The constitution states that “every person shall have the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice,” as long as doing so does not impinge on the rights of others or on the national interest. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, the establishment of a state religion, and religiously-based political parties.
The constitution establishes qadi courts, with Muslim judges trained in the Islamic legal tradition. The qadi courts are located in each of the country’s seven regions and apply sharia. Their jurisdiction applies only to marriage, divorce, custody over children, and inheritance questions for Muslims. Sharia also applies to interfaith couples where there is one Muslim spouse. Non-qadi district tribunals, which deal with issues under customary and traditional law, apply sharia, if relevant, when presiding over cases involving Muslims. A five-member qadi panel has purview over appeals regarding decisions of the qadi courts and non-qadi district tribunals relating to sharia. Muslims also have access to civil courts. Non-Muslims are not subject to qadi courts.
There are no formal guidelines for registration of religious groups, but faith-based groups that operate as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must meet the same eligibility criteria as other NGOs. All NGOs are required to register with the NGO Affairs Agency according to the law, and must register as charities at the Attorney General’s chambers under the Companies Act. They are required to have governing boards of directors of at least seven members responsible for policy and major administrative decisions including internal control. The NGO decree requires all NGOs to submit to the NGO Affairs Agency a detailed annual work program and budget, a detailed annual report highlighting progress on activities undertaken during the year, work plans for the following year, and financial statements audited by NGO Affairs Agency-approved auditors. The government has stated the submissions help the NGO Affairs Agency monitor the activities of the respective NGOs.
The law requires all public and private schools throughout the country to include basic Muslim or Christian instruction in their curricula. Students may not opt out of these classes. The government provides religious education teachers to schools that cannot recruit such teachers.
The constitution bans political parties organized on a religious basis.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On June 12, authorities arrested approximately 12 Christian youths in Kuloro village in West Coast Region for singing and dancing during Ramadan, according to Christians living in the area. On June 7, the inspector general of police stated “all ceremonies, festivities, and programs that involve drumming, music, and dance during the day or at night [during Ramadan] are prohibited.” The youths were released after 24 hours in detention.
On March 21, the family of Imam Alhagie Ousman Sawaneh of Kanifing South Mosque sued the government requesting his release nearly six months after his arrest from his home in Kanifing. Sawaneh, along with two other imams, was arrested without explanation by the National Intelligence Agency in October 2015. Following two court proceedings, at which the state failed to appear, Justice Basiru Mahoney ordered the release of the imam in March. Sawaneh, however, was not released as of year’s end; the other two imams also remained in detention. Requests for an explanation from the SIC concerning the arrests went unanswered; the SIC stated it had no knowledge of the arrests or detentions. Advocates for the three individuals said that the constitution states that no accused should be held without charge in excess of 72 hours. Residents of Central River Region stated the imams were members of a new rice farmers association that was perceived by the government to be unsupportive of the ruling party.
During a July 25 International Award for Quran Memorization Competition hosted by President Jammeh, he stated, “The Gambia will be a truly Islamic country, and the constitution shall be the Quran.” Leaders of Christian organizations said this declaration, following Jammeh’s December 11, 2015, presidential announcement declaring The Gambia an Islamic state, raised concerns that the president would apply sharia in all facets of society. Observers noted, however, that this would require the parliament to pass legislation to change the constitution.
On February 3, the SIC, a government-sponsored religious advisory body tasked with providing Islamic religious guidance but with no legal mandate to regulate religious groups, stated it was in charge of religious affairs in the country and that it contributed to the maintenance of peace and order by screening and certifying all Islamic scholars who wished to propagate the Islamic faith through local media to ensure that scholars preach in accordance with acceptable principles of Islam. In September 2015 the SIC had banned the Ahmadi Muslim community from airing religious programs on the government-owned GRTS and on all public and private radio stations. The Ahmadi community remained banned from the airwaves at the end of the year.
On January 4, the president issued an executive decree requiring female government employees to wear headscarves to work. According to media sources, the memorandum was delivered to all ministries and departments. The president’s decree received attention from international media and opposition parties. On January 13, GRTS announced the directive was lifted and female employees did not have to cover their hair.
Leaders of the Gambia Christian Council (GCC) said that while they remained concerned, they had not seen any actions suggesting an impending imposition of sharia and stated they were hopeful that no changes would occur. Local media reported the GCC sought clarity from the government that the declaration would not adversely affect the practice of their faith, but did not receive the desired reassurances. The GCC reportedly received a letter from the Office of the President on January 11 that indicated the government’s commitment to maintain peace and freedom of religious practice.
On February 9, the Knights of Saints Peter and Paul issued a press release on the president’s Islamic state declaration. The press release stated that an Islamic state would bring no benefit to Christians and doubted it would bring any to their “Muslim brothers and sisters.” It stated that the declaration was an unwelcome development that emphasized the differences between Gambians, rather than the things that bind them together, and concluded that it had the potential to “tear us grievously apart.” The Knights of Saints Peter and Paul is a society open to all Catholic men with a membership of 53 at year’s end.
The Bahai National Spiritual Assembly said the president’s statements had not affected its relations with the government and the council did not anticipate problems arising from the declaration.