International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution, approved in January 2002, provides for freedom of religion and the Government continued to generally respect this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

While the generally amicable relations among religions in society contributed to religious freedom, the close link between certain self-proclaimed messianic groups and opposition political movements at times was a source of tension during the period covered by this report. Toward the end of the reporting period, the Government and the last remaining armed opposition group took substantial steps toward a peace accord, reducing these tensions.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 132,047 square miles, and its population is approximately 3 million. Approximately half of its citizens are Christian; of these about 90 percent are Roman Catholic. There is a small Muslim community estimated at 25,000 to 50,000 persons, most of whom are immigrants from North and West Africa who work in commerce in urban centers. The remainder of the population is made up of practitioners of traditional indigenous religions, those who belong to various messianic groups, and those who practice no religion at all. A small minority of the Christian community practices Kimbanguism, a syncretistic movement that originated in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. While retaining many elements of Christianity, Kimbanguism also recognizes its founder (Simon Kimbangu) as a prophet and incorporates African traditional beliefs, such as ancestor worship.

Mystical or messianic practices (especially among the ethnic Lari population in the Pool region) have been associated with opposition political movements, including some elements of the armed insurrection in the southern part of the country during 1998-99.

Several Western Christian missionary groups are active in the country, including members of Jehovah's Witnesses, the Salvation Army, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and several Catholic religious orders.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

Title II, Article 8 of the Constitution provides for freedom of religion and specifically forbids discrimination on the basis of religion. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. There is no official state religion.

All organizations, including religious organizations, businesses, unions, and charitable or non-profit societies, are required to register with and be approved by the Government. There were no reports of discrimination against religious groups in this process, though all admit it is time-consuming and lengthy. Penalties for failure to register involve fines and potential confiscation of goods, invalidation of contracts, and deportation for foreigners, but no criminal penalties are applicable.

The Government recognizes the Christian holidays of Christmas, Ascension, and Pentecost as national holidays.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion. Of note, there is a growing Muslim community in the country, comprised predominantly of West Africans (Malians and Senegalese being the most numerous) and Lebanese. They are able to practice freely and although their holidays are not nationally observed, they are respected.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The "Ninja" rebel militia group, which is led by self-proclaimed prophet Frederic Bitsangou, also known as Pasteur Ntumi, was responsible for certain human rights abuses in the Pool region of the country in 2002. However, there were additional reports that some of the human rights abuses blamed on the Ninjas were actually carried out by government forces. In March 2002, the Ninjas took hostage a French priest who later died while in captivity. The motivation for the kidnapping was believed to be political, rather than religious. There were other reports in 2002 that Ntumi desecrated churches by practicing in them his own religion, which is a mixture of Christianity, ancestor worship, and indigenous religion. Toward the end of the reporting period, however, Ntumi's group and the Government have taken substantial steps to make peace and stabilize the country. Since the March 17 peace accords, there have been no reports of abuse and desecration of churches.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relations among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, the close link between certain messianic groups and armed opposition political movements, including the "Ninjas," at times was a source of tension.

All organized religious groups are represented in a joint ecumenical council, which meets periodically.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. These discussions include highlighting the importance of the issues with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Presidency, and members of the National Assembly. The U.S. Embassy also has executed public diplomacy programs with key civil society groups that address these issues.

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