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

The Constitution establishes the country as an Islamic republic and decrees that Islam is the religion of its citizens and the State; the Government limits freedom of religion.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. While the Constitution decrees that Islam is the religion of the State, non-Muslim resident expatriates and a few non‑Muslim citizens practice their religion openly and freely. However, proselytizing and distribution of religious materials are prohibited.

Relations between the Muslim community and the small non-Muslim community generally are amicable.

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 397,840 square miles, and its population is approximately 2.5 million. Virtually 100 percent of the population are practicing Sunni Muslims. There is a small number of non-Muslims, and Roman Catholic or denominational Christian churches have been established in Nouakchott, Atar, Zouerate, Nouadhibou, and Rosso.

There are several foreign faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) active in humanitarian and developmental work in the country. Although there are no synagogues, a very limited number of expatriates practice Judaism.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

The Constitution establishes the country as an Islamic republic and decrees that Islam is the religion of its citizens and the State; accordingly, the Government limits freedom of religion. However, non-Muslim resident expatriates and the few non-Muslim citizens practice their religion openly and freely.

Both the Government and society generally consider Islam to be the essential cohesive element unifying the country's various ethnic groups and castes. There is a cabinet-level Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation and a High Council of Islam, consisting of six imams, which, at the Government's request, advises on the conformance of legislation to Islamic precepts.

Although the Government provides a small stipend to the imam of the Central Mosque in the capital city of Nouakchott, mosques and Koranic schools normally are supported by their members and other donors.

The Government does not register religious groups; however, secular NGOs must register with the Ministry of the Interior; this includes humanitarian and development NGOs affiliated with religious groups. Nonprofit organizations, including both religious groups and secular NGOs, generally are not subject to taxation.

The judiciary consists of a single system of courts with a modernized legal system that conforms with the principles of Shari'a (Islamic law).

The Government observes Muslim holidays as national holidays, but this practice does not impact negatively on other religious groups. A magistrate of Shari'a, who heads a separate government commission, decides the dates for observing religious holidays and addresses the nation on these holidays.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Shari'a, proclaimed the law of the land under a previous government in 1983, includes the Koranic prohibition against apostasy or conversion to a religion other than Islam; however, it never has been codified in civil law or enforced. The small number of known converts from Islam have suffered no social ostracism, and there have been no reports of societal or governmental attempts to punish them.

Although there is no specific legal prohibition against proselytizing by non-Muslims, in practice the Government prohibits proselytizing by non-Muslims through the use of Article 11 of the Press Act, which bans the publication of any material that is against Islam or contradicts or otherwise threatens Islam. There were no reports that the Government punished persons for violating Article 11 during the period covered by this report. The Government views any attempts by practitioners of other religions to convert Muslims as undermining society. Foreign faith-based NGOs limit their activities to humanitarian and development assistance.

In June the Government passed a law prohibiting the use of mosques for any form of political activity, including the distribution of propaganda and incitement of violence.

Under Article 11 of the Press Law, the Government may restrict the importation, printing, or public distribution of Bibles or other non-Islamic religious literature, and in practice Bibles are neither printed nor publicly sold in the country. However, the possession of Bibles and other non-Islamic religious materials in private homes is not illegal, and Bibles and other religious publications are available among the small non-Islamic community.

There is no religious oath required of government employees or members of the ruling political party, except for the President and the members of the 5-person Constitutional Council and the 10-person High Council of Magistrates presided over by the President. The Constitutional Council and the High Council of Magistrates advise the President in matters of law and the Constitution. The oath of office includes a promise to God to uphold the law of the land in conformity with Islamic precepts.

Both privately run Koranic schools, which nearly all children attend, and public schools include classes on religion. These classes teach the history and principles of Islam and the classical Arabic of the Koran. Although attendance of these religion classes ostensibly is required, many students, the great majority of whom are Muslims, decline to attend them for diverse ethno-linguistic and religious reasons. Nevertheless these students are able to advance in school and graduate with diplomas, provided they compensate for their failure to attend the required religion classes by their performance in other classes.

In the aftermath of the June 8th coup attempt, President Taya has closed down a number of Saudi-funded Islamic schools. Students are free to study elsewhere, but they will not receive the benefits given by the Saudis.

Shari'a Islamic law provides the legal principles upon which the law and legal procedure are based, and because of the manner in which Shari'a is implemented in the country, courts do not in all cases treat women as the equals of men. For example, the testimony of two women is necessary to equal that of one man. In addition, in awarding an indemnity to the family of a woman who has been killed, the courts grant only half the amount that they would award for a man's death. For commercial and other modern issues not addressed specifically by Shari'a, the law and courts treat women and men equally.

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

Relations between the Muslim community and the small non-Muslim community generally are amicable.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government monitors developments affecting religious freedom, maintains contact with clergy and other leaders of major religious groups, and discusses religious freedom issues with the Government, including the Minister of Culture and Islamic Orientation, in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

On May 27 and June 20, the Ambassador discussed religious diversity and freedom of religious practices with the Minister of Culture and Islamic Orientation. Using a grant from the U.S. Government, in October 2002 a local NGO held a regional conference to engage imams in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The Ambassador and the Deputy Chief of Mission have discussed issues of religious freedom with representatives of American faith-based NGOs working in country.

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