The constitution specifies Islam is the state religion and defines the national identity as being based on a single religion – Sunni Islam – but proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all, regardless of religious belief. The constitution also specifies that the principles and rules to regulate worship and social life be based on Sunni Islam under the Shafi’i doctrine. Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for deportation of foreigners who do so. The law prohibits the performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places on the basis of “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.” On August 28, security forces, under orders from Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou, arrested seven persons on Anjouan and four persons on Grande Comore for engaging in the public Shia commemoration of Ashura. The gendarmerie released the 11 individuals after four days of detention. There were no reports of arrests for Comorians practicing other religions, but members of non-Sunni groups reported broad self-censorship and stated they practiced or spoke about their beliefs only in private. Shia Muslims reported government surveillance during religious holidays important to their community. In contrast with previous years, there were no reports of national leaders making public statements against religious minorities.
There continued to be reports that local communities unofficially shunned individuals who were suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity or from Sunni to Shia Islam.
Representatives from the U.S. embassy in Antananarivo, Madagascar, engaged on issues of religious freedom with government officials, including officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, and President’s Office, focusing on the importance of individuals having the ability to practice their religion freely and of government officials refraining from statements criticizing religious minorities. Embassy representatives also discussed religious freedom with religious and civil society leaders and others, including members of minority religious groups.
On December 2, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Comoros on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 846,000 (midyear 2020 estimate), of which 98 percent is Sunni Muslim. Roman Catholics, Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Protestants together make up less than 2 percent of the population. Non-Muslims are mainly foreign residents and are concentrated in the country’s capital, Moroni, and the capital of Anjouan, Mutsamudu. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims mostly live in Anjouan.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states Islam is the state religion and citizens shall draw principles and rules to regulate worship and social life from the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam. The preamble “affirms the will of the Comorian people” to cultivate a national identity based on a single religion, Sunni Islam. It proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all individuals regardless of religion or belief. A law establishes the Sunni Shafi’i doctrine as the “official religious reference” and provides sanctions of five months’ to one year’s imprisonment, a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Comorian francs ($250-$1,200), or both, for campaigns, propaganda, or religious practices or customs in public places that could cause social unrest or undermine national cohesion.
The law prohibits anyone from insulting a minister of religion in the exercise of his functions, punishable by a fine of 15,000 to 45,000 francs ($37-$110) and imprisonment of six months to two years.
Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for deportation of foreigners who do so. The penal code states, “whoever discloses, spreads, and teaches Muslims a religion other than Islam will be punished with imprisonment of three months to one year and a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 Comorian francs” ($120-$1,200).
There is no official registration process for religious groups. The law allows Sunni religious groups to establish places of worship, train clergy, and assemble for peaceful religious activities. It does not allow non-Sunni religious groups to assemble for peaceful religious activities in public places, although foreigners are permitted to worship at three Christian churches in Moroni, Mutsamudu, and Moheli, and foreign Shia Muslims are permitted to worship at a Shia mosque in Moroni.
The law prohibits proselytizing or performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places, based on “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.” Without specifying religion, the penal code provides penalties for the profaning of any spaces designated for worship, for interfering with the delivery of religious leaders in the performance of their duties, or in cases where the practice of sorcery, magic, or charlatanism interferes with public order.
According to the constitution, the Grand Mufti is the highest religious authority in the country. The President appoints the Grand Mufti, who manages issues concerning religion and religious administration. The Grand Mufti heads an independent government institution called the Supreme National Institution in Charge of Religious Practices in the Union of the Comoros. The Grand Mufti counsels the government on matters concerning the practice of Islam and Islamic law. The Grand Mufti chairs and periodically consults with the Council of Ulema, a group of religious elders cited in the constitution, to assess whether citizens are respecting the principles of Islam.
The law provides that before the month of Ramadan, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Council of Ulema publish a ministerial decree providing instructions to the population for that month.
The government uses the Quran in public primary schools for Arabic reading instruction. There are more than 200 government-supported, fee-based schools with Quranic instruction. The tenets of Islam are sometimes taught in conjunction with Arabic in public and private schools at the middle and high school levels. Religious education is not mandatory.
The country is a signatory but not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On August 28, security forces, operating on orders from Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou, arrested seven Shia Muslims on Anjouan and four on Grande Comore for commemorating Ashura in public. According to a local Shia leader, the gendarmerie released the 11 individuals after four days of detention. Shia community members reported government surveillance during religious commemorations important to their community such as Ashura.
