West Africa is presently among the most difficult regions of the world to advocate for the persecuted church. Challenges there to religious freedom are imposed by governments and then exploited by actors within their borders. However, these concerns are now coming to light.
In 2021 the West African nation of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania went through the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) process at the UN Human Rights Council. The delegation of Mauritania made headlines when answering a question regarding repeal of the country’s apostasy and blasphemy laws by informing the council that “foreigners in Mauritania are free to practice their own Religions.” They made no mention of the rights of their own citizens to practice religion.
A year has passed and the situation is unchanged. The information confirming the lack of improvement includes:
In their 2022 survey, human rights watchdog Open Doors USA ranked Mauritania 23rd on its list of countries where Christians are most persecuted. Among the concerns raised in the report is that non-Mauritanians (migrants and NGO workers) carry the risk of being seen as proselytizing and could be prosecuted.
Voice of the Martyrs, an advocacy group that works on persecuted churches, drafted a fact sheet on the issues faced by those seeking to hand-carry bibles into the country.
The U.S. State Department in the 2022 report on International Religious Freedom stated that the Mauritanian Government continues to forbid non-Muslims from proselyting (preaching), despite no specific legal prohibition. The Mauritanian government continues to effectively ban any public expression of any religion other than Islam. Article 10 of the Mauritanian constitution guarantees Freedom of Expression while Article 21 states “Any foreigner who is lawfully in the national territory enjoys the protection of the law in respect of his person and property.”
Another concern that is raised in the entry is that “Non-Islamic Religious Services remained open only to foreigners meaning that citizens of Mauritania could not attend. Also some Churches were not able to get authorization from the government.” The State Department didn’t list any specific instance of such an occurrence but did present the inability of churches to open a bank account in the name of the church.
These events have not gone unnoticed among those who are advocates for the persecuted church. During the recent UN General Assembly session in September, a team of advocates traveled to New York to advocate for two resolutions that would prevent the use of capital punishment for non-violent offenses such as apostasy and blasphemy and prevent extrajudicial executions.
Currently, 11 out of 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have the death penalty for blasphemy. Mauritania is one of them. This both silences Mauritania’s citizens and emboldens non-state actors to commit violent acts against those whom they determine to be violators of the blasphemy laws.
The Mauritanian government does not see these concerns as important issues to address. Recently the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights held its 73rd public ordinary session in The Gambia. Mauritania submitted a state report to the commission covering the period from 2018 to 2021. In 2018 the country revised its penal code to provide that any Muslim guilty of apostasy or blasphemy will be sentenced to death upon arrest without possibility of clemency based on repentance. The revision removed a provision that required prison terms in case of repentance.
Their submission does not address concerns raised by faith-based NGOs or the U.S. State Department. Either the Mauritanian government has the policy of telling its peers in Africa one statement while making different statements to the UN, or it feels that enforcement of current policies is not a major problem and coincides with accepted international norms.
Any effort of Mauritanians to learn about Christianity is being stifled by the government. That is not a positive sign in a region where Islamist militancy is thriving.