Equatorial Guinea

International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

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

Government respect for religious freedom has improved. The Ministry of Justice and Religion relaxed administrative controls on church activities and the formation of new churches by established denominations. However, the Government remains sensitive to criticism by religious groups.

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

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government during periodic visits to the country as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 10,827 square miles and a population of approximately 500,000. Christians account for approximately 93 percent of the population. Five percent of the population practices various traditional indigenous religions. In actuality the number of practitioners of traditional indigenous religions is much higher, although the exact figure is unknown. Many baptized Catholics reportedly still follow traditional beliefs. Muslims, members of the Baha'i Faith, practitioners of other religions, and those who are atheist each comprise less than 1 percent of the population. Roman Catholicism is the principal religion, dating back to the Spanish colonial period, when almost the entire population was baptized into this faith. Of the Christian population, approximately 87 percent are at least nominally Catholic, and approximately 4.5 percent belong to Protestant denominations. Christian worship tends to be concentrated in the more urbanized areas. Although in the past there has been no known organized Christian worship in large, rural parts of the country, both Catholic and Protestant church leaders report expansion into interior regions.

Foreign missionary groups operate in the country, both on Bioko Island and the mainland. These include Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Nondenominational evangelical Christian groups are also present.

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. However, the Government remains sensitive to any criticism and church leaders usually avoid discussions that could be construed as critical of the Government or government officials.

The Government generally allows preaching, religious teaching, education, and practice by believers. The Government requires permission for any activities outside the confines of places of worship; however, in practice this requirement does not appear to hinder organized religious groups.

A 1992 Presidential Decree regulates the exercise of religious freedom. This decree maintains an official preference for the Catholic Church and the Reform Church of Equatorial Guinea due to their traditional roots and well-known influence in the social and cultural life of the populace. While the decree does not hinder the practice of other religions, its effects can be observed in many events throughout the country. For example, Roman Catholic masses serve as a normal part of any major ceremonial function, such as on the October 12 National Day. Another example of these preferences includes the exemption from airport entry and exit taxes that officials of the Catholic and Reform churches receive. Officials of other religions must pay.

The 1992 decree regulates the registration of religious groups. To register, churches must submit a written application to the Ministry of Justice and Worship. The Director General in the Ministry of Justice and Religion oversees compliance with the 1992 decree and the registration process. This application was not required of the Catholic and Reform Churches because of their long-established presence in the country.

A religious organization must be registered formally with the Ministry of Justice and Religion before its religious activities are allowed. The application and approval process usually takes several years, but such delay appears to be the result of general bureaucratic inefficiency and not of a policy designed to impede the operation of any religious group. There were no reports that the Government refused to register any group. Though required by the 1992 decree regulating religions, the degree of enforcement of registration requirements and other sections of this law are enforced inconsistently. Unregistered groups operating in the country can be fined; however, such fines are rarely applied. For example, the Assemblies of God received official recognition in 1993; however, from 1987 through 1993, the group was able to operate although it had not been recognized officially.

The exact number of registered denominations is not publicly available.

Religious study is required in schools and is usually but not exclusively Catholic.

Religious leaders indicated that they knew of no steps by the Government to promote an interfaith dialogue between different faiths. However, Protestant churches report a positive dialogue and generally good relations between the various Protestant denominations.

Foreign missionaries work throughout the country, generally without impediment.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In the past, the Government and President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) reacted defensively to any criticism, and the Government continued to unofficially restrict freedom of expression of the clergy in that regard.

In 2002 and 2003, government agents occasionally made official and unofficial visits to monitor church behavior or request a timetable of church activities. The Government requires permission for any religious or faith-based social assistance activity outside the confines of places of worship; however, in practice this requirement did not appear to hinder organized religious groups. In 2002, there were some reports that a growing international presence and the Government's focus on petroleum exploration and development resulted in a reduction of religious restrictions during the period covered by this report; however, these reports could not be confirmed.

In 2003, the Director General of the Ministry of Justice and Worship declared that churches would be required to pay a registration fee for each individual congregation in addition to the existing general register fee. The Director General claimed that this requirement was contained in the 1992 decree but had never been enforced. Consequently, he proposed applying this fee retroactively to all congregations established after a religious organization gained national recognition. Some individual government officials at the Ministry of Justice and Worship defended the full enforcement of church registration requirements to "control" rapid growth of new and unfamiliar religious groups in the country. However, within 2 months the Director General was removed from office due to heavy protests from the religious community. Since then, no action has been made to apply the former Director's General original proposal.

According to Jose Maguga, the director of the Autonomous Rural Development (DAR), a Catholic nongovernmental organization, church representatives practiced self-censorship and avoided any criticism of the Government. In 2002, the DAR was required to have a government delegate present at its meetings. This restriction apparently was in response to government fears that DAR encourages antigovernment sentiment. The Government required that the DAR office in the diocese of Ebibeyin inform the local delegate each time it held a board meeting. The DAR complied with the requirement and received permission to meet, but the local delegate insisted on being present during the meetings. The DAR refused to hold meetings with the delegate present, and consequently it did not hold official meetings during 2002.

