Shining The Light On Religious Freedom In Africa: Countries That Celebrate Diversity

Written by Andrew Friedman

In part one of an AFKInsider mini-series we examined the worst of the worst — three countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been labeled “of particular concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. This is part two of the series. We examine African countries where there are strong protections for religious freedom, where diversity is celebrated rather than being a source of tension or violence.

Convicted of adultery, a Sudanese woman was forced to give birth in prison while she remained shackled, according to a 2014 Telegraph report.

Sudan, Nigeria and Eritrea can be repressive nightmares for people accused of running afoul of faith. They are not the only ones.

The Central African Republic is in the midst of a tragedy, which some have termed genocide, drawn largely along religious lines.

The southern tip of Africa has some of the freest religious practice in the world, according to polling by the Pew Research Center  (and subsequent mapping by the Guardian). The analysis centered on both government restrictions for religious practice and social hostilities towards people of faith.

Where a score of 10 constitutes the highest possible religious oppression and a score of zero constitutes complete religious tolerance, Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho all score below 1 on both government restriction and social hostilities and have done so since the survey’s inception in 2007. South Africa scores extremely well, under 1, in government restriction, but social hostility is in the mid 3s.

Interestingly, as one heads north on the continent it is easy to find countries with a myriad of human rights issues that score well on issues of religious freedom.

The Congo-Brazzaville scores below one on both government restriction and social hostility for all years surveyed. Guinea Bissau similarly scores well, below 1 in government restrictions since 2011 and nominally worse in social hostility, at 1.5 during the same period. Overall for human rights, these two countries make the list of “not free” countries according to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2014.

Similar religious tolerance can be found in places such as Benin and Burundi, both of which are ranked as “partly free” by Freedom House.

For reference, these numbers compare to the U.S. where 2012 government restrictions on the exercise of religion were rated at a 3.7 and social hostilities neared 2. Western Europe was similarly problematic, with France at a 4.3 and 6.5 respectively — proof that religious oppression is in no way limited to the Global South.

Religious tolerance

Perhaps the most interesting of the countries surveyed is Sierra Leone. The West African country scores below 1 on government restrictions and in the mid 1s for social hostility. Freedom House ranks the country as “partly free” for overall human rights compliance. Despite this, the Economist has reported stories of incredible religious tolerance, approaching a downright meshing of religious beliefs.

According to the Economist, the country “takes religious tolerance seriously. Not only are relations cordial between the two main religious groups in the West African country, but it is not unusual here to be both Christian and Muslim.”

In one example, “Hassan Kargbo is one of thousands of Sierra Leoneans who have become known as “ChrisMus’. He identifies himself as a Muslim, but also believes in Christianity. Before he starts work on Sundays, he goes to church. He visits a mosque every day. ‘I see it as the same religion,’ he says, sporting a Jesus bracelet. ‘All of us say it’s the same god that we’re worshiping.’”

This makes it an oddity in the region. While Sierra Leone “straddles Africa’s religious equator, where the Muslim north meets the Christian south,” too many countries at the same religious latitude have experienced upheaval.

These include Nigeria, South Sudan, (and Sudan before the 2011 partition of the two countries) Chad, Cote d’Ivoire and Ethiopia. All are rated as “high” or “very high” in religious diversity based on another Pew Research study and have experienced tremendous turmoil.

Religious oppression and violence are a major problem worldwide. According to the Pew study, in 2012, individuals experienced some form of government harassment for practicing their faith in more than 130 countries. This compares with 147 countries where individuals experienced harassment from other citizens unaffiliated with the government.

The high levels of harassment do not, however, mean that such oppression is a necessary product of religious diversity and pluralism. While the African continent experiences far too much religious strife, there are countries that serve as shining lights, informing the rest of the world that religion need not be a source of civil upheaval and harassment.

Even countries across the continent that have other grave human rights issues seem to respect religious differences. Sierra Leone, itself no beacon of human rights compliance, has created a distinct atmosphere with a blending of religions too often seen as being at odds with each other. Religious diversity is possible without conflict. Even while much of the world does not understand this, many African countries do.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.