There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
Although in general there is religious tolerance among members of different religious groups, there were several reported mob killings of persons suspected of practicing witchcraft during the period covered by this report. There also were occasional reports that villagers believed to be witches were harassed or beaten.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of approximately 242,000 square miles, and its population is approximately 3.7 million of which an estimated 690,000 live in the capital, Bangui. Approximately 50 percent of the population is Christian, approximately 15 percent is Muslim, and approximately 35 percent practice traditional indigenous religions or no religion. Most Christians also practice some aspects of traditional indigenous religions. The Government does not keep data on the number of nontraditional religious groups in the country, and there is no data available on active participation in formal religious services or rituals. There is anecdotal evidence of an increase in conversions to Islam by younger persons.
In general, immigrants and foreign nationals in the country who practice a particular religion characterize themselves as Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim.
There are many missionary groups operating in the country, such as the Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, Grace Brethren, and Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as missionaries from Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and other African countries. However, during November and December 2002, many missionaries left the country as a result of fighting between government forces and rebels led by General Bozize, particularly in western areas of the country.In the period covered by this report, some of the displaced missionaries returned to the country and resumed their activities.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
Until it was suspended following the events of March 15, 2003, the Constitution provided for freedom of religion, although it prohibited what the former Government considered religious fundamentalism or intolerance; at times the Government limited this right in practice. The constitutional provision prohibiting religious fundamentalism was widely understood to target Muslims. The Government generally permitted adherents of all religions to worship without interference. There is no state religion. There is no indication that the Government favors any particular religion; however, during the period covered by this report, at least one minority religion complained that the Government granted free time each week on the official radio station to Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim speakers but required the representatives of smaller religions to pay.
Religious groups (except for traditional indigenous religious groups) are required by law to register with the Ministry of Interior. This registration is free and confers official recognition and certain limited benefits, such as customs duty exemption for the importation of vehicles or equipment, but does not confer a general tax exemption. The administrative police of the Ministry of Interior monitor groups that have failed to register; however, the police have not attempted to impose any penalty on such groups.
Religious organizations and missionary groups are free to proselytize, worship, and construct places of worship.
Although the Government does not explicitly prohibit religious instruction in public schools, religious instruction is not part of the overall public school curriculum. There are approximately 12 Catholic schools in Bangui.
The Government celebrates several Christian holidays as national holidays. These include Christmas, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, the Monday after Pentecost, and All Saints Day. The Government does not officially celebrate Islamic holidays; however, Muslims are allowed to take holidays off from work.
In the past, the Government has taken positive steps to promote interfaith dialogue, including organizing interfaith masses to promote peace.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Any religious or nonreligious group that the Government considers subversive is subject to sanctions. The Ministry of Interior may decline to register, suspend the operations of, or ban any organization that it deems offensive to public morals or likely to disturb the peace. The Ministry of Interior also may intervene to resolve internal conflicts about property, finances, or leadership within religious groups. The Government has banned the Unification Church since the mid-1980s as a subversive organization likely to disturb the peace, specifically in connection with alleged paramilitary training of young church members. However, the Government imposed no new sanctions on any religious groups during the period covered by this report.
The practice of witchcraft is a criminal offense under the Penal Code; however, persons generally are prosecuted for this offense only in conjunction with some other offense, such as murder. Witchcraft traditionally has been a common explanation for diseases of which the causes were unknown. Although many traditional indigenous religions include or accommodate belief in the efficacy of witchcraft, they generally approve of harmful witchcraft only for defensive or retaliatory purposes and purport to offer protection against it. The practice of witchcraft is understood widely to encompass attempts to harm others not only by magic but also by covert means of established efficacy such as poisons.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
On September 26, 2003, the Minister of Territorial Administration, in response to his stated concern over the proliferation of churches, suspended the activities of 34 Protestant churches on the allegation that they were created without consideration for official rules and regulations. This decree established preconditions for reopening the churches, including proven membership of at least 1,000 persons, evidence that the clergy graduated from accredited religious schools, and documentation that the church was created with respect to local law. According to the Ministry of Territorial Administration, several of the churches have since fulfilled these requirements and reopened.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.
During November and December 2002, many missionaries left the country as a result of fighting between government forces and rebels linked to an initial October 2002 coup attempt led by General Bozize. Missionaries working near the area of the insurrections in the western part of the country were reportedly attacked and their stations experienced severe looting.In December 2002, Father Jean Claude Kilamong was found dead in Bossangoa; the priest reportedly was taken hostage by rebels linked to an October 2002 coup attempt led by General Bozize. There have been no arrests made in regard to the case surrounding Father Kilamong's death. Two weeks prior to the priest's death, a Franciscan community near Bossangoa was reportedly attacked by the same rebels; three missionaries were beaten and threatened with death before fleeing to Bangui.
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.
Abuses by Terrorist Organizations
There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
Although in general there isreligious tolerance among members of different religious groups, there have been occasional reports that some villagers who were believed to be witches were harassed, beaten, or sometimes killed by neighbors. Courts have tried, convicted, and sentenced some persons for crimes of violence against suspected witches. There were several reported mob killings of persons suspected of practicing witchcraft in recent years. No action was taken in the case where angry mob killed two elderly women suspected of practicing witchcraft in 2001 by the end of the period covered by this report.
In recent years, bandits have attacked missionaries on several occasions. There were no arrests or reports of any action taken against the perpetrators.
When serious social or political conflicts have arisen, simultaneous prayer ceremonies have been held in churches, temples, and mosques to ask for divine assistance. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace often conducts developmental and educational programs and seminars throughout the country. The members work closely with other church groups and social organizations on social issues. Unlike in recent years, there were no large-scale ecumenical services.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. Although U.S. Embassy operations in Bangui are currently suspended, the Embassy's local staff maintains contact with religious groups, especially U.S. missionaries in the country, and monitors human rights developments as possible, under the direction of the Department of State.
 The U.S. Embassy in Bangui temporarily suspended operations on November 2, 2002, in response to security concerns raised by the military coup. Political relations with the government in Bangui are currently handled by the Department of State.