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.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were tensions between Christians and Muslims during the period covered by this report.

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 45,747 square miles, and its population is approximately 12 million. More than 70 percent of the population is Christian. Among the Christian denominations, the largest are the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), with smaller numbers of Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelicals, and Seventh-day Adventists. There is a substantial Muslim minority totaling approximately 20 percent of the population. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni, ascribing to either the Qadriya or Sukkutu groups. There are also Hindus, Baha'is, and followers of traditional indigenous religions. There are few atheists.

Foreign missionary groups are present in the country, including Protestants, Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Islamic aid organizations.

The concentration of faiths in certain regions of the country has sometimes been reflected in regional voting trends.

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. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. There is no state religion.

There are no separate requirements for the recognition of religions, but religious groups must register with the Government. Religious groups must submit documentation detailing the structure and mission of their organization along with a nominal fee, for review by the Ministry of Justice. Once approved, a religious group registers formally with the Registrar General's Office in Blantyre. There were no reports that the Government refused to register any religious groups.

The Government observes both Christian and Muslim holidays. Public holidays in the country include Eid-El Fitr, Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas.

Foreign missionaries experienced occasional delays in renewing employment permits. This appeared to be the result of bureaucratic inefficiency rather than a deliberate government policy against foreign missionaries. Missionaries and charitable workers pay lower fees for employment permits than do other professionals.

In May Bingu wa Mutharika, a Catholic, was elected President. The new vice president is Muslim. Both were strongly supported by the former president, Bakili Muluzi, who is Muslim.

Former president Muluzi had regular meetings with all religious groups, and President Bingu wa Mutharika has indicated he intends to do the same.

Some Christian politicians and clerics have raised Islam as a political issue, citing the Islamic faith of former president Muluzi and of the new Vice President Cassim Chilumpha. The same few opposition leaders have cited the Government's friendliness with Islamic countries, along with the building of new mosques, as their justification for accusations against the ruling party.

As a result of previous debate, many public schools offer a course entitled "Bible Knowledge," which is Christian oriented, and another entitled "Moral and Religious Education," which includes Muslim, Hindu, Bahai, and Christian material.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion. In January 2002, the Office of the Ombudsman directed the Ministry of Agriculture to pay benefits and salary arrears to a self-exiled member of Jehovah's Witnesses who fled the country in 1977 to escape religious persecution under then-President Hastings Banda. The ombudsman cited a 1999 notice issued by the Office of the President and Cabinet that directed the Government to reimburse all persons dismissed from office on religious grounds during the Banda era. According to an officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, all former exiles with documentation to prove their status were reimbursed.

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 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.

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; however, there were tensions between Christians and Muslims during the period covered by this report. Although there were no significant conflicts, these minor tensions were especially evident during the presidential and parliamentary campaign period in April and May, and they seem to have been largely fueled by political candidates. Christians and Muslims generally coexisted peacefully, often participating in business or civil-service organizations together.

During the presidential and parliamentary campaign period, some prominent Christian religious leaders frequently spoke about corruption, the electoral process, and the candidates. The churches' remarks were often openly critical of the ruling political party. While candidates and officials took issue with the churches' statements, the Government did not make attempts to silence religious leaders, other than declaring that such statements deviated from the proper role of religious leaders. Churches continued to be a significant source of political influence, particularly in rural areas.

On December 19, a group of Muslims in Blantyre allegedly beat a Christian preacher for refusing to hand over a copy of the Koran. The preacher did not suffer serious injuries. No arrests were reported.

In June 2003, Muslims rioted in Blantyre and Mangochi following the Government's arrest and reported deportation of five alleged Al-Qaeda members. On June 27, rioters vandalized property at the offices of the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) Secretariat in Blantyre. They blamed the leaders of the organization for failing to ensure that the suspects received a trial. In Mangochi rioters damaged vehicles, including one belonging to Father Lazarus Girevulo of the Catholic Church, five Christian churches, and the offices of a U.S. nongovernmental organization, Save the Children. On June 28, police arrested many of the key instigators of the riots, but tensions remained high in the major cities. Those arrested have not yet gone to trial, although the cases have been turned over to the Director of Public Prosecution. Tensions have since decreased, and no further conflict has occurred, although some Muslim groups have continued to criticize publicly the Government's actions. The Government roundly condemned the violence and delivered a strong public message that religious groups should remain peaceful and tolerant of one another.

In February 2002, MAM and a Christian missionary group sought government intervention to resolve complaints regarding each other's behavior. Christians were accused of trying to convert Muslims in the mosques, and Muslims were rumored to be planning to harm members of the Christian group; however, no violence was reported.

In May during the parliamentary and presidential campaign period, Radio Islam was accused of permitting callers and guests to make inflammatory or intolerant on-air remarks concerning other religions, but no formal complaint was filed. In September 2002, the Catholic Church of Malawi filed a complaint against Radio Islam with the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) for broadcasting insulting statements about Christians. However, MACRA reviewed the case and attributed no fault to Radio Islam.
In December 2002, four members of the Seventh-day Adventist Apostolic Church were arrested by the Blantyre police and subsequently convicted on charges of breaching the peace for their role in inciting a violent clash with Muslims. No further action was taken on this case during the reporting period.

In March 2002, six Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter protesting a constitutional amendment that would eliminate presidential term limits. Although the letter ignited a heated political debate in the press, there was no reaction from the Government. The constitutional amendment was not passed.

There have been active efforts to foster cooperation between religious groups. For example, during the year, presidential and parliamentary candidates of various religious backgrounds attended a series of "Presidential Prayer Breakfasts" organized by a Christian group. Other invited guests included Muslim leaders, the diplomatic community, and civil society leaders.

The Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a nonprofit and politically unaligned local organization, was involved prominently in promoting civic education and human rights and was also active in monitoring the electoral process. PAC included representatives of various churches and mosques.

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. U.S. Embassy officials maintained frequent contact with leaders and members of all religious communities in the country.

During the period covered by this report, the Embassy sponsored a speaker on Islam in the U.S. and continued to promote religious tolerance through grants, meetings, and the distribution of reading materials. In October 2003, the Ambassador was interviewed and took calls from the public on a Radio Islam program.

In 2003 the Embassy's Democracy and Human Rights Fund sponsored a Christian group's efforts to increase rural access to various services, especially those promoting education of girls and victims counseling.