/ 27 November 2013

Angola govt denies Islam ban despite mosque closures, attacks

People hold copies of the Koran
People hold copies of the Koran

All of Angola's 60 mosques are closed at present, eight mosques have been been dismantled in the past two years and Muslim women are not allowed to wear a veil in public, David Ja, the president of the Muslim Council of Angola, said in an interview from Luanda this week.

Disputed reports that Angola's President José Eduardo dos Santos has proclaimed "the end of Islamic influence in Angola" sparked a media feeding frenzy at the weekend.

Ja emphasised that the action against Islamic institutions had been taken under Angolan law, rather than as a result of random religious persecution. Anyone who practised the Islamic faith ran the risk of being found guilty of "qualified disobedience" of Angola's penal code.

The mosques were closed because they did not have the required number of followers – 100 000 – prescribed by the ministry of justice and human rights as necessary for legal recognition as a religion. There are an estimated 90 000 Muslims in Angola.

The destruction of mosques took place in terms of regulations requiring them to secure a licence from municipal authorities.

'Separation between state and religion'
"It is true that we do not have the numbers to meet the legal requirements," Ja sadi. "But the Angolan constitution establishes a separation between the state and religion. That contradicts the government's decision to legislate on matters of faith.

"We intend to challenge the government in the Constitutional Court."

Ja said reports about President Dos Santos's announcement were untrue. Dos Santos, who rarely speaks to the media, has been in Barcelona, Spain, for the past three weeks.

However, another member of the Muslim Council of Angola, Muhammad da Costa, complained that the government is using the daily newspaper, Jornal de Angola, certain leaders of the Catholic Church and the army's chief of staff, Geraldo Nunda, to publicly attack Islam.

The Catholic priests in question had appeared on television to denounce Islam as a threat to Angolan society, he said.

Da Costa also said that his 16-year-old daughter was recently beaten up in the streets of Luanda, and told to leave the country, because she was wearing the veil.

Alleged statements by senior members of the Angolan government sparked a media furore at the weekend. A Nigerian based-paper, Osun Defender, claimed to have based its report of Dos Santos's announcement on an interview with him.

'Closed until further notice'
Also fuelling the uproar was Moroccan publication La Nouvelle Tribune, which quoted Angola's Minister of Culture Rosa Cruz e Silva as saying "the process of legalisation of Islam has not been approved by the ministry of justice and human rights" and that mosques would be closed until further notice.

India Today reported that Silva made the statement at the sixth commission of the Angolan national assembly. It quoted the minister as saying that the ban was necessary because Islam is "contradictory to the customs of Angolan culture".

Some of the reports were clearly exaggerated. One blog claimed that Muslim extremists were becoming a serious problem in Angola and that a Christian was beheaded in attacks by Muslims in the central Angolan town of Andulu.

Ja said there had never been a clash between Muslims and Christians in the country.

It was also revealed that a photograph published by numerous news outlets, which purportedly depicts the minaret of an Angolan mosque being dismantled in October 2012, was used at least as early as January 2008 to illustrate an article about the destruction of Bedouin homes in Israel.

Angolan officials have strongly denied the reports of an official crackdown on Islam. "There is no war in Angola against Islam or any other religion," Manuel Fernando, director of the National Institute for Religious Affairs, part of the culture ministry of culture, said on Wednesday. "There is no official position that targets the destruction or closure of places of worship, whichever they are."

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.