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Diplomacy in Action

Mauritania


Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Report
October 26, 2009

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The 1991 Constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the religion of its citizens and the state. The Government prohibits the printing and distribution of non-Islamic religious materials and proselytizing by non-Muslims.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period. Authorities expelled a foreigner for distributing Christian materials.

There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government, religious leaders, and civil society as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 419,212 square miles and a population of 3.3 million. Almost the entire population practices Sunni Islam. There are very small numbers of non-Muslims, almost exclusively non-Mauritanian; Roman Catholic or other Christian churches are located in Nouakchott, Atar, Zouerate, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. Although there are no synagogues, a very small number of expatriates practice Judaism.

There were several foreign faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) active in humanitarian and developmental work in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The 1991 Constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the sole religion of its citizens and the state. The Government prohibits the printing and distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, although possession of these materials is legal. There is an unofficial government regulation that restricts non-Muslims to meeting in the few Catholic or other Christian churches. However, religious groups can meet in private homes after they receive official authorization from the authorities.

Shari'a provides legal principles upon which the law and legal procedures are based. Although there is no specific legal prohibition against proselytizing by non-Muslims, in practice the Government prohibits such activity through the broad interpretation of Article 5 of the Constitution that states, "Islam shall be the religion of the people and of the State."

The Government and citizenry consider Islam to be the essential cohesive element unifying the country's various ethnic groups. There is a cabinet-level Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education. The High Council of Islam, consisting of six imams, advised the Government on conformance of legislation to Islamic precepts. Although the Government provided a small stipend to the imam of the Central Mosque in the capital, members and other donors normally support mosques and Islamic schools.

The Government did not register religious groups; however, NGOs, including humanitarian and development NGOs affiliated with religious groups, must register with the Ministry of the Interior. NGOs must agree to refrain from proselytizing or otherwise promoting any religion other than Islam. In addition, the Government requires that groups, including religious groups, receive official authorization before they can meet, even in private homes. However, this requirement was not always enforced in practice.

The judiciary consists of a single system of courts that uses principles of Shari'a in matters concerning the family and modern legal principles in all other matters. The testimony of two women is necessary to equal that of one man in Shari'a. In awarding an indemnity to the family of a woman who has been killed, the courts grant only half the amount that they would award for a man's death. For commercial and other issues not addressed specifically by Shari'a, the law and courts treat women and men equally.

The Government requires members of the Constitutional Council and the High Council of Magistrates to take an oath of office that includes a promise to God to uphold the law of the land in conformity with Islamic precepts.

The Government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: First Muharram (Islamic New Year), Eid al-Mowlud (the birth of the Prophet Muhammad), Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha (Tabaski).

The Government restricts the use of mosque loudspeakers exclusively to the call to prayer and to Friday service in accordance with a 2003 law that prohibits the use of mosques for any form of political activity.

Both public schools and private Islamic schools include classes on Islam. Although attendance at these religious classes is ostensibly required, many students decline to attend for various ethnolinguistic, religious, and personal reasons. Students are able to advance in school and graduate with diplomas, despite missing these classes, provided they perform sufficiently well in their other classes.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period.

In late December 2008 authorities arrested a Norwegian woman in Ouadane for distributing Christian materials. She was released with a warning but was subsequently expelled from the country on January 2, 2009, after she continued her activities in Atar.

In March 2008 security forces briefly detained a man at a vehicle check point between Nouakchott and Rosso for carrying large amounts of undeclared currency and Christian proselytizing material.

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 who had not been allowed to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice; however, U.S. citizens active in Christian circles reported Mauritanians who participated in Christian gatherings were ostracized by their families and neighbors.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discussed religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The Embassy actively engaged prominent religious leaders in a dialogue to broaden mutual understanding of religious freedom principles and to explain the freedom with which Muslims practice their religion in the United States.



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