You may have seen headlines claiming that Angola has become “the first country to ban Islam,” but the situation is far more complicated than that.
The International Business Times reported on Monday that Angola had banned Islam and ordered the destruction of mosques throughout the African country. The story spread like wildfire, but as noted by the IBT, actual evidence of the ban was sparse.
IBT’s original source was the French-language newspaper La Nouvelle Tribune, which quoted Angola’s Minister of Culture Rosa Cruz as saying, “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.”
This article seems to have been the origin of the rumor that Angola had banned Islam. A photograph of a ruined mosque emerged with the reports, but was soon found to be a sham. The Angolan embassy in the United States was quick to clarify that the African nation had not banned Muslims from practicing Islam.
“The Republic of Angola…it’s a country that does not interfere in religion. We have a lot of religions there. It is freedom of religion. We have Catholic, Protestants, Baptists, Muslims, and evangelical people,” reads the embassy’s statement.
Muslim scholar Mufti Ismail Menk confirmed that the story was “completely fabricated.” The rumor seems to have spawned from a government order to destroy several structures – one of them a mosque – that had been constructed without the necessary building permits. Several churches have also been demolished as punishment for being “unlicensed.”
However, as per Cruz’s statement, Islam has not been “legalized” in Angola.
“There is no war in Angola against Islam or any other religion,” stated Manuel Fernando, director of Angola’s National Institute for Religious Affairs. “There is no official position that targets the destruction or closure of places of worship, whichever they are.”
On the flip side, the AFP has published quotes from numerous Muslim leaders in Angola who complain about “religious intolerance” and “political persecution.”
According to the Angolan Constitution, all religious groups must submit a petition to the culture and justice ministries in order to obtain “legal status.” This status gives religious groups the right to build places of worship and schools. Angolan law requires all religious groups to have at least 100,000 practicing members living in 12 of the nation’s 18 provinces in order to submit a petition.
Islam, which represents less than 1% of the nation’s population, has not been legalized because it does not meet these conditions.
According to a US State Department report in 2012: “Muslim group leaders reported Muslims could not practice Islam freely because the government did not recognize Islam and selectively intervened to close mosques, schools, and community centers. Although government officials asserted the government protected religious groups without legal status and did not have a policy to close mosques or other Islamic facilities, there were several reports of local authorities closing mosques or preventing their construction.”
Islam does seem to have been targeted in recent years, and sentiment among non-Muslim Angolans reflects this. For example, an online newspaper posted an op-ed in June 2012 entitled “In Defense of Christianity in Angola: Islam is the Seed of Ruin.” The State Department’s report also highlights an instance in which police officers in Dundo, Lunda Norte Province forbade a Muslim group from building a mosque – twice – even though they had the permits:
“Police allegedly destroyed the mosque’s foundation at one location, directing the group to build elsewhere. When construction began at the new site, however, police again reportedly demolished the work and told the group that it could not build a mosque at all,” reads the report.
The timing of this week’s rumor is coincidental, as Angola’s Culture Minister has recently promised to begin cracking down on “sects.”
“In a way [the report of the ban on Islam] is a distraction from what is happening in Angola right now,” explains Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch. “Angola is in a political crisis.”
Angola devolved into unrest last week as the public discovered that two activists had been kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the state. Since then, nearly 300 protestors have been imprisoned and one opposition activist has been shot.
This is not a new problem for Angola. International human rights groups and opposition organizations have long accused Angolan President Dos Santos of restricting human rights and responding to dissent with violence. In this instance, one could argue that the legal issues surrounding the practice of Islam in Angola suggest a culture of repression.