U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Mauritania

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution establishes Mauritania as an Islamic republic and decrees that Islam is the religion of its citizens and the State; accordingly, the Government limits freedom of religion.

Both the Government and society generally consider Islam to be the essential cohesive element unifying the country's various ethnic groups and castes. There is a cabinet-level Ministry of Culture and Islamic Orientation and a High Council of Islam consisting of six imams, which at the Government's request advises on the conformance of legislation to Islamic precepts.

Although the Government provides a small stipend to the imam of the Central Mosque in the capital city of Nouakchott, mosques and Koranic schools normally are supported by their members and other donors.

The Government does not register religious groups. However, secular nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) must register with the Ministry of the Interior; this includes humanitarian and development NGO's affiliated with religious groups. Nonprofit organizations, including both religious groups and secular NGO's, generally are not subject to taxation.

Nearly 100 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims and are prohibited by their religion from converting to another religion. There is a small number of Christians, and Christian churches have been established in Nouakchott, Atar, Zouerate, Nouadhibou, and Rosso.

Shari'a (Islamic law), proclaimed the law of the land under a previous government in 1983, includes the Koranic prohibition against apostasy from Islam, but it has never been either codified in civil law or enforced. The small number of known apostates from Islam suffered no social ostracism, and there were no reports of societal or governmental attempts to punish apostates.

Although there is no specific legal prohibition against proselytizing by non-Muslims, in practice the Government prohibits proselytizing by non-Muslims under Article 11 of the Press Act, which bans the publication of any material that is against Islam or contradicts or otherwise threatens Islam. The Government views any attempts by Christians to convert Muslims as undermining society. Foreign Christian NGO's limit their activities to humanitarian and development assistance.

Christians in the expatriate community and the few Christian citizens practice their religion openly and freely. Under Article 11 of the Press Law, the Government may restrict the importation, printing, or public distribution of Bibles or other non-Islamic religious literature, and in practice Bibles are neither printed nor publicly sold in the country. However, the possession of Bibles and other Christian religious materials in private homes is not illegal, and there appears to be no shortage of Bibles and other religious publications among the small Christian community.

A magistrate of Shari'a, who heads a separate government commission, decides the dates for observing religious holidays and addresses the nation on these holidays.

In addition to privately-run Koranic schools that nearly all children attend, the public schools include classes on religion. These classes teach both the history and principles of Islam and the classical Arabic of the Koran. Although attendance of these religion classes is nominally required, many students, the great majority of whom are Muslims, decline to attend these classes for diverse ethno-linguistic and religious reasons. They are nevertheless able to advance in school and ultimately to graduate with diplomas, provided that they compensate for their failure to attend the required religion classes by their performance in other classes.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Relations between the Muslim community and the small Christian community are generally amicable. However, there was one incident in 1995 in which an Islamic extremist attacked two Christian priests in the Christian church in Nouakchott. The extremist was arrested, hospitalized, judged to be mentally insane, and sent to his native village, where he was required to present himself to police on a daily basis. In addition, there were two other incidents, the later of which occurred in 1997, in which members of a Christian NGO received vague and anonymous threats, apparently from an Islamic extremist source. The Government provided police protection for the NGO and initiated an investigation, which proved inconclusive. The threats never materialized.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy monitors developments affecting religious freedom, maintains contact with clergy and other leaders of major religious groups, and discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. For example, on April 20, 1999, the Ambassador discussed the importance that the United States attaches to religious freedom with the Foreign Minister. The Ambassador discussed the same issue with the Government's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Poverty Alleviation, and Integration on May 4, 1999.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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