The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for the free practice of religious beliefs, provided public order is maintained, as well as self-governance by religious groups free from state interference. The constitution prohibits political parties from identifying with a specific religion.
Muslims may choose either the civil family code or sharia to adjudicate family conflicts, such as marriage and inheritance disputes. Civil court judges preside over civil and customary law cases, but religious leaders informally settle many disputes among Muslims, particularly in rural areas.
By law all faith-based organizations, such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) representing religious groups, must register with the interior ministry to acquire legal status as an association. To register, organizations must provide documentation showing they have been in existence for at least two years as an association. Organizations must also provide a mission statement, bylaws, a list of goals, objectives, and activities or projects implemented, and proof of previous and future funding. They must also pass a background check. Registration enables a group to conduct business, own property, establish a bank account, receive financial contributions from private sources, and receive applicable tax exemptions. There is no formal penalty for failure to register other than ineligibility to receive these benefits. Registered religious groups and nonprofit organizations are exempt from many forms of taxation.
The law requires associations, including religious organizations and NGOs affiliated with them, to obtain authorization from the Ministry of Women, Family, and Social Development in order to operate. This second registration requirement allows the government to monitor organizations operating in the field of social development and identify any interventions these organizations implement. Foreign NGOs must obtain authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
By law, religious education can be proposed in public and private schools and parents have the option to enroll their children in the program.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In October a French national was arrested in Dakar for “insulting” Islam and held in Dakar’s Rebeuss Prison. The accused reportedly threatened to kill his employer and disparaged Islam following a dispute. The employer filed a complaint, leading to the arrest for making death threats, defamation, and blasphemy. Following his arrest, the accused reportedly admitted to police that he maligned Islam, the Quran, and the Prophet Muhammad.
In June a court in Kolda convicted Islamic preacher Ibrahima Seye of glorifying terrorism, incitement to civil disobedience and religious intolerance, and sentenced him to one year in jail. Seye had praised jihad and referred to President Sall as an “infidel.” Some imams protested Seye’s arrest, but others accused him of making “misleading” sermons. The prosecutor stated his sentence was too light and filed an appeal. In October the Dakar Court of Appeals increased Seye’s sentence to 30 months (24 without parole).
In October the Court of Dakar delivered a suspended six-month sentence to Imam Cheikh Mbacke Sakho for insulting the country’s Mouride brotherhood, a Sufi order. In an online video from September, Sakho accused the Mouride leadership of making a “business” out of religion and “tricking” their followers, arguing they were not following the example of Mouride founder Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba. A lawyer representing the plaintiffs called the court’s decision “calamitous,” arguing the punishment should have been more severe and announcing they would appeal the sentence.
During a speech in July, President Sall invited Islamic scholars to deliver a “doctrinal response” (one based on the Quran and Islamic doctrine) to those who would use religion to justify acts of terrorism. Some scholars subsequently echoed his remarks, in particular the government-employed imam of Dakar’s Grand Mosque. During the United Nations General Assembly session in September, the president urged the international community not to blame Islam or Muslims for acts of terrorism: “We will not allow the crazed acts of a minority without faith or law to serve as a pretext to stigmatize more than a billion Muslims and their religion.” These remarks were echoed by some of Sall’s supporters.
The government provided direct financial and material assistance to religious groups, primarily to maintain or rehabilitate places of worship or to underwrite special events. There was no formal procedure for applying for assistance. All religious groups had access to these funds and often competed on an ad hoc basis to obtain them. President Sall occasionally visited beneficiaries of these funds. In October he visited mosques the government was rehabilitating in Kaolack and Tambacounda.
The government encouraged and assisted Muslim participation in the Hajj, providing imams with hundreds of free airplane tickets for the pilgrimage for distribution among citizens. Of the 10,500 Senegalese participants in the Hajj, 1,500 were given assistance by the government while the rest traveled on their own via tour operators. The government provided assistance for an annual Roman Catholic pilgrimage to the Vatican, the Palestinian territories, and Israel. The Catholic Church reported the government provided 368 million CFA francs ($589,000) for 550 Catholic pilgrims who traveled to the Vatican in August and September, an increase from 358 million CFA francs ($573,000) for 338 pilgrims in 2015.
The government allowed up to four hours of voluntary religious education per week in public and private elementary schools. Parents could choose either a Christian or Muslim curriculum. Students had the option to opt out of the curriculum. The Ministry of Education reported slightly more than a million students participated in religious education through the public elementary school system.
The Ministry of Education provided partial funding to schools operated by religious groups that met national education standards. Established Christian schools with strong academic reputations received the largest share of this government funding. The majority of students attending Christian schools were Muslim. The government also funded a number of Islamic schools which enrolled approximately 60,000 students.
The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Women, Family and Social Development monitored the country’s associations, including religious groups and NGOs affiliated with them, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs monitored foreign-based NGOs, including those affiliated with religious groups, to ensure they were operating within the terms of their registration. The ministries required the submission of an annual report, including a financial report, in an effort to track potential funding of terrorist groups. There were no reports that any organization has had its registration revoked for operating outside the terms of its registration.