The constitution declares the country to be a Christian nation, but upholds freedom of conscience, belief, and religion for all persons. It prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides for the right of individuals to manifest and propagate religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. It protects the freedom of individuals to change their religion or belief. It states no one shall be compelled to take an oath or perform acts contrary to his or her religious belief. The law prescribes legal recourse against, and penalties of fines and imprisonment for violations of religious freedom.
Religious groups must register with the chief registrar of societies in the Ministry of Home Affairs and pay regular statutory fees. To register, a group must have a unique name, possess a constitution consistent with the country’s laws, and adhere to laws pertaining to labor and employment practices and criminal conduct. The chief registrar’s office may consult with the police and religious umbrella organizations, called “church mother bodies,” to determine a group’s suitability for registration. Major church mother bodies include the Zambia Episcopal Conference (Catholic churches), the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (evangelical Protestant churches), and the Council of Churches in Zambia (traditional Protestant churches). The law allows the minister of home affairs to revoke the registration of religious groups. Grounds for revocation include failure to pay registration fees or a finding by the minister that the group professes purposes or has taken or intends to take actions that run counter to the interests of “peace, welfare, or good order.” Groups may appeal this finding through the courts. The government has the authority to levy fines and prison sentences of up to seven years against unregistered religious groups and their members but traditionally has not pursued such penalties.
The constitution affords religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction to members of their religious communities. The government requires religious instruction in all schools from grades one through nine; students may request education in their religion and may opt out of religious instruction only if the school is not able to accommodate their request. Religious education after grade nine is optional and is not offered at all schools. The religious curriculum focuses on Christian teachings, but also incorporates comparative studies of Islam, Hinduism, and traditional beliefs.
On October 27, the parliament approved President Lungu’s proposal to create a Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs. While the president stated the ministry’s purpose was to direct and regulate the religious affairs of the country, by the end of the year, it had only focused on rededicating Zambia as a Christian nation and leading Christian prayers for good crop yields and rains.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In an August 11 constitutional referendum, held alongside the country’s general election, voters rejected the proposal to move language deeming the country a Christian nation from the preamble to the bill of rights section of the constitution. Discussion of a second referendum continued, but the content of a new bill of rights remained unclear.
Religion was a dominant theme surrounding the general election on August 11. The ruling Patriotic Front (PF) frequently used Christian imagery and messaging to support President Lungu’s reelection campaign. Government-run and PF-friendly media often propagated deliberately Christian messages saying President Lungu was “sent by God” or “chosen” to lead the nation. PF supporters and media frequently denigrated opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema, whom PF supporters called a “Satanist.” Critics stated this charge stemmed from his rumored associations with Freemasons, his membership in a Seventh-day Adventist congregation, and his general lack of Christian allusions in prior campaign messages. Observers stated Hichilema significantly increased Christian references in the campaign in response to these accusations.
In October the government named Godfridah Sumaili to head the newly created Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs. The Catholic and Protestant church mother bodies, along with leaders of minority religions, opposed the creation of the ministry, stating citizens were already able to freely practice their faith. As of the end of the year, the government had not shared clear guidelines on the role and operation of the ministry.
On October 18, the country held its second National Day for Prayer and Fasting. Many church leaders did not participate, stating the event blurred the line between church and state. Various religious groups who participated contributed only minimally. During the government-sponsored event, President Lungu reaffirmed the country’s identification as a Christian nation. The president held a prayer day against political violence on June 24, again facing criticism the event was politically motivated, as it occurred during the general election campaign.
Prominent religious groups continued to argue the state should not be involved in building churches, including the proposed Interdenominational House of Prayer, which was incomplete at year’s end. The Council of Churches in Zambia continued to state the government building a Christian church discriminated against Muslims and other non-Christian groups. Several religious leaders outside the council expressed the same sentiment.
Religious groups reported that the government had yet to publish the findings of a 2015 study on allowing broader inclusivity of diverse faiths in the religious education curriculum. Smaller groups were incorporated in the curriculum consultation process but representatives of minority groups said their contributions largely went ignored.
After hearing concerns about community members with white hair being associated with witchcraft, President Lungu in January reaffirmed the need for sensitization and building of family value systems to ensure the aged are not stigmatized and discriminated against. In February a magistrate called for the amendment of the Witchcraft Act to ensure that individuals who attack others on suspicion of witchcraft are prosecuted in court to prevent citizens from taking the law into their own hands.