There were no reports of arrests of citizens engaged in other religious practices during the year, but members of non-Sunni groups and other minority religious groups reported self-censorship and stated they practiced only in private to avoid being harassed by the government.
According to a Shia leader in Moroni, a cultural center operated in Moroni, on Grande Comore, where Shia practiced their religion, but where police also intervened on Ashura and arrested Comorians attending.
In contrast with previous years, there were no reports of national leaders making public statements against religious minorities.
Expatriate Christian community members reported they had been waiting for more than three years for a government response to their application for a license to build a new church.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
As in previous years, there were reports that local communities unofficially shunned individuals suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity. Societal abuse and discrimination against non-Muslim citizens persisted, particularly against Christians or those who were converts from Islam. Non-Muslim foreigners reported little to no discrimination.
Most non-Sunni Muslim citizens reportedly did not openly practice their faith for fear of societal rejection. Societal pressure and intimidation continued to restrict the use of the country’s three churches to noncitizens. Christians reported they would not eat publicly during Ramadan so as not to draw attention to their faith.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. Representatives from the U.S. embassy in Madagascar engaged with government officials on issues of religious freedom, including with officials from the Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry, Justice Ministry, and the President’s Office, focusing on the importance of individuals to be able to practice their religion freely and ending government statements criticizing religious minorities.
Embassy representatives met with a variety of Muslim and Christian religious and civil society leaders on issues of religious freedom, including Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims and Protestant and Catholic groups. The embassy also used social media posts to highlight the importance of religious freedom and diversity and to engage with civil society and the general populace, including a post from the Ambassador on Thanksgiving to underscore the importance of religious diversity and interfaith cooperation.
On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Comoros on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to worship, alone or in community with others, and to change religion or belief. Although the law requires new religious groups to register, unregistered groups were able to operate freely. In April, the University of Eswatini published results of a study of the effects of the 2017 directive requiring public schools to teach only Christianity, and recommended the government review the curriculum. The policy of excluding the teaching of other religions remained in effect. The government reportedly provided favorable treatment to Christian beliefs and organizations in various circumstances, such as access to free radio and television time.
Muslim leaders continued to report negative and/or suspicious views of Islam in society. Faith groups and civil society organizations held interfaith dialogues, and different faith groups sometimes collaborated on community service or development initiatives, which Muslim leaders said helped increase societal respect and tolerance for Islam.
The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials engaged with government officials on issues such as the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions in public schools. They engaged with religious leaders on the importance of developing and maintaining interfaith dialogue in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Religious leaders estimate that 90 percent of the population is Christian, approximately 2 percent is Muslim (of whom many are not ethnic Swati, the dominant ethnic group in the country), and the remainder belongs to other religious groups, including those with indigenous African beliefs. According to anecdotal reports, approximately 40 percent of the population practices Zionism, a blend of Christianity and indigenous ancestral worship (some adherents of which self-identify as evangelical Christians), while another 20 percent is Roman Catholic. There are also Anglicans, Methodists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and very small Jewish and Baha’i communities. Zionism is widely practiced in rural areas.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to worship, alone or in community with others, and to change religion or belief. These rights may be limited by laws that are “reasonably required” in the interest of defense, public safety, order, morality, health, or protecting the rights of others. The constitution provides religious groups the right to establish and operate private schools and to provide religious instruction for their students without interference from the government.
The law requires religious groups to register with the government. The Ministry of Home Affairs is the government agency responsible for monitoring religious affairs in the country. To register as a religious group, Christian groups must apply through one of the country’s three umbrella religious bodies – the League of Churches, Swaziland Conference of Churches, or Council of Swaziland Churches – for a recommendation, which is routinely granted and does not impede registration, according to church leaders. The application process requires a group to provide its constitution, membership, and physical location, along with the umbrella body’s recommendation, to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Trade, which then registers the organization. For indigenous religious groups and non-Christian religious organizations, authorities consider proof of a religious leader, a congregation, and a place of worship as sufficient grounds to grant registration. Registered religious groups are exempt from taxation, but contributions are not tax deductible.
All prospective builders, including religious groups, must obtain government permission for the construction of new buildings in urban areas, and permission from the appropriate chief and chief’s advisory council for new buildings in rural areas. In some rural communities, chiefs have designated special committees to allocate land to religious groups for a minimal fee.
