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Statement at the conclusion of the visit to Sierra Leone by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt 5 July 2013

I. Introduction

From 30 June to 5 July 2013 I have undertaken a country visit to Sierra Leone in my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The general purpose of such country visits is to receive first hand information concerning the situation of freedom of religion or belief in a particular country and to identify good practices as well as existing or emerging challenges. The findings of this visit to Sierra Leone will be officially presented to the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2014. The final report will be available and publicly accessible in early 2014.

This first public statement based on preliminary observations offers an opportunity sincerely to thank all those who have contributed to making the visit possible and indeed very fruitful. First of all, I would like to express my profound gratitude to the Government of Sierra Leone for the cordial invitation transmitted through the Permanent Mission in Geneva. I am indebted to many interlocutors who came from all branches of the State, including H.E. the Vice President, from diverse religious communities as well as various civil society organizations, faith based and secular ones. In numerous discussions, all of which took place in an open atmosphere, I learned enormously. I trust the communication commenced here in Sierra Leone – mostly in Freetown, but also in Moyamba – will continue, in particular during the drafting of the formal report within the next few months.

The visit would not have been possible without the valuable support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva and of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL). I am very grateful for the logistical and technical support and the high degree of practical solidarity, which I have enjoyed throughout the visit.

II. A Climate of Religious Openheartedness

Before coming to Sierra Leone I expected to see a country characterized by a high degree of religious tolerance. What I have experienced here by far exceeds this expectation. All interlocutors, without exception, agreed that religious communities, in particular Muslims and Christians, live peacefully and harmoniously side-by-side. Indeed, most of the interlocutors presented their own family situation as an illustration. Many live in interreligious marriages – with the husband being Muslim and the wife Christian or vice versa – and everyone seems to have close relatives who confess and practice a different religion than their own. Many also referred to their school days in which they experienced religious diversity on a daily basis. Muslims told fond memories of their education in Anglican, Methodist, Catholic or other Christian schools, and likewise Christians disclosed positive narratives about their education and training in schools e.g. run by Sunni Muslims or Ahmadis.

Religious diversity is not only a reality in Sierra Leone; it is widely seen and cherished as an asset on which to build community life from the local to the national level. I visited mosques and churches located in close vicinity to each other, at times on the same compounds, and I heard numerous stories about people attending weddings, funerals and other religious ceremonies across denominational differences. A Christian person remarked that when the church is overcrowded he might well decide to go to a Mosque to pray. Such a statement, which in many countries would be fairly unusual or even unthinkable, seems rather indicative of the tolerant situation in Sierra Leone. Likewise, Muslims told me they have no difficulty to pray in a Christian church. People generally express an interest in religious festivities across denominational differences. While many Christians join Muslims in celebrating the end of Ramadan, Muslims join Christians, for instance, in Christmas celebrations. I was informed about a Christian radio station that on Fridays airs Islamic prayers.

Religious tolerance comprises both inter-religious and intra-religious relations. While most interlocutors emphasized the amicable coexistence of the Muslim majority (according to some estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population) and the Christian minority (estimated as 20 to 30 percent of the population), there is also a remarkably positive and relaxed attitude towards intra-religious diversity. The Muslim population is composed of Sunnis (constituting a clear majority), Shias and Ahmadis. Manifestations of mutual hostility between those different branches of Islam are unheard of in Sierra Leone. The same holds true for the diversity of Christian communities, which inter alia comprise Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed Protestants, Methodists, New Apostolic Church, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists and charismatic groups. The Sierra Leonean population furthermore includes small numbers of Baha’is, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other communities none of whom seem to have encountered serious difficulties when practicing their faiths.

Moreover, people can freely change their religious affiliation. Conversions are a common phenomenon and can go into all directions. I heard quite a number of stories of persons who grew up in a Muslim family and were later baptized as Christians with the unreserved blessing of their parents. I met a woman originating from a Muslim family who even became a reverent in the Methodist church. Likewise, others told me they stemmed from Christian families and later turned to Islam, again with the full approval of their families. Some have kept their original first names after conversion, with the result that a person carrying a typically Muslim first name may nonetheless be Christian or the other way around. In short, religious pluralism in Sierra Leone is a dynamic pluralism in the sense that religious communities can grow and develop. People generally do not encounter problems when bearing witness to their faith in private or in public and they can also invite others freely to join their community.

Traditional African religion constitutes a part of the country’s rich cultural heritage, and some healing rituals and other traditional ceremonies continue to be practiced widely, often under the auspices of Islam or Christianity. In the gathering that we attended in Moyamba one of the speakers conjectured that 85 percent of Muslims and Christians at the same time feel attached to traditional African spirituality – a situation, which he said may have contributed to the amicable relations that exist between religious communities in Sierra Leone. On the other hand, some interlocutors expressed a more reserved attitude towards traditional African religion. On a few occasions, it was even questioned whether traditional African spirituality can be called a genuine “religion” or “belief”.

