U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2003 - Malawi

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on December 18, 2003, covers the period from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003.

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

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were tensions between Christians and Muslims during the period covered by this report.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 45,745 square miles, and its population is approximately 10.4 million. More than 70 percent of the population is Christian. Among the Christian denominations, the largest are the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian or CCAP) Churches, with smaller numbers of Anglicans, Baptists, evangelicals, and Seventh-day Adventists. There is a substantial Muslim minority totaling approximately 20 percent of the population. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni Muslim, ascribing to either the Qadriya or Sukkutu groups. There also are Hindus, Baha'is, and followers of traditional indigenous religions. There are few atheists.

Foreign missionary groups are present in the country, including Protestants, Catholics, Pentecostals, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels strives to protect this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors. There is no state religion.

There are no separate requirements for the recognition of religions, but religious groups must register with the Government. Religious groups must submit documentation that details the structure and mission of their organization, with a nominal fee, for review by the Ministry of Justice. Once approved, a religious group is then formally registered with the Registrar General's Office in Blantyre. There were no reports that the Government refused to register any religious groups.

Foreign missionaries experienced occasional delays in renewing employment permits, despite the Government's revision of its policy and procedures on temporary employment permits in 1997; however, this appeared to be the result of bureaucratic inefficiency rather than a deliberate government policy against foreign missionaries. Missionaries and charitable workers pay lower fees for employment permits than do other professionals.

In May 2001, the Government released a formal response to a series of pastoral letters from the CCAP and affirmed the Church's right to comment on issues of public concern. The Government invited religious leaders to Lilongwe, the capital, to discuss national issues (see Section III). The Government has continued to respect the rights of the CCAP, and there has been no further action since the Government's response. While the pastoral letters created some political tension, there continued to be acceptance of the historical role played by religious organizations in social and political life. In March 2002, six bishops from the Catholic Church released a pastoral letter against a constitutional amendment to eliminate presidential term limits. The Government took no action against the Catholic Church after the release of the letter.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In June 2002, a Catholic priest was arrested in Kasungu for possession of allegedly seditious material. The priest had documents opposing the constitutional amendment to eliminate presidential term limits that he was translating into the local language. On June 17, he was released on bail, and no court proceedings or further actions were initiated during the period covered by this report.

In January 2002, the Office of the Ombudsman directed the Ministry of Agriculture to pay benefits and salary arrears to a self-exiled member of the Jehovah's Witnesses who fled the country in 1977 to escape religious persecution under the former regime of President Hastings Banda. The Ombudsman cited a July 1999 notice issued by the Office of the President and Cabinet that directs the Government to reimburse all persons who were dismissed from office on religious grounds during the Banda era.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been 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 Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there was some tension between the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) and a Christian missionary group during the period covered by this report. There is no societal discrimination against members of religious minorities.

In June Muslims rioted in Blantyre and Mangochi following the Government's arrest and reported deportation of five Al-Qaeda suspects. On June 27, rioters vandalized property at the offices of the MAM Secretariat in Blantyre. They blamed the leaders of the organization for failing to ensure that the suspects received a trial. In Mangochi, rioters damaged vehicles, including one belonging to Father Lazarus Girevulo of the Catholic Church, five Christian churches, and the offices of a U.S. nongovernmental organization (NGO), Save the Children. On June 28, police arrested many of the key instigators of the riots, but tensions remained high in the major cities.

Some Christian opposition politicians and clerics introduced Islam as a political issue. Citing the President's adherence to Islam, his contact with Islamic countries such as Libya and Sudan, and the building of new mosques, some opposition politicians and clerics have accused the ruling party of attempting to "Islamicize" the country. An attempt by the Government in early 2000 to replace "Bible Knowledge" in the school curriculum with the more universal "Moral and Religious Education" course met with widespread criticism from Christian leaders. In February 2000, when the President suspended the introduction of the new curriculum and returned "Bible Knowledge" to the curriculum, Muslim leaders rebuked him. Consultations between government and religious leaders resulted in a compromise, and both courses were offered as optional subjects during the period covered by this report.

In February 2002, the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) filed a complaint letter with the Religious Affairs Coordinator for the Office of the President and Cabinet regarding the activities of a Christian missionary group in Mangochi District. MAM accused the missionary group of entering the mosques to convert Muslims to Christianity and of disseminating inflammatory publications about Islam. The Religious Affairs Coordinator attempted to convene a forum in February 2002, with MAM, the Malawi Council of Churches, and the leaders of the missionary group to discuss a peaceful resolution to the problem; however, the meeting was cancelled due to a lack of funding. In April 2002, the same missionary group contacted the Religious Affairs Coordinator, the Deputy Inspector General of Police, and the local Mangochi District Police to report that they had heard rumors that the Muslim community in Mangochi District planned to harm them; however, there were no reports that any violence occurred.

In September 2002, the Catholic Church of Malawi filed a complaint against Radio Islam with the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) for broadcasting insulting statements about Christians. The comments had been aired in August during the public call-in program "Contemporary Issues." The callers had complained about an alleged Catholic Church directive that said only teachers of the Catholic faith should be permitted to teach at Catholic schools in the country. Radio Islam denied the allegations, stating that the views expressed were those of the callers, not the radio station or its management. MACRA reviewed the case and no fault was attributed to Radio Islam.

On December 18, 2002, four members of the Seventh-Day Apostolic Church were arrested by the Blantyre police and subsequently convicted on charges of breaching the peace for their role in inciting a violent clash with Muslims. The dispute arose when the church members, in a market square, compared Christianity and Jesus with Islam and Mohammed. A group of Muslims armed with machetes and guns threatened the church members, and violence ensued when other Christians intervened. Three persons were injured and 19 windows were broken in the local mosque.

In March 2002, six Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter protesting a constitutional amendment that would eliminate presidential term limits. The letter was read in Catholic churches nationwide on Easter Sunday. Although the letter ignited a heated political debate in the press, there was no reaction from the Government.

In March and April 2001, the CCAP churches released pastoral letters addressing social and political topics of current national interest. The letters were direct and critical of the Government. While some progovernment newspapers attacked individual members of the clergy, the President publicly affirmed the churches' right to comment on issues of public concern (see Section II). In July 2001, at an Independence Day celebration, newspapers reported that members of the Young Democrats, the youth wing of the ruling United Democratic Front party, beat a CCAP minister in response to a pastoral letter written by the Anglican bishop to Malawi. The group had intended to target the Anglican bishop; however, because of a case of mistaken identity, the CCAP minister was beaten. No action was taken against those responsible for the beating during the period covered by this report.

There have been active efforts to foster cooperation between religious groups. For example, the Public Affairs Committee, which is involved prominently in promoting civic education and human rights, includes representatives of various churches and mosques. On June 9, 2002, the Malawi Council of Churches and other religious and civil society groups sponsored a National Day of Prayer in Blantyre to pray for solutions to problems that face the country, such as the constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits, HIV/AIDS, and poverty. The Government granted a permit to the organizers to hold the 2-hour long prayer session despite an existing ban on all demonstrations either for or against the constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Representatives of the Embassy have frequent contact with leaders and members of all religious communities in the country.

Following alleged threats against a Christian missionary group (see Section III), Embassy officials worked to ensure the safety of American citizen members of the group.

The U.S. Government provided a grant to the Muslim Welfare Organization to address religious tolerance issues in the country. In June Embassy officials launched the first workshop under the grant. Muslim and Christian leaders were brought together to review educational materials on the topic of religious tolerance and develop implementation strategies.


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