Freedom of Religion



This Question & Answer Series paper addresses the issue of freedom of religion in Ghana. Government policies on religious practices, religious groups and religious institutions (churches) are reviewed. Some of the implications of these policies are examined in light of the impetus to flee of those individuals and groups who claim that their belief systems are threatened.


1.0 General Considerations

According to the United Nations' Department of International Economic and Social Affairs, the population of Ghana was estimated in 1990 to be approximately 15 million people (United Nations ST/ESA/SER.A/120 1991, 406). Although percentages tend to vary, the trend indicates that Christians form the majority of the population. According to Africa South of the Sahara 1990, Christians represent approximately 42.8 percent of the population, Muslims 12 percent, traditionalists 38.2 percent, and unclassified individuals approximately seven percent (Africa South of the Sahara 1990 1990, 529). These numbers are corroborated by the French publication Quid 1991 (Quid 1991 1990, 974).

Christians comprise four main groups: Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and various independent religious institutions. In 1987 there were about 1,400 Orthodox Christians (Clévenot 1987, 218). The Muslim population consists mainly of Malikees Muslims as well as a few thousand Ahmadiyya (Ibid.). There are also several thousand Buddhists, Hindus and Bahais (Ibid.).

According to L'État des Religions, there are at least 78 different Christian religious institutions, among which are the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Ghana, the Evangelical-Presbyterian Church, the Ghana Baptist Convention, the Ghana Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, the Mennonite Church of Ghana, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, the Western African Union Mission of Seventh-Day Adventists, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the F'Eden Church and the Society of Friends (Quakers) (Clévenot 1987, 218; Europa 1990 1990, 1166).

Most Ghanaian Christians live in southern Ghana and most Muslims live in the north, although "there are sizeable numbers who do not live in their `traditional' areas" (Ray 1986, 4).

According to Country Reports 1990 there is no state-favoured religion and both Christians and Muslims are well-represented at all levels of government (Country Reports 1990 1991, 147). Furthermore, there appears to be no political polarization along religious lines and "there are no apparent advantages or disadvantages attached to membership in any particular sect or religion" (Country Reports 1990 1991, 147; Ray 1986, 4).

1.1       International Conventions

Ghana is not signatory to any of the four major international human rights treaties which constitute the International Bill of Rights. In the international discourse on human rights, the International Bill of Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Howard 1986, 2). Ghana is therefore not bound by Articles 18 of either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which deal with freedom of religion.

However, Ghana ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on 24 January 1989 (United Nations HR/PUB/90/1 1990, 50). Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights specifically states that:

Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be guaranteed. No one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms (United Nations HR/PUB/90/1, 7).

After the December 1981 coup, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), headed by Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, suspended the 1979 Constitution by Article 66 of the PNDC Proclamation Law of 1982. However, the same law, in Section 1(b), stressed that one of the "Directive Principles of State Policy" would be the "respect for fundamental human rights and for the dignity of the human person [which] are to be cultivated among all sections of the society and established as part of the basis of social justice" (Blaustein and Flanz 1984, 3).


2.1     PNDC Law 221

Although bound as a signatory to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and to its own Proclamation, on 14 June 1989 the PNDC introduced PNDC Law 221, known as the Religious Bodies Registration Law. Essentially, PNDC Law 221 provides that "every religious body in Ghana shall be registered under this Law and no religious body in existence in Ghana shall after three months from the commencement of this Law operate as such unless it is registered under this Law" (Christian Council of Ghana 14 Nov. 1989, 2). Section 20 of PNDC Law 221 defines "religious bodies" to mean "any association of persons or body or organization which professes adherence to or belief in any system of faith or worship; or which is established in pursuance of religious objective" (Africa Events Feb. 1990, 11).

Officially, this law was implemented to "protect Ghanaians from `the exploitative tendencies of some Churches'," as well as, in the words of Flight Lieutenant Rawlings, to "preserve the purity of religious teachings" (Ibid.; The African Letter 16-31 May 1990, 1).

However, according to the Ministry of the Interior, PNDC Law 221 was created because "certain individuals and groups are using or planning to use church premises as meeting grounds in furtherance of their political schemes" and because "church premises had already been used `for activities calculated to undermine national unity'" (Africa Events Feb. 1990, 11). It is noteworthy to add that following the 1981 coup all political parties were proscribed, but some political groups remained active, operating mainly from outside the country (Europa 1990 1990, 1165).         

The law also states that anybody who wishes to establish or found a religious institution must apply in writing to the nine-member Religious Affairs Committee at the National Commission for Culture (NCC), which will grant a three-month provisional approval (West Africa 21-27 Aug. 1989, 1394). The Committee will then consider the application and make a recommendation to the NCC. Those who establish a religious body without approval or fail to comply with the conditions of the Religious Affairs Committee are liable to be criminally prosecuted and have the organization's assets confiscated (Ibid.).

