The unclear relation between Angola and its Muslim citizens and migrants: Is Angola discriminating against them?

Author: Cristiano d’Orsi
Research Fellow and Lecturer at the South African Research Chair in International Law (SARCIL), University of Johannesburg

 Angola is a country where the traditional Islamic relation between Muhajirun (‘immigrants’) and Ansar (‘helpers’: locals)[1] seems not to find a fertile ground. Islam in Angola represents a minority religion, with an estimate number of proselytes amounting to approximately 1%[2] of the entire population.[3] These are mostly Sunnis who arrived in Angola from West Africa,[4] Somalia[5] and from families of Lebanese descent[6] following the end of the Angolan Civil War in 2002.

Historically, as many of these immigrants entered Angola illegally, which created the misperception of associating Islam with illegal immigration and crime (almost predominantly counterfeiting of money and money laundering), although barely any evidence of this has been proved.[7] This was affirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief on her visit to the country in 2007.[8]

However, even up to this day (2017), some Angolan Muslims are still been accused of the same crimes and their human rights violated because of arbitrary charges on terrorism including membership of the Islamic State terror group (ISIS).[9] Prosecutors said the five men detained since December 2016 have been accused of preparing a terrorist attack and radicalisation of others through the use face-to-face meetings and social media.[10]

The 2010 Angolan Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to ‘everyone’ (including foreigners) and stipulates that the State ‘[s]hall protect churches and faiths and their places and objects of worship, provided that they do not threaten the Constitution and public order and abide by the Constitution and the law’ (Article 10.3).[11] Finally, the Constitution also states that ‘[n]o authority shall question anyone with regard to their convictions or religious practices, except to gather statistical data that cannot be individually identified’ (Article 43.3).[12]

However, Law No. 2 of 2004 (Law on Religion),[13] has been criticised by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief as been discriminatory towards religious minorities. She highlights in her report that ‘Law no. 2/04 on freedom of religion, conscience and worship discriminates against religious minorities by imposing stringent registration requirements on religious communities wishing to attain legal status’.[14]

The Angolan government requires religious groups to Register for legal status and be recognised by the government before they can build places of worship. Yet, in order to be recognized, a group must have more than 100,000 adepts and be present in at least twelve out of eighteen provinces.[15] The government proposed a legislation in December 2015 to reduce the membership threshold for registration from 100,000 to 60,000[16] even though the legislation has not yet been enforced. [17]

As the population of Muslims was recently estimated in a bit more than 90,000 persons, local authorities have not given legal status to any Muslim groups yet.[18]

Consequently, on 22 November 2013, the Angolan Minister of Culture, Rosa Cruz da Silva, announced that ‘since the process of legalization of Islam has not been approved by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, their mosques would be closed until further notice’.[19]

Followed that announcement, the President of the Islamic Community of Angola (ICA) has claimed that several mosques in the country have been destroyed and anyone who practised Islam risked being found guilty of disobeying Angola’s penal code, adding that ‘[w]e can say that Islam has been banned in Angola’.[20]

Manuel Fernando, Director of the Angolan Ministry of Culture’s National Institute for Religious Affairs, denied the reported measures and is reported to have said that
‘[t]here is no war in Angola against Islam or any other religion’; adding that “[t]here is no official position that targets the destruction or closure of places of worship, whichever they are.”[21] Nonetheless, there is still a tendency to link the practice of the Muslim religion with threats to national security and the State media has often branded Islam as foreign to Angolan culture,[22] speaking of a “Muslim invasion” and highlights the “dangers of Islam in Angola.”[23]

In this regard, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants noted in his 2017 Report on Angola that ‘[m]ajor cultural differences between Angolans and their West African counterparts have resulted in a negative image of people of the Muslim faith. [The] Government is yet to publicly respond to help quell the concerns of its citizens about practising Muslims and the need to embrace diversity within society. [I]n some instances, it is public officials who use negative language when referring to migrants and incite fear of those of Muslim faith.”[24]

Nonetheless, the leader of the largest Muslim community in Luanda recently stated that his community does not feel threatened by police actions and that Muslims in Angola are allowed to worship freely.[25]

This indication has been recently confirmed also by other Muslim sources that the Muslim community in the country is growing, and that there was a misunderstanding on the demolitions of mosques, which were apparently dismantled only because the government said they did not have building permits.[26]

Rumours of discrimination are however, persistent with sources suggesting that the Angola government, in targeting Muslims, was/is seeking to find a convenient diversion from growing public hostility towards Chinese and Portuguese workers in Angola- using Islam as scapegoat for economic pressures.[27]

In this controversial panorama, with some American conservative media invoking that the example of Angola ‘banning’ Islam, should be imitated also by the US.[28] It is true, however, that the Angolan government has imposed stricter immigration policies as a means to demonstrate to the electorate (legislative elections were held on 23 August, 2017) that it is in control and that it is aiming to address perceived security threats.[29]

