Angola denies 'Islam ban' but mosques remain closed
The government of Angola has denied that it is engaged in the process of 'banning' Islam from within its borders.
"There is no war in Angola against Islam or any other religion," said Manuel Fernando, director of the National Institute for Religious Affairs, a division of the ministry of culture.
This despite an earlier reported quote from the Minister of Culture Rosa Cruz e Silva, who is reported to have said: "The legalisation of Islam has not been approved by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights… Their mosques will be closed until further notice."
There has been some confusion over the original breaking of the news story, specifically, the central quote from President José Eduardo dos Santos proclaiming "the end of Islamic influence in Angola". The President was allegedly out of the country when the quote was reported.
A photograph supposedly depicting the destruction of a mosque somewhere in Angola has been debunked, after being found elsewhere cited as the destruction of Bedoin houses in Israel in 2008 and as a Moroccan mosque and houses in 2003.
The International Business Times has reported that two unnamed officials from the Angolan embassy in Washington DC have expressed surprise and confusion about claims of a ban on Islam in their country. A statement from the embassy said: "The Republic of Angola...it's a country that does not interfere in religion. We have a lot of religions there. It is freedom of religion. We have Catholic, Protestants, Baptists, Muslims and evangelical people."
Early reports cited the destruction of a mosque in the city of Zango, and it does appear that somewhere in Angola a mosque was recently taken down on government orders, but it is not clear exactly where or why.
Zango is a new development area which has been severely under-occupied and described by some as a ghost town. The government claims that the mosque and others that are under threat have been selected because they did not comply to the planning and building code laws or do not have appropriate land licences.
Prominent Angolan Muslim leader David Ja maintains that the government has been engaging in "political persecution" and "religious intolerance". He said: "A mosque was closed last week in Huambo [in the south] and we have been subjected to pressure this week regarding a mosque in Luanda [the capital]… [the] Islamic community is outraged by the closing of their places of worship."
The latest closures appear to be part of a longer-term trend. According to the US State Department office for international religious freedom report in 2012 said: "Muslim group leaders reported Muslims could not practise Islam freely because the government did not recognise Islam and selectively intervened to close mosques, schools, and community centres".
"Although government officials asserted the government protected religious groups without legal status and did not have a policy to close mosques or other Islamic facilities, there were several reports of local authorities closing mosques or preventing their construction," the report said.
The report highlighted an incident in January 2012 where local police in the town of Dundo, Lunda Norte Province, prevented a Muslim group from building a mosque on two separate occasions, even though the group had a construction licence to build one.
"Police allegedly destroyed the mosque's foundation at one location, directing the group to build elsewhere," the report stated. "When construction began at the new site, however, police again reportedly demolished the work and told the group that it could not build a mosque at all."
The rumours surrounding the Islam ban apparently began when Minister of Culture Rosa Cruz e Silva announced a crackdown on what she called "sects" within the country. Analyst Alex Vines, the head of the Africa division of the UK based think tank Chatham House said that the measure "was targeting mostly Brazil-style evangelical groups that have mushroomed across Angola". In describing these groups, Vines says they have "particularly worried establishment churches that have seen their congregations dwindle".
Islam remains unrecognised as an official religion in Angola. The government requires that a given religious group has more than 100,000 members and that they live in 12 of the country's 18 provinces. Only 83 religious groups are currently recognised in Angola, all of them Christian. However, the recent decision to reject 194 new religious groups' recognition requests, including an Islamic umbrella organisation, has also resulted in the dismantling of several churches. There remains in force a ban on the Islamic veil in public, all 60 of Angola's mosques are closed, and any practising Muslim can be found guilty of "qualified disobedience" of Angola's penal code.