The very tangible climate of religious tolerance in Sierra Leone is all the more astounding against the background of the country’s tragic history of civil war, which had torn the nation apart. According to the 2004 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the various parties involved in the conflict committed grave human rights violations, including atrocities beyond human imagination. While ethnic, regional and other differences – whether real or merely imagined – became factors of political fragmentation and violent escalation, religion was never drawn into the conflict. This remarkable observation of the TRC was unanimously confirmed in all discussions I held on the issue. The amicable relations between religious communities could thus play a crucial role in the ongoing process of rebuilding the nation.  

The open atmosphere in Sierra Leone provides a fertile ground for the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief as guaranteed in section 24 of the Constitution and in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Sierra Leone is a party. Neither the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone nor the Ombudsman and his staff remembered any complaints submitted within recent years about violations of freedom of religion or belief. Occasional conflicts between local communities, for instance over property issues, remained isolated incidents and never spilled over to the broader religious communities. Members of various non-governmental organizations, who work on human rights issues in Sierra Leone, confirmed this positive assessment.

III. Vitality of Religious Life

Obviously, religion is a vital factor in private and public life in Sierra Leone. Numerous mosques and churches of different denominations have their doors open and advertise their services publicly, i.e. visibly and audibly. Religious ceremonies play an important role in families and communities.

Religious symbols are omnipresent in the streets, in offices or private homes. Even many cars, in particular trucks or caravans, display religious messages (“God is great”, “God’s mercy for everyone”, “Praise to the Lord” etc.) on their fronts. People generally express a strong interest and commitment concerning religious issues. By attending some religious services and ceremonies of different denominations I could directly experience the vitality of religious practices and the enthusiasm that people displayed in manifesting their faith.

For many Sierra Leoneans religious commitment and religious tolerance go closely hand in hand. As a high-ranking Muslim representative expressed it, “religious tolerance is a divine gift bestowed on our nation”. Similar statements also came from Christian representatives. The chairperson of the Union of Traditional Healers saw the spiritual unity of humankind evidenced in the common colour of human blood. Such expressions may serve as an interesting testimony against the widespread assumption that religious tolerance best develops in a religiously dispassionate atmosphere, perhaps even in a climate of general religious scepticism. Vice versa, it is sometimes assumed that strong religious enthusiasm nearly necessarily breeds narrow-mindedness often leading to fanaticism. The situation in Sierra Leone, however, demonstrates that there is no inherent contradiction between passionate religious commitment and religious open-mindedness, which in this country are generally appreciated as two sides of one and the same coin.

Over and over again I was told that what unites people in Sierra Leone is the belief in one supreme being to which everyone owes their existence and bears moral accountability. Religious differences, while obviously remaining relevant for people’s self-understandings and practices, appear to be placed on a secondary level when compared with the broadly shared general monotheistic belief. Also traditional African spirituality seems to be appreciated on the premise that it generally fits into this pattern of worshiping one divine power. The assumption that everyone ultimately shares the belief in one God, while facilitating the positive inter-action between different religious communities, at the same time harbours a certain risk that persons could be urged against their will to participate in religious ceremonies. One example is the collective performance of prayers and other religious ceremonies in schools. Based on the widely shared expectation that all students will finally benefit from such practices, the possibility of receiving a low-threshold exemption is not generally provided. I have not heard about any complaints being submitted in this regard, and when discussing the issue I was told that it would certainly be possible to find solutions if respective demands were made. Nevertheless, clearly formulated exit provisions concerning school prayers remain an important issue in order to make sure that participation in religious prayers and ceremonies always is in conformity with the wishes and convictions of the child and his or her parents. This would also help to bring the existing practice fully into line with section 24, subsection 2 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone, which provides that “no person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own”.

IV. The Role of Different Institutions

The high degree of religious tolerance, which Sierra Leoneans enjoy, should not be taken for granted.  In the face of religious mistrust, hostility and hatred in many parts of the world, it is obvious that a climate of cross-denominational openheartedness and cooperation, as it exists in Sierra Leone, requires broad commitment and active investments. It is a precious accomplishment that deserves to be cherished and further developed. Obviously, societal and State institutions play an indispensable role in this ongoing endeavour.

As already mentioned earlier, the first institution facilitating the experience of religious diversity is the family. Interreligious marriages do not only occur in urban areas, but are a widespread phenomenon across the country, including in villages. By experiencing religious diversity as a quite natural feature of families and neighbourhoods, children can develop an attitude of interreligious openness from early on.

Unsurprisingly, many interlocutors emphasized the significant role of school education. In the earlier history of the country, schools run by Christian missionaries had a strong impact on the development of the society. By also admitting Muslim students, religious diversity became a general feature of school life. Later on, the increasing number of Muslims schools run by Ahmadis, Sunnis or Shias likewise included Christian children among their students. During my visit, I had the opportunity to see a few schools in which both students and teachers came from different religious backgrounds. Irrespective of their various religious orientations, all schools nowadays follow the curriculum provided by the Ministry of Education. The mandatory curriculum also covers religious and moral education, which on the primary level is given on the tenets of Islamic and Christian teachings taken in conjunction. Concerning religious devotions and other collective ceremonies performed in schools I refer to my observations made at the end of section III.