While there is no reported workplace discrimination targeted against a particular faith, some non-Catholic pastors who work for the Government reported that they maintain a low profile in the workplace with regard to their religious affiliation. Non-Catholic pastors reported that their supervisors informed them of the requirement to participate in religious activities related to their position, including such events as Catholic masses at government functions.

On April 25, during the recent legislative and municipal elections, security forces and the Mayor of Malabo threatened a missionary pastor for removing party campaign posters of the ruling party from the walls of his church. The Mayor threatened to put the missionary in jail. He accused the pastor of being a "terrorist" and also threatened to turn off the church's electricity and water services. No action was taken against the missionary due to the intercession of his Equatoguinean colleagues who asked the Mayor to excuse the missionary's behavior. Ruling party supporters later placed posters on the walls of the church. Neither the missionary nor any church member removed the newly installed posters.

The country's fundamental law on religion states that each person is free to study his or her own religion and should not be forced to study another faith. In practice, access to study in one's own faith is generally not possible. For example, a Protestant church official cited difficulties when enrolling his children at school. At the school, each child is required to lead a daily Catholic-based devotional. When the child's father requested that a teacher of the child's own faith be made available, the school official claimed there was a lack of funds and stated that he could provide the teacher only if the child's church was willing to pay the teacher's salary.

In 2003, church leaders and foreign missionaries complained that immigration officials at Malabo's international airport had threatened denial of entry to U.S. citizens affiliated with their organizations. Some religious leaders feared that these denials were motivated by a bias against Protestant denominations.

In 2003, foreign missionaries also complained about the length of time and the new costs required to obtain residence permits that were previously cost-free. However, during the period covered by this report, the new costs associated with the previous Director General at the Ministry of Justice and Worship had been removed; however, administrative procedures still required a wait of 2 to 3 months for non-Catholic foreign missionaries. Catholic missionaries reportedly receive residence permits shortly after their arrival.

In 2001, some citizens working as missionaries received vague warnings with no specific consequences detailed from the Ministry of Justice and Religion against voting for candidates who were not PDGE members. However, these warnings made no threat in the case of noncompliance. None of the missionaries were made to appear before the Ministry and no further warnings were issued during the remainder of the period covered by this report.

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 were abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Improvements in Respect for Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, increased government respect for religious freedom contributed to the general free practice of religion. In 2003, religious leaders reported a positive relationship with the new supervising Director General at the Ministry of Justice and Worship. He has not applied fines or otherwise harassed religious leaders. For example, leaders of a Protestant church reported that the Regional Delegate for Luba began to harass their denomination's local church, prevented the establishment of new churches, and attempted to have fines imposed by the Director General at the Ministry of Justice and Worship. The church leaders took their case to the Director General. The Director General asked the Delegate to show him exactly which law had been broken. When the Delegate was unable to provide concrete reasoning for the imposition of a fine, he was warned by the Director General to stop harassing the church. After this warning, no more threats were reported and harassment decreased.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relations among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. However, some non-Catholic religious groups believe that they face societal pressures within their regions. Such concerns may reflect ethnic or individual differences as much as religious differences.

There is a clear divide between the traditionally dominant Catholic Church and the rising numbers of non-Catholic congregations, especially those of the evangelical denominations. The Archbishop of Malabo has reportedly sent letters to non-Catholic churches that he believes are interfering in the lives of Catholics. For example, if a married person's spouse converts to a non-Catholic faith or if a married couple are separated and one member of the couple remarries in the Protestant church, these incidents could lead to warnings from the Catholic Archbishop.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. During the period covered by this report, U.S. Embassy staff met with various church and missionary leaders, as well as government officials in the Ministry of Justice and Worship.

In an April 2003 meeting, Embassy officers informed high-level Ministry of Justice and Worship officials of the unfair imposition of fines on non-Catholic churches. The Embassy officers claimed that these fines were not in accordance with Equatoguinean law. The officials also discussed the unequal treatment of non-Catholic missionaries. Within 2 months, the Director General was removed from office, reportedly due to heavy protests from the religious community. Since then, congregations have enjoyed good relations with the Ministry and no U.S. missionary group entering the country has reported any further visa problems.

The U.S. Embassy in Malabo re-opened in October 2003. This new facility has allowed officials to deepen contacts with the country's religious community. Together with the U.S. Embassy based in Yaounde, Cameroon, and the U.S. Consular Agent based on the mainland city of Bata, the U.S. Embassy in Malabo maintains contact with religious groups, especially American missionaries in the country, and monitors religious initiatives.