Christian religious instruction is mandatory in public primary schools and is incorporated into the daily morning assembly. Christian education is also compulsory in public secondary schools. There are no opt-out procedures. Religious education is neither prohibited nor mandated in private schools.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
A 2017 directive declaring Christianity the only religion in the public school curriculum and banning the teaching of other religions remained in effect. In April, a group of University of Eswatini researchers completed a study on the effects of the 2017 directive and published a journal article recommending that the government review the curriculum to suit the needs of all learners and ensure that constitutional protections against religious discrimination are honored in practice. In September, Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly Phila Buthelezi, in his role as chair of the Public Accounts Committee, publicly asked whether it was time for the government to reconsider the 2017 directive and stated his intention to introduce a motion for reconsideration in the next session of the Assembly. As of year’s end, the government had not reacted to the study nor to Buthelezi’s call for reconsideration of the 2017 directive. According to religious leaders and civil society organizations, school administrations continued to permit only Christian religious youth clubs to operate in public schools. Christian clubs sometimes conducted daily prayer services in public schools and were permitted to raise funds on campus. Christian clubs’ activities were normally conducted during lunch breaks, weekends, and school holidays.
During the year, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Themba Masuku hosted an interfaith dialogue in which he called for religious leaders to collaborate among themselves and with the DPM’s office to help raise awareness of, and fight against, poverty, sexual exploitation, rape, truancy, domestic violence, and other crimes and social ills. Religious leaders reported that the DPM’s efforts were both welcome and helpful in encouraging coordination and cooperation on commonly held goals. A Muslim leader highlighted the DPM’s efforts to engage with various faith groups and said that religious tolerance appeared to have improved somewhat during the year as a result of more frequent and more inclusive dialogue.
Religious leaders said the government continued to protect the right of Muslim workers to close businesses in order to attend Friday afternoon prayers at mosques despite government-mandated business operating hours. Businesses owned by members of the Baha’i community were allowed to close shops in observance of Baha’i religious holidays. Public schools, however, did not excuse students from attendance on non-Christian religious holidays, Friday Islamic prayers, or Saturday services, such as for Seventh-day Adventists.
Non-Christian groups reported the government continued to provide some preferential benefits to Christians, such as free time on state television and radio. Government-owned television and radio stations broadcast daily morning and evening Christian programming. The government continued to provide each of the three Christian umbrella religious bodies and their affiliates with free airtime to broadcast daily religious services on the state-run radio station. Local newspapers provided free space in their announcement sections to Christian groups but not to non-Christian groups.
The monarchy, and by extension the government, aligned itself with Christian faith-based groups and supported Christian activities such as commemorating Christian holidays. Official government programs often opened with a Christian prayer, and several government ministers held Christian prayer vigils, which civil servants were expected to attend.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Muslim community continued to report negative, but improving, views of Islam in society. According to Muslim leaders, some members of society continued to conflate reports of violence committed by groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram with behavior associated with Muslims or Islam in general. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, with Muslims in the country being primarily of South Asian descent, it was difficult to categorize such perceptions as being solely based on religious identity.
The Baha’i community held quarterly interfaith devotional fellowship dialogues, and different faith groups sometimes collaborated on community service or development initiatives. Muslim leaders and civil society organizations also hosted pioneering interfaith dialogues during the year. Muslim leaders reported that they viewed these interfaith initiatives as key to increasing societal respect and tolerance for Islam, stating they believed the suspicion Muslims faced was due more to ignorance than intolerance. In light of COVID-related lockdowns, the Muslim community held virtual dialogues to promote religious, cultural, and social tolerance.
One civil society organization, the Swaziland Youth Intent Organization (SIYO), hosted an interfaith dialogue that received significant coverage in local newspapers and on national radio. SIYO also developed and held the first of a series of all-day “boot camps,” in which 40 participants from different religious groups attended simulated immersion trips to Muslim, Baha’i, and traditional Eswatini religious communities to experience firsthand their respective religions, cultures, and languages. According to the SIYO project coordinator, these simulated experiences helped to dismantle religious and cultural stereotypes, build social cohesion, and promote peace and tolerance among individuals and organizations representing diverse backgrounds.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials engaged with government officials, the head of the Human Rights Commission Secretariat, and the head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation task force on religious freedom and tolerance issues, including the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions in public schools.
Embassy officials also engaged with civil society, the academic community, and religious leaders of different faiths on issues such as the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions in public schools and the importance of developing and maintaining interfaith dialogue in the country.