Furthermore, no one may use the title "pastor" without being connected to and qualified under the constitution of the religious institution to which that person belongs, which must be registered and recognized by the Religious Affairs Committee (Ibid.). To do so constitutes an offence punishable "on conviction to a fine not exceeding, C100,000 [approximately 363 US$ as at 11 August 1989], or imprisonment not exceeding three months or both" (Ibid.).

The PNDC passed a similar law in 1989, the Newspapers Licensing Law, which required all newspapers and magazines to apply for registration. "At the end of the year those critical of the government were not issued with permits" (Index on Censorship Sept. 1989, 37).

2.2          The Muslim Community

In early 1990, during a three-day tour of the Sefwi-Wiawso District in Ghana's Western Region, the Federation of Muslim Councils of Ghana (FMC) advised Muslims that it "did not find anything wrong with the law and said Muslims should not fear of any intimidation under the law but to worship in peace and tranquility" and that the FMC had "been duly registered in compliance with the law" (FBIS-AFR-90-040-S 28 Feb. 1990, 26).

Furthermore, they explained that "the law was not intended to stifle religion but to safeguard and uphold it" and that it was also "meant to safeguard national security in view of the fact that activities of certain religious groups were compromising national security" (Ibid.).

This stand was adopted even though in September 1989 the PNDC had banned all forms of public preaching by Islamic sects in Wa, the capital of the Upper West Region. "It was also declared illegal for Muslims to gather around tape recorders to listen to taped Islamic messages or sermons" because of a clash between Orthodox and Ahmadiyya factions in that city "over differences in the interpretations of the Holy Qur'an" (Africa Events Feb. 1990, 11). The Muslims resisted this PNDC ban "with little or no sympathy from other religious groups" (Ibid.).

2.3      The Major Christian Groups

Although largely perceived as a drastic measure, the rationale behind PNDC Law 221 was warranted, according to the November/December edition of Ghana's oldest Christian newspaper, the Christian Messenger. The newspaper "called on all churches to be screened and registered to prevent the country's traditional freedom of worship from being further abused by the `uncountable number of self-acclaimed prophetesses, priests and traditional religionists who are amassing wealth at the expenses of others'" (West Africa 17-23 Apr. 1989, 584).

PNDC Law 221 was nevertheless received by the major Christian groups "with national shock, partly because Christians represent more political clout than Muslims in Ghana's politics" (Africa Events Feb. 1990, 11).

In their official response to PNDC Law 221 on 14 November 1989, the Heads of member churches of the Christian Council of Ghana (CCG) and its affiliated organizations, and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Ghana in consultation with the National Catholic Laity Council, the Standing Committee of the National Union of Ghana Catholic Diocesan Priests' Associations, the Social Action Committee, the Standing Committee and other organs of the Christian Council of Ghana, acknowledged that the perceived aim of the Government was to "check the activities of some religious bodies that... constitute a nuisance to the general public, and militate against public order, public interest or morality, or acceptable standards of decency" (Christian Council of Ghana 1989, 1).

The leaders of these churches pointed out that although well-intentioned, the law and its implications as a whole had to be reviewed as they set a dangerous precedent. They warned that this law "tends to place in the hands of the government a tool by which the activities of all religious bodies, and especially churches, can be easily controlled..." (West Africa 20-26 Nov. 1989, 1925). Essentially the churches argued that PNDC Law 221 was in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the earlier PNDC Proclamation Law of 1982 and Article 8 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Further, it contained some vagueness which could provide "adequate and reasonable grounds for anxiety" (Christian Council of Ghana 1989, 1-3).

Consequently, the churches issued the statement "A Message from the Christian Council of Ghana and the Ghana Catholic Bishops' Conference to their Faithful and Congregations." The Message concluded with the following:

in the light of the foregoing, it is our firm conviction that PNDCL 221 constitutes a violation of the fundamental human right of the freedom of worship and that our churches should, therefore, not register under this Law which requires registration with the State as a condition for being permitted to worship God and which provides Government with the power and machinery to control worship (Christian Council of Ghana 1989, 5).

It is noteworthy to add that the Christian Council of Ghana (CCG) is considered one of the major pressure groups in Ghana and although the Catholic Bishops' Conference does not belong to the CCG, "the two bodies have a close relationship and often take joint positions on national issues" (West Africa 28 Jan.-3 Feb. 1991, 94).

Not all Christian groups opposed the PNDC Law 221 initiative. According to Africa Watch, "the Pentecostal Association of Ghana and the Organization of Independent Churches, which together claim to represent over 1,200 churches in Ghana, are said to have written to affirm their support for the registration exercise" (Africa Watch 18 May 1990, 4).