Since the end of the civil war, Angola has pursued a policy of expelling undocumented migrants for “national security” reasons. To assist this effort, the country has opened several dedicated immigration facilities, where thousands of non-nationals are detained every year to await removal, often in extremely degrading and violent conditions.[30] As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants noted in his 2017 visit to Angola, ‘[m]andatory detention of undocumented migrants […] is neither a legitimate nor an effective tool for deterring undocumented migration and instead has the opposite effect of driving them further underground’.[31] The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated in 2007, during its visit to Angola also stated ‘that detention of illegal immigrants must be the exception, not the rule, and indefinite detention is clearly in violation of applicable international human rights instruments governing deprivation of liberty’.[32]

Still in 2016 the government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups officially, although the government did not force mosques to close. Some members of the Muslim community highlighted the high threshold for obtaining legal status, combined with the fact the majority of recognized religious organizations were Christian, and indicated the government as opposing the recognition of non-Christian religious groups.[33] Moreover, at different times, security agents have rounded up Muslims as they were coming out of mosques after the Friday prayers and detained those who did not have any proper residence permits.[34]

In the end, it would be perhaps noteworthy to report what Pope Francis, one of the recognized world leaders of Christianity, declared during his last visit in Egypt on April this year that ‘Islam cannot be said to be “terrorist” because “a small minority misinterpret some of its sayings and killed people and terrorize the innocent.”’[35]

And, for those who think that Islam needs to be tackled because it is a religion of intolerance, the Qur’an clearly responds that reli­gion cannot be forced on anyone: “There is no compulsion in (accept­ing) the religion (of Islam)…” because “truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error.” (2:256).[36]

In the framework of promoting interreligious dialogue as a means to build peace and enhance social cohesion in Africa, the Citizens and Diaspora Directorate (CIDO) of the African Union Commission and the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) held, within the framework of the African Union – KAICIID Memorandum of Understanding, the 2nd Interfaith Dialogue Forum in November 2016.[37]

If the anti-Muslim feeling is spreading around the world because of what a group of terrorists are doing, perhaps it is worth it to quote what John Locke wrote in the Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689 which remains true even today: ‘No peace and security among mankind—let alone common friendship—can ever exist as long as people think that governments get their authority from God and that religion is to be propagated by force of arms’. Locke continues: ‘Now, I appeal to the consciences of those who persecute, wound, torture, and kill other men on the excuse of ‘religion’, whether they do this in a spirit of friendship and kindness.’

I conclude with another quote from Locke: ‘Nay, if we may openly speak the truth, and as becomes one man to another, neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion’.[38]


[1] North East Islamic Community Centre, The Ansar and the Muhajirun (The Helpers and the Migrants), <http://islamiccenter.org/the-ansar-and-the-muhajirun-the-helpers-and-the-migrants/>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[2] Pew Research Centre, Table: Muslim Population by Country, 2010, <http://www.pewforum.org/2011/01/27/table-muslim-population-by-country/>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[3] For the most recent data on Angolan population, see: The World Bank, Angola, 2016, <https://data.worldbank.org/country/angola?view=chart>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[4] US Department of State, Angola: 2014 International Religious Freedom Report, at 1, <https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/238394.pdf>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[5] Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), Angola Country Report 2016, at 11,

<https://www.bti-project.org/fileadmin/files/BTI/Downloads/Reports/2016/pdf/BTI_2016_Angola.pdf>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[6] Anonymous, Religion Freedom Report, no date available, at 1, <http://religion-freedom-report.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/country-reports/angola.pdf>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[7] OHCHR, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Concludes Visit to Angola, 28 November 2007, http://newsarchive.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=3252&LangID=E, accessed 20 September 2017.

[8] UNGA, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, Addendum, Mission to Angola, A/HRC/7/10/Add.4 6 March 2008, In detail, see: paragraph 25, at 10: “Regrettably, Angola is also affected by a dominant global trend of associating Muslims with international terrorism. A number of private media reports have linked Muslims in Angola to issues of national security and international terrorism.” In addition, see: ibid, paragraph 26: “The President of the National Assembly told the Special Rapporteur that most of the illegal migrants in the country are Muslims, many of whom are involved in counterfeiting and money laundering. The Vice-Minister of Interior indicated that the Muslim community is not controlled in the country and that Muslims prefer to indulge in violations of the law to camouflage their identity. The Special Rapporteur was provided with no evidence of the above.” Emphasis added.

[9] R. Marques de Morais, “Angolan Muslims Denounce Human Rights Violations”, Maka Angola, 12 July 2014, <https://www.makaangola.org/2017/07/angolan-muslims-denounce-rights-violations/>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[10]Anonymous, “Five men suspected of Angola plot deny ISIS allegiance”, News 24, 13 June 2017, <http://www.news24.com/Africa/News/five-men-suspected-of-angola-plot-deny-isis-allegiance-20170613>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[11] Angola Constitution, Adopted by the People’s Assembly on 25 August 1992, Official Title: Constitutional Law of the Republic of Angola, <http://www.chr.up.ac.za/undp/domestic/docs/c_Angola.pdf>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[12] Ibid

