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; however, there were some exceptions during the first few months of the reporting period.

Respect for religious freedom improved during the period covered by this report. The administration of former President Charles Taylor tolerated some religious tensions between Christians and Muslims. However, once the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) took office in October 2003, there were no reports of discrimination against Muslims or Islamic leaders. Unlike in the past, there were no prisoners of conscience.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Inter-religious interaction increased considerably; however, there was some tension between the major religious communities. In rural areas, specifically in Lofa County, there was tension between certain communities as a result of population movements during the war. Specifically, there was tension between ethnic Mandingos, who are predominantly Muslim, and ethnic Lormas, Kisii, and Gbandi, who are a mix of Christian, Muslim, and animist.

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 43,000 square miles, and its population is estimated at 3.3 million. As much as 40 percent of the population practices either Christianity or elements of both Christianity and traditional indigenous religions. Approximately 40 percent practices traditional indigenous religions exclusively. Approximately 20 percent of the population practices Islam, which continued to gain adherents. There is a small percentage of atheists and Baha'i.

The Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal (AME), and AME Zion denominations, as well as Pentecostal churches are represented in the Christian community. Some of the Pentecostal movements are affiliated with churches outside the country, while others are independent.

The country's Muslim population comes mainly from the Mandingo ethnic group, who occupy the northern counties, and the Vai ethnic group, who are found predominantly in the western part of the country. Ethnic groups in the central, eastern, and southern parts of the country participate in the traditional religious practices of the Poro and Sande secret societies. Christians live throughout the country.

Foreign missionary groups in the country include Baptists, Catholics, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

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. Since taking office, the NTGL at all levels strives to protect this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. Unlike the Taylor Government, the NTGL did not harass, marginalize, or attempt to intimidate the Muslim population. The NTGL encouraged religious freedom.

There is no state religion. However, government ceremonies invariably open and close with prayer and may include the singing of hymns. The prayers and hymns are usually Christian, but are occasionally Islamic.

In the past, former President Charles Taylor divided the National Muslim Council of Liberia by seeding the Council with his loyalists. To undermine the independence of the Council, former President Taylor sponsored the expulsion of Sheik Kafumba Konneh as Chairman and appointed one of his loyalists within the country's Islamic community, Alhaji Jakaity Taylor, to the position. After Alhaji Jakaity Taylor's death in April 2002, Alhaji Ibrahim Sheriff, was selected with the approval of Taylor to fill the chairman position. The National Muslim Council remained divided into two rival councils during the period covered by this report. Konneh formed a separate council that gained more-widespread recognition and support among the population after former President Taylor's departure. Before being expelled from his position with the National Muslim Council, Sheik Kafumba Konneh had become vice president of the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia (IRC), a well-known organization led by Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis that has tried to coordinate peace efforts between the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) rebels, and the ex-government/pro-Taylor forces. Konneh remained vice president of IRC during the period covered by this report.

In 2004, the NTGL did not sponsor a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, but Muslim adherents independently made the pilgrimage.

Major Christian holidays, including Fast and Prayer Day, Easter, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day, are observed as national holidays while Islamic holy days, such as Eid Fatr, are not celebrated as national holidays. The NTGL mandates that public businesses and markets, including Muslim businesses and shops, remain closed on Sundays and Christian holidays. Muslim leaders complained about the policy and have taken the issue to the National Transitional Legislative Assembly. There is no legal obligation to excuse Muslims from employment or classes for Friday prayers. Some employers, at their discretion, excuse Muslim employees for Friday prayers.

All organizations, including religious groups, must register their articles of incorporation with the government, along with a statement of the purpose of the organization; however, traditional indigenous religious groups are not required to register, and generally do not register. Registration is routine, and there were no reports that the registration process was burdensome or discriminatory in its administration.

The Government permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. Religious education, particularly Christian Education, is taught in public schools but is not mandatory. Students can opt out; however, minority faiths are not taught in public schools. Parents are allowed to enroll their children in private schools for religious reasons.

Members of the military service have churches and mosques accessible near their barracks. The military provides chaplains for members of major religious groups as well as minority groups.

The NTGL has not specifically dedicated material resources to anti-bias and religious tolerance education; however, it supports societal efforts to promote interfaith understanding. Specifically, the NTGL urged the IRC to continue its efforts to encourage inter-religious dialogue.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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

Although the law prohibits religious discrimination, Islamic leaders complained of government discrimination against Muslims. Although there are some Muslims in senior government positions, many Muslims believed they were bypassed for desirable jobs.

Unlike in the previous reporting period, there was no ban on street corner evangelism or preaching during the period covered by this report.