Arguing that opposition to PNDC Law 221 was based mostly on stubbornness or misinterpretation, a government official warned in December 1989 that "the churches would not be allowed to `fringe [sic] upon the interests of the state' and that the government would ensure that the churches `would subordinate themselves to the government'" (The African Letter 16-31 May 1990, 20). According to Country Reports 1990, the government of Ghana stated that it had received 11,000 applications by the end of 1990 from various churches wishing to register (Country Reports 1990 1991, 147).

Before the Christian response and at the same time that PNDC Law 221 was announced, the government put a "freeze" on two international religious sects and disbanded two indigenous sects. According to an article in West Africa, the two indigenous sects that were disbanded, the Nyame Sompa Church at Ekwankrom in the Central Region, and the Jesus Christ of Dzorwulu sect, had at least one common characteristic: "their main victims were women." Allegedly, some women were sexually exploited within the church and husbands had to seek permission to see their wives (West Africa 26 June-2 July 1989, 1068).

The two "frozen" international sects were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, known as the Mormons, and the Jehovah's Witnesses. According to Country Reports 1990, the Jehovah's Witnesses were rebuked for not showing proper respect for the symbols of Ghana's government and the Mormons were accused of practising racism (Country Reports 1990 1991, 147). Both foreign staffs were ordered out of the country and their facilities closed (The Washington Post 2 Feb. 1991). The ban on the Mormons was lifted in early December 1990 after they "had undertaken, among other things, to `desist from practices not in consonance with racial harmony and the country's cultural dignity'" (Index on Censorship Apr./May 1991, 54). According to Country Reports 1990, the PNDC had at that time announced that it was willing to review the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses (Country Reports 1990 1991, 147).

Under the terms of the Newspaper Licensing Law of 1989 and PNDC Law 221, the licences for three Jehovah's Witnesses' publications and their translated versions were also banned. The publications are Awake, Watchtower, and Our Kingdom (BBC Summary 20 June 1989, B1).

According to Country Reports 1990, "by the end of 1990, the Government had made no effort to enforce PNDC Law 221, and those religious bodies that refused to register continued to worship freely" (Country Reports 1990 1991). On 30 April 1991, Rick Rittenbach, from the Executive Offices of the Jehovah's Witnesses' World Headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, confirmed that the freeze on that religious group was still in effect and that its members were not allowed to meet in the "Kingdom Halls," although discreet and informal meetings were taking place. Rittenbach added that each persecution and harassment claim received at headquarters is investigated by their staff in Ghana, and not one has been substantiated (Rittenbach 30 Apr. 1991). The IRBDC has neither particulars on the criteria used to evaluate what constitutes persecution in the view of the Jehovah's Witnesses' executive nor corroboration of R. Rittenbach's statements by other sources.

4.                BIBLIOGRAPHY

Africa Events [London]. February 1990. "The Cross, the Qur'an and the Gun."

Africa South of the Sahara 1990. 1990. Nineteenth edition. London: Europa Publications Limited.

Africa Watch [Washington]. 18 May 1990. "Ghana: Official Attacks on Religious Freedom."

The African Letter. 16-31 May 1990. "Ghana: Religion and Politics." p. 1.

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. 20 June 1989. "Ghana: Jehovah's Witnesses' Publications Banned, Radio Calls for Ban on Other Sects." p. B1. (NEXIS)

Blaustein, Albert P. and Flanz, Gisbert H., eds. 1984. "Ghana" in Constitutions of the Countries of the World. By A.K.P. Kludze. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications.

Christian Council of Ghana and The Ghana Catholic Bishops' Conference. 14 November 1989. "A Message from the Christian Council of Ghana and the Ghana Bishops' Conference to their Faithful and Congregations." Accra, Ghana.

Clévenot, Michel, ed. 1987. L'État des Religions. Paris: Éditions La Découverte et Éditions du Cerf.

The Europa World Year Book 1990. 1990. Vol. 1. London: Europa Publications Limited.

FBIS-AFR-90-040-S. 28 February 1990. "Religious Bodies Law Explained to Muslims" in People's Daily Graphic [Accra, in English], 3 January 1990.

Howard, Rhoda, E. 1986. Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Index on Censorship [London]. September 1989. No. 8. p. 37.

Index on Censorship [London]. April/May 1991. No. 4 & 5. p. 54.

Quid 1991. 1990. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, S.A.

Ray, Donald I. 1986. Ghana: Politics, Economics and Society. London: Frances Pinter (Publishers) Limited.

Rittenbach, Rick. Jehovah's Witnesses World Headquarters, Brooklyn, New York. 30 April 1991. Telephone Interview.

United Nations Department of International Economic and Social Affairs. 1991. (ST/ESA/SER.A/120). World Population Prospects 1990.

United Nations. 1990. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. (HR/PUB/90/1). Centre for Human Rights.

U.S. Department of State. 1991. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1990. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

The Washington Post. 2 February 1991, Metro. "Ghana Lifts Ban." p. G1. (NEXIS).

West Africa [London]. 17-23 April 1989. "Ghana: Spiritual Onslaught."

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