Equatorial Guinea

International Religious Freedom Report 2006
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Because of perceived government sensitivity and possible repercussions, religious groups practice self-censorship regarding criticism of the Government.

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

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 an area of 10,827 square miles, and the Government estimated the population is approximately one million (other sources estimate the population to be approximately 586,000). Christians accounted for approximately 93 percent of the population, and 5 percent of the population practiced traditional indigenous religions. Muslims, members of the Baha'i Faith, practitioners of other religions, and atheists each comprised less than 1 percent of the population. Roman Catholicism was the principal religion, dating to the Spanish colonial period when almost the entire population was baptized into the faith and until recently was the primary way to register a birth. Catholics comprised approximately 87 percent of the population, and an estimated 6 percent belonged to Protestant and independent denominations. Many Catholics reportedly also followed traditional beliefs. Although in the past there was little organized Christian worship in remote rural areas, both Catholic and Protestant churches have expanded into interior regions, and new roads have made worship centers accessible to practically all areas.

Foreign missionaries operated both on Bioko Island and the mainland. These included Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Nondenominational evangelical Christian groups were also present, including those who translate the Bible into indigenous languages.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected 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 from holding retreats and other meetings. Door-to-door evangelism was not observed.

A 1992 presidential decree regulates the exercise of religious freedom. This decree maintains an official preference for the Roman Catholic Church and the Reform Church of Equatorial Guinea, due to their traditional roots and pervasive 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, Catholic Masses serve as a normal part of any major ceremonial function, such as the October 12 National Day. In addition, Catholic and Reform church officials are exempt from airport entry and exit taxes.

The decree regulates the registration of religious groups. To register, churches must submit a written application to the Ministry of Justice, Worship, and Penitentiary Institutions. The director general in the Ministry of oversees compliance with the decree and the registration process. This application was not required of the Catholic and Reform churches.

The application and approval process may take several years, but such delay appears to be the result of bureaucratic inefficiency and not of a policy designed to impede any religious group. Groups that include beneficial social programs, such as health projects or schools, reportedly are approved more quickly. Enforcement of registration requirements is inconsistent. Unregistered groups operating in the country can be fined. Such fines are rarely applied, but the Government announced over the radio that any unregistered church was subject to fines or closure and should regulate its status as soon as possible. No permanent closures were observed, although there were isolated instances of temporary closures on dubious legal grounds that some have linked to efforts at influence peddling.

The exact number of registered denominations was 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 religious groups. However, Protestant churches reported a positive dialogue and generally good relations between the various Protestant denominations.

Foreign missionaries worked throughout the country, generally without impediment.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In the past, the Government and President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo's ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) reacted defensively to any criticism by the clergy. The Government continued unofficially to restrict freedom of expression of the clergy by emphasizing that the role of religion is spiritual, not political. Permission had been granted for a new radio station to operate, but only to broadcast religious programs.

Government agents, including the president, occasionally make official and unofficial visits to observe church services 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.

The Government did not arrest and detain foreign missionaries, although one pastor received such serious threats that he felt compelled to return to his West African country. In another case, a major U.S. evangelical figure was brought to the country to conduct an outreach, and attendees were forced out as the church was locked up by a squad of armed police. The evangelist left the country and was told by security officers he should not return.

While there was no reported workplace discrimination targeted against a particular faith, some non-Catholic pastors who also worked for the Government as civil servants maintained a low profile in the workplace with regard to their religious affiliation. Some reported that supervisors informed them of the requirement to participate in religious activities related to their government positions, including attending religious events such as Catholic Masses at government functions.

In 2004, during legislative and municipal elections, security forces and the former mayor of Malabo threatened to jail a missionary pastor who had removed party campaign posters of the ruling party from the walls of his church. No action was taken against the missionary and the mayor was later replaced, reportedly for a pattern of decisions that did not reflect well on the Government.

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. Children of all faiths are allowed to enroll in schools where Catholicism is taught; however, they are expected to participate in daily Catholic religious lessons and prayers. In practice, for non-Catholics, access to study in one's own faith in these schools generally is not possible. Some Protestant denominations have their own schools and are allowed to operate freely.

Catholic missionaries reportedly receive residence permits shortly after their arrival; other persons receive permits after a delay of two to three months.

In 2003 religious leaders reported a positive relationship with the new supervising director general at the Ministry of Justice, Worship, and Penitentiary Institutions.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

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.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

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

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 U.S. embassy in Malabo reopened in late 2003. Together with the U.S. embassy based in Yaounde, Cameroon, and the U.S. consular agent based in the mainland city of Bata, the embassy in Malabo maintains contact with religious groups and monitors religious initiatives.

During the period covered by this report, embassy representatives met with various church and missionary leaders, as well as with government officials in the Ministry of Justice, Worship, and Penitentiary Institutions.