High-level government officials were required to take oaths based on their religious beliefs when swearing into their new office.

The Government responded positively to requests for the restitution of religious properties. In the past, former President Taylor's militia confiscated the properties of ethnic Mandingo Muslims for their alleged involvement or sympathy with LURD. Since Taylor's departure from the country, most properties seized by his loyalists either have been abandoned or returned to their owners. All religions had equal opportunity to regain control over former property of religious organizations, in particular those used to hold religious services.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

During the regime of former President Taylor, dozens of Muslim citizens were jailed because they were perceived to be sympathizers of the nominally Muslim-dominated LURD rebel group. They were all released before President Taylor's departure from office. Under the NTGL there were no arrests based on religion or ethnicity. There were no state executions of any person based on his or her religion; it is presumed that in the past Taylor's forces killed some of the ethnic Mandigo Muslims who had been arrested on suspicion of being LURD collaborators.

The threats and burglaries against members of the Catholic Church's Peace and Justice Commission stopped following the departure of Charles Taylor.

Unlike in the past, there were no reports that persons were detained without charge or placed under house arrest based on their religious beliefs or practices. Under former President Taylor, some Muslims were arrested on suspicion of collaborating with, or sympathy with, LURD; however, it was unclear whether they were targeted specifically because of their religion.

All religious and political detainees held by Taylor's government were released, and the NTGL did not detain anyone on the basis of their religion.

During the conflict between the Taylor Government and LURD forces, pro-government militias suspected Mandingo Muslim youths of being sympathetic to the LURD cause and harassed, imprisoned, and tortured them. Also during the conflict, LURD forces reportedly destroyed churches in some areas that they captured from government troops. For example, in early 2003, during fighting between government troops and LURD rebel forces in the town of Ganta, rebel forces systematically burned down churches and destroyed church related buildings. When government troops later regained control of the town, they systematically destroyed mosques and homes that had belonged to ethnic Mandingo Muslims, who made up the bulk of LURD fighters.

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 citizen 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.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. The IRC, comprised of both Christians and Muslims, promotes dialogue between various religious communities. The relationship between Christians and Muslims has so far been cordial and peaceful. However, in the countryside, there was some tension between communities that had fought on opposite sides during the war between Charles Taylor's government and LURD; these tensions appeared to be related more to ethnic and clan conflicts than religious differences.

The country's civil war had a religious undertone in that the LURD rebels were mostly Mandingo Muslims while government troops were mostly animists and Christians. Ethnic tensions persisted in Lofa County between the predominantly Muslim Mandingo ethnic group and the Lorma ethnic group in which there are both Christians and animists.

Ritual killings, in which body parts used in traditional indigenous rituals are removed from the victim, continued to occur. Little reliable information is readily available about traditional religions associated with ritual killings. The number of such killings was difficult to ascertain since police often describe deaths as accidents even when body parts were removed. Deaths that appeared to be natural or accidental sometimes were rumored to be the work of ritual killers. It is believed that practitioners of traditional indigenous religions among the Grebo and Krahn ethnic groups, which are concentrated in the southeastern counties, most commonly engage in ritual killings. Body parts of a member the group believed to be powerful were considered the most effective for the purposes of the rituals. The body parts most frequently removed included the heart, liver, and genitals. In some cases, the rituals reportedly involved eating body parts. Some traditional religious beliefs hold that human body parts, when consumed, grant special powers to the person who eats them. Fighters on all sides of the conflict (LURD, MODEL and the ex-Government/pro-Taylor forces) were reported to have engaged in such practices at times. During the civil war, faction leaders sometimes ate (and one faction leader had himself filmed eating) body parts of leaders of rival factions. Ritual killings for the purpose of obtaining body parts traditionally were committed by religious group members called "heart men"; however, since the civil war, criminals inured to killing also may sell body parts.

Incidents of ritualistic killings increased during the reporting period due to the breakdown of law and order in rural counties, including Maryland County. During the first 3 months of 2004, there was an increase in the number of mysterious deaths in and around Monrovia and residents blamed such deaths on ritualistic killers but no evidences was found to support their claim.

The private sector in urban areas, particularly in the capital, gave preference to Christianity in civic ceremonies and observances. Many public meetings generally began with a Christian prayer; however, Muslims were not prohibited from also saying a prayer. The IRC brings together leaders of Christian, Islamic, and other faiths to promote inter-religious dialogue.

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. The Ambassador and other Embassy officers met with the IRC and other Christian and Muslim leaders to discuss religious freedom issues. The U.S. Government provided funding to the IRC and assisted with other logistical support to facilitate the IRC's work in promoting inter-religious dialogue and its efforts to end the civil conflict.