[13] Text of the Law (in Portuguese) at:<www.angola.gov.ao/download.aspx?id=779&tipo=legislacao>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[14] UNGA, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief above, note 8, at 2. See also, paragraph 19, at 8: “According to the Ministry of Culture the rationale behind the registration requirements of the above law and in particular the minimum membership requirement was to tackle the proliferation of religions in Angola. In recent years throughout Angola hundreds of religious organizations have emerged. Information provided by the Government indicates that whilst 85 religious groups have been recognized in Angola, at least a further 757 religious organizations are seeking registration.” Finally, see paragraph 46, at 17 and paragraph 48, at 18: “46) Article 9 of law no. 2/04 discriminates against religious minorities and is not in conformity with international standards to which Angola is a party. Viewed in conjunction with article 45 of the Constitution, it may also violate Article 18 3) of the ICCPR. General Comment 22 provides further guidance on the concept of necessity in article 18 (3) and states that restrictions may not be imposed for discriminatory purposes or applied in a discriminatory manner; 48) Furthermore, law no. 2/04 fails to tackle the problem of religious organizations that are involved in exploitative or engage in harmful practices. Already registered religious organizations in Angola are amongst those accused of exploiting or harming individuals. The Special Rapporteur therefore recommends that exploitative or harmful practices are instead be tackled by the criminal law, in parallel to human rights education programmes.”

[15] US Department of State, Angola, 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom, 28 July 2014, <https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2013/af/222017.htm>, accessed 20 September 2017.

 [16] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2016: Angola, <https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/angola>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[17] 20 September 2017.

 [18] US Department of State, above, note 4, at 1.

[19] Anonymous, Religion Freedom Report, above, note 6, at 1.

[20] A. Cabeche & D. Smith, “Angola accused of ‘banning’ Islam as mosques closed”, The Guardian, 28 November 2013, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/28/angola-accused-banning-islam-mosques>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[21] W. Turvill, “Angola bans Islam and shuts down all mosques across the country because it “clashes with state religion of Christianity””, Daily Mail, 25 November 2013, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2513388/Angola-bans-Islam-shuts-mosques.html>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[22] R. Marques de Morais, “Why Islam is illegal in Angola”, Maka Angola, 27 April 2014, <https://www.makaangola.org/2014/04/why-islam-is-illegal-in-angola/>, accessed 20 September 2017. See also: Anonymous, Religion Freedom Report, above, note 6, at 2.

[23] BTI, above, note 5, at 11.

[24] UNGA, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants on his mission to Angola, A/HRC/35/25/Add.1, 25 April 2017, paragraph 67, at 13.

[25] US Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Angola 2017 Crime & Safety Report,

<https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=21832>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[26] Anonymous, “The persistent myth that Islam was banned in Angola”, BBC, 18 October 2016, <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37316749>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[27] A. Cabeche & D. Smith, above, note 22.

[28] Anonymous, “Angola Become First Country to ban Islam! 80 Mosques Bulldozed!”, America First Patriots, 7 August 2016, <https://americafirstpatriots.com/angola-ban-islam/>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[29] Anonymous, Religion Freedom Report, above, note 6, at 2. In this regard, see also: BTI, above, note 5, at 12.

[30] Global Detention Project, Angola Immigration Detention, June 2016, <https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/africa/angola>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[31] UNGA, above, note 24, paragraph 56, at 10. At paragraph 60, the report clarified: “The detention of migrants is not subject to independent monitoring and takes place without prior authorization from a judicial body. Investigations conducted by the Attorney General to review the legality of detention are usually extremely lengthy. Furthermore, detainees are sometimes denied contact with the outside world, including legal assistance.”

[32] UNGA, Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Addendum, Mission to Angola, A/HRC/7/4/Add.4, 29 February 2008, paragraph 97, at 23.

[33] US Department of State, 2016 Report on International Religious Freedom – Angola, August 2017, at 5, <http://www.refworld.org/docid/59a568364.html>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[34] Anonymous, Religion Freedom Report, above, note 6, at 2.

[35] G. O’Connell, “In Cairo, Pope Francis calls on Christians and Muslims to build “a new civilization of peace”, America, the Jesuit Review, 28 April 2017,   <https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2017/04/28/cairo-pope-francis-calls-christians-and-muslims-build-new-civilization>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[36] S.M. Rizvi, Religious Tolerance in Islam, Al-Islam, no date available, <https://www.al-islam.org/articles/religious-tolerance-islam-sayyid-muhammad-rizvi>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[37] CIDO, African Union and KAICIID hold Interfaith Dialogue Forum in Nigeria, 1 November 2016, <https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20161101>, accessed 20 September 2017.

[38] J. Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689 (excerpts), <https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1653151-a-letter-concerning-toleration>, accessed 20 September 2017.

About the Author:
Dr Cristiano d’Orsi is a Research Fellow and Lecturer at the South African Research Chair in International Law (SARCIL), University of Johannesburg. He was previously a Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria in South Africa. His expertise mainly deals with the legal protection of the people “on the move” (asylum-seekers, refugees, migrants, IDPs) in Africa. Another field of its interests includes the protection of the socio-economic rights. Cristiano holds a PhD in International Relations (International Law) from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva (Switzerland).

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