According to information received, the media also contribute to the existing atmosphere of religious tolerance. Media include community based radio stations, which inter alia broadcast religious prayers and ceremonies, sometimes across denominational lines.

The Interreligious Council enjoys a very high reputation in Sierra Leone. Operating as a non-governmental organization, which comprises numerous religious communities (Muslim, Christian and other), the Council has played a pivotal role in the reconciliation process after the civil war. It thus has implemented a main recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in its final report (2004) called upon religious communities to utilize their potential in a joint effort to rebuild a national consensus, including by helping reintegrate ex-combatants and child soldiers. A number of my interlocutors also mentioned the active contribution of the Interreligious Council in the peaceful handling of the last Presidential elections in 2012, in which religious community leader had jointly spoken out against violence. I had a chance to speak to members of the Interreligious Council not only in Freetown but also in Moyamba. The fact that the Council has branches in all districts obviously adds to its impact throughout the country. At the same time, members of the Council complained about insufficient resources and infrastructure – a situation that may hamper its effective functioning. They also expressed an awareness that the harmonious interreligious climate could be threatened in the long run, if radical voices, which to date do not have much influence, become more influential.

Within the State apparatus, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children Affairs is charged with handling religious affairs and pursues a policy proactively to outreach towards communities. The ministry is also responsible for the registration of religious communities, which must be renewed year by year. I was told that the process is relatively easy. Failure to register does not lead to any sanctions, and non-registered religious communities can fully and freely function. Unlike registered communities, however, they do not benefit from duty waivers when importing certain goods, such as religious books, videos or other material. The Union of Traditional Healers expressed their interest in strengthening communication with the Ministry of Social Welfare in order to address controversial issues, such as the proliferation of traditional medicine.

V. Remaining Challenges

In its final report of 2004, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gives a detailed and precise account of the root-causes of the violent conflict that had torn the country apart. Inter alia, the TRC points to the lack of an appropriate State infrastructure, which had led to endemic corruption and a breakdown of trust in the fair functioning of State institutions in general. According to the TRC, this started the vicious cycle of fragmentation, lawlessness and paranoia that climaxed in atrocities beyond human imagination.

In the decade after the war, Sierra Leone has seen enormous political, economic and educational progress. Political elections have been peaceful, the economy is growing and the illiteracy rate has dropped significantly. Nevertheless, some interlocutors expressed their concerns about the fragility of State institutions which needs further strengthening in order to prevent risks of renewed fragmentation and ensure a thorough implementation of human rights. Given the scarcity of financial resources this will not be an easy task. Moreover, some TRC recommendations concerning the disadvantaged position of women and girls still need to be fully implemented. The Government has taken initiatives in this field, for instance, with the purpose overcoming child pregnancy and early marriages. Nevertheless, women’s and girls’ illiteracy rate continues to be considerably higher than that of men or boys, many women get married at a very young age thereby losing educational opportunities, and women and girls continue to suffer from harmful traditional practices, including female genital cutting. These and other challenges are obvious. In all attempts to further develop the country religious communities can – and do – play a crucial role. As mentioned earlier, the unusual degree of interreligious tolerance and cooperation remains a great asset for rebuilding and developing the nation – also beyond the reconciliation process.

Members of non-governmental organizations working on human rights in Sierra Leone generally expressed their interest to get religious communities on board when pursuing their agendas. This is based on the understanding that human rights standards and religious values overlap in many important areas. While members of human rights NGOs told a number of success stories on their cooperation with religious communities, they also pointed to difficult areas, particularly in the context of gender-related discrimination and violence against women. For instance, whereas religious communities broadly support policies to overcome child marriages, not all of them have been willing to speak out openly against female genital cutting – maybe for fear that this might alienate parts of their followers. At the same time, there seems to be a general agreement that education, including educational programmes specifically catering for women and girls, is the key factor in all attempts to overcome existing gender-related discrimination and harmful practices.

VI. Concluding Remarks

In a number of gatherings, which I attended in the last couple of days in Freetown and Moyamba, people over and over again expressed their conviction that Sierra Leone is a blessed nation, as evidenced in the remarkable atmosphere of inter- and intra-religious tolerance that characterizes the country. I found the enthusiasm that people displayed on this issue indeed “infectious”. Having been able to witness how religious passion and interreligious openheartedness can go hand in hand is a privilege for which I am very grateful. The way people in this country live together in peace across religious differences sets an example, from which other countries as well as religious and political leaders worldwide can learn. Sierra Leoneans have good reasons to take pride in this precious heritage.