Another African nation declares itself an Islamic state, sparking public protests

Gambia President Yahya Jammeh addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Sept. 25, 2014.Reuters

President Yahya Jammeh has unilaterally declared the African nation of Gambia as an Islamic state, the second one in the continent after Mauritania.

The declaration, which coincided with the celebration of 51 years of independence, did not sit well with some groups who argued that Gambia is a "secular state" and that such a change must be constitutionally confirmed in a referendum, CBN News reported.

"You cannot make such a declaration without going through a referendum," National Reconciliation Party leader Hamat Bah told Jammeh, according to Al Jazeera.

Newspaper editorials also called the declaration "an affront to the Constitution of the Gambia, which is based on secular traditions and does not entertain the establishment of any religion as a state.''

Earlier in February, the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council hosted a 300-member conference to defend the president's declaration and encourage peace between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Jammeh said the proclamation of The Gambia as an Islamic state is in line with the country's religious identity and values. "Accepting Allah's religion as your religion and as your way of life is not negotiable,'' he said.

He also assured the nation that Gambia's identity now as a Muslim country will not lead to persecution of other faiths.

"Let me make it very clear: that does not mean Christians cannot worship in their way of life," he said. "Christians should be given their own respect; the way they celebrate Christmas or whatever will continue. In our relationship with all the rest of the religions, nobody has the right to interfere with their way of life."

"I have not appointed anybody as an Islamic policeman," Jammeh said late last year. "The way women dress is not your business; you are Muslim, she is a Muslim; you should not tell her how she should dress, it is not your business, in the next world you cannot defend her."

However, weeks after his declaration he reportedly issued an executive order prohibiting all female civil employees from working with their hair uncovered. The president later withdrew his EO and allowed women to work freely without the head covering after protest from opposition groups.

Jammeh has held power in Gambia since staging a coup in 1994. He has a "deplorable human rights record and rampant corruption," Human Right's Watch's Jeffrey Smith said in a recently issued statement.

According to reports, many citizens are concerned the declaration and the president's violent record could lead to an increase in persecution of religious minorities.

Gambia is a majority Muslim country as only 5 percent of the population are Christians, according to a Pew Research study. The nation is also not listed on Open Door's 2016 World Watch List.

In a statement, Open Doors said that while the country has a secular constitution, "Islamic extremism as a persecution engine is present in the country.''

"Non-violent measures are taken to Islamise the country, particularly the educational system/institutions, public institutions, media, and marriage/family."

Pakistan, Iran and fellow African nation Mauritania also identify themselves as Islamic states, according to reports.