What is Religious Freedom?

Freedom of religion is a principle or idea that supports the freedom of an individual or community to follow a religion or belief through their teaching, practice, worship, and support. It also includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs. For example, religious freedom means that if someone believes in Islam, they should be free to wear a veil, go to a mosque, read the Quran and pray according to Islamic teachings. They should be free to do so without being abused or discriminated against. This is a basic human right by the African Union under Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.


Many countries have a state religion. This means that the government supports a specific religion and may choose to govern according to these beliefs. Many African countries have chosen Islam as their state religion; this includes countries like Djibouti, Somalia and Tunisia. A country can have a state religion and also support the right of their citizens to choose to follow a different religion. Similarly, many countries without a state religion are guided by politicians and leaders who govern according to the majority religion of their citizens. For example, the President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari is known to support legislation based on Sharīʿah law while also recognizing that that every Nigerian should be free to practice their different religions.


Recently, African governments have restricted religious expression and representation because of their fear of religious extremism and extremist Islamic militant groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Governments believe that if they restrict access to religion, these groups will be less likely to recruit followers. Sub-Saharan Africa witnessed a 13% increase in attacks against Muslims in 2015 compared to the previous year. Furthermore, groups like Boko Haram have targeted majority-Christian villages.

Governments are concerned that these attacks will continue; in response, many have introduced restrictions on religious practices like the Islamic full-face veil (burqa) for security reasons. In 2016, the governments of Chad, Niger and the Republic of Congo banned the burqa because they were concerned it would hide explosives. Women in Kenya, Cameroon and Ghana have reported harassment and were targeted for wearing the headscarf in university exams and while travelling.


In the future, more Christians and Muslims will be living together in Africa. By 2060, more than 40% of Christians worldwide will be resident in Africa, up from 26% in 2015, while Muslims living in the region will increase to 27% from 16%. Africa is set to become home to a large proportion of the followers of the world’s biggest religions. It is therefore important that they be able to respect one another’s belief and cohabitate peacefully.



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