country joined the OPEC in 2006 after its oil production started to boost with the end of the civil war in 2002. The boost is most obvious when considering the average daily crude oil production, which increased by 2.5 folds between 2000 and 2012, according to an OPEC 2013 report. The country’s crude oil production is the second highest in Africa andaccounting for 83 percent of GDP in 2008.

However, based on the World Bank Enterprise Survey (WBES), 75 percent of firms identify corruption as a major constraint in Angola; in addition, the country is ranked 187th out of 189 comparator economies in terms of the ease of enforcing contracts, based on the World Bank’s Doing Business 2014 report.

The boom in oil revenues does not seem to reflect financially on the population. Angola ranked 148 among 187 countries in terms of the Human Development Index (HDI) — an index created by the UN to measure three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living.

Did Islam Get “Banned” in Angola?

In light of the mentioned political and economic environment, the contended discussion of banning Islam in Angola can be discussed.

The short answer to this question is that Islam did not get “banned” in Angola, simply because it was not officially approved in the first place. Until this day, Angolan Muslims are not able to get government approval for their religion to be able to build mosques, secure their standing as an officially registered religious group, and gain legal religious rights, among others.

Angola is a home for hundreds of religious groups, including fiction-based ones and traditional African beliefs. More than 900 religious groups and organizations have applied for legal registration since 1991 and got rejected; and currently there are over 2,000 religious organizations that are reportedly operating without legal status. The last time the government registered a religious group was back in 2004, to push up the number to 83 registered religious groups, according to US State Department 2012 International Religious Freedom Report.

The central law regulating the registration process is the Law no. 2/04, where it places the criteria and requirements for official recognition. According to the law, a religious group must have at least 100,000 adult resident adherents present in at least 12 out of the 18 Angolan provinces. Groups must petition to the Minister of Justice for legal status and then the request is passed by the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Culture to carry out the relevant inquiries, as explained by the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ms. Asma Jahangir, in her 2008 addendum entitled “Mission to Angola.”

Official numbers place the Muslim population in Angola at 80,000 to 90,000 Muslims, while other estimates place it at a higher number.

The Muslim community submitted at least two requests, in 2004 and 2006, and got no approval from the government. However, for the unregistered religious groups, the International Religious Freedom 2012 Report stated that “the government generally permitted these organizations to exist, function, and grow without legal recognition.”

Fears Materializing

Announcing the closure of all mosques might be a new escalation step taken by the government, yet mosques have been closed down and demolished starting years ago.

 

What is alarming is that the government, based on the mentioned laws, can take legal actions against the Muslim community at will, including the demolition of its places of worship and banning the practicing of the religion altogether.

Old comments help in feeding in the fear among Muslims from government biased measures against the community. According to the above mentioned UN Human Rights Counciladdendum, “high ranking Government officials have reportedly stigmatized followers of Islam in the private press. The former National Director for Religious Affairs is reported to have referred to the growth of churches and sects in the country as a sickness and that ‘one form of this sickness is Islam.’”

Another report — published in 2010 by the Washington-based Institution on Religion and Public Policy — mentioned fears sounded by Minister of Culture Rosa Cruz e Silva of “the expansion of Islamic community within Angola, which the government believes will damage the ‘…organization and structure of Angolan society.’”

Such fears materialized this year. Based on official news, published in November 19, 2013 by the government’s Angola Press News Agency (ANGOP), the Minister of Culture Rosa Cruz e Silva said “that regarding the Islam whose process was not approved by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, there are many other religions in the same situation, and their temples will be closed until the new pronunciation in the case.”

Announcing the closure of all mosques might be a new escalation step taken by the government, yet mosques have been closed down and demolished starting years ago.

Four mosques have been forced to close in the capital of Luanda in January 2006, yet allowed to reopen by the end of the year.

November 16, 2011 is when heavily armed guards arrived in Cacuaco, Luanda Province, and “forcibly tore down a large tent being used as a mosque” with no written order and no compensations, according to the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report. In December of the same year Muslims applied to build a small and temporary mosque in a land they purchased, yet received no reply after several months. Muslims then began construction after repeatedly asking the local authorities for any reply, then shortly after the construction the local authorities arrived anddemolished the construction.

This time with a building license, Muslims started to build their mosque in Dundo, Luanda in January 2012, yet the police forces came in to destroy the mosque forcingMuslims to reconstruct it at a new place. Upon the beginning of construction at the new site, the police again demolished the work and denied the group their right to build a mosque at all.

The National Criminal Investigation Police (DNIC) chained the doors of a large building used as a mosque by local Muslims for no clear reason in May 2012 in Jutio, Bie Province, according to the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. Muslims wrote several letters to the DNIC and got no response.

Reactions and Choice

Will Angola act on reshaping its laws to abide by its constitutional principles and internationally-agreed rights? Or risk more criticism and possible isolation by walking away from liberal and democratic principles?

Such policies limiting the freedom of religion in Angola, acting against the principles instilled in the Angolan Constitution, drew international uproar, especially among Muslims and their organizations worldwide.

Islam most established organization, Al-Azhar,condemned the Angolan policies and demanded immediate investigation and that the Angolan government clarifies its position. Along the same lines, another statement was issued by the influential International Union for Muslim Scholar (IUMS) demanding the interference of the UN and the OIC as well as clear measures to be taken by the Muslim leaders in Africa and the Muslim World at large.

Finally, the question remains: will Angola act on reshaping its laws to abide by its constitutional principles and the internationally-agreed right for religious freedom? Or risk more criticism and possible isolation by walking away from liberal and democratic principles?

 

By Abdelrahman Rashdan

Academician – Egypt
OnIslam.net