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

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects 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.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

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 3,861 square miles, and its population is 1,364,507. Muslims constitute 95 percent of the population. The main Muslim schools are Tijaniyah, Qadiriyah, Muridiyah, and Ahmadiyah. Except for the Ahmadiyah, all branches pray together at common mosques. An estimated 9 percent of the population practice Christianity and 1 percent practice traditional indigenous religions. The Christian community predominantly is Roman Catholic; there also are several Protestant denominations, including Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and various small Protestant evangelical denominations. There is no information available regarding the number of atheists in the country.

Foreign missionary groups operate in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. 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 state religion.

The Government does not require religious groups to register. Religiously based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are subject to the same registration and licensing requirements as other NGOs.

The Government permits and does not limit religious instruction in schools. Biblical and Koranic studies are provided in both public and private schools throughout the country without government restriction or interference. Religious instruction in public schools is provided at government expense, but is not mandatory.

The Government considers the following religious holidays national holidays: Tobaski (Eid-Ul-Adha), Muwlud-Al-Nabi, Koriteh (Eid El-Fitri), Good Friday, Assumption Day, and Christmas Day. Religious holidays do not impact any religious group negatively.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

The Government has announced that Gambian men should not marry more than two wives. Many Muslim Clerics have condemned the new government policy, expressing that it violates the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion worship and expression.

Leaders of the Christian minority, which comprise no more than 5 percent of the population, praise the Government and people of the Gambia for the friendly protection and accommodation of the Christian minority. Muslims constitutes 95 percent of the population. Christian leaders cite the religious tolerance practiced in the Gambia as an example to be followed by other countries in the region.

On April 28, approximately 70 Muslim students at St. Theresa's decided to wear veils to school. School authorities denied them entry to the school because veils violate school uniform requirements that forbid any headwear. The students forced their way into the school, but teachers refused to teach them. Both students and teachers ultimately protested publicly over the issue. On May 19, the Government closed St. Theresa's Upper Basic School, a Catholic Mission school that offers both Koranic and Biblical Studies in addition to national academic curriculum, due to a controversy over Muslim girls wearing veils to school.

During the following two weeks, students and school authorities failed to find a consensus: students maintained that they had a right to religious expression, while school authorities maintained that they had a right to enforce school uniform requirements. While students consider the issue a question of religious tolerance, administrators consider it a question of authority over their own school's policies. They cite the example of Muslim schools in the country, where non-Muslim female students wear veils to conform to school uniform requirements.

On May 31, the Department of State for Education issued a letter of instruction to all schools stating that "veils wearing should be allowed in all schools, regardless of ownership); that no child or student should be sent away from school for wearing a veil." The instructions also dictated that the school be allowed to regulate the color of the veil, and that veils be longer than required to cover head and shoulders and have no additional decoration or adornment not sanctioned by the school authorities. The Education Department also ruled that Muslim students' sleeves and skirts must be the length required by the school uniform code.

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 relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Intermarriage between members of different religious groups is legal and socially acceptable.

Practitioners of female genital mutilation (FGM) and other types of circumcision in the country firmly believe that Islam mandates it and its surrounding rites, although well respected local Muslim leaders have spoken out against it.

Although government programs to promote girls' education and development quietly work toward reducing the prevalence of FGM by changing societal attitudes, it is unlikely the Government will take any further action on the June 2002 case of the forced circumcision of a 13year-old girl in Tanji Village. The Government's official stance is that female circumcision is a cultural issue, and the Government cannot forbid it.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

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

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