The constitution defines the country as a secular state, prohibits discrimination based on religion, and provides for freedom of religion in conformity with the law. Following the 2020 coup d’état, the transition government adopted the Transition Charter in September 2020, which recognized the continued validity of the 1992 constitution’s definition of the country as secular and continued to prohibit religious discrimination under the law. Following the May 2021 consolidation of military power, the subsequent transition government also upheld the validity of these founding documents.
According to the penal code, any act of discrimination based on religion or any act impeding the freedom of religious observance or worship is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment or 10 years’ banishment (prohibition from residing in the country). The penal code also states any religiously motivated persecution of a group of persons constitutes a crime against humanity.
The law requires registration of all public associations, including religious groups, except for groups practicing indigenous religious beliefs; however, registration confers no tax preferences or other legal benefits, and there is no penalty for not registering. To register, applicants must submit copies of a declaration of intent to create an association, notarized copies of bylaws, copies of policies and regulations, notarized copies of a report of the first meeting of the association’s general assembly, and lists of the leaders of the association, with signature samples of three of the leaders. Upon review, if approved, MATD grants the certificate of registration.
The MARCC is responsible for administering the national strategy for countering violent extremism, promoting religious tolerance, and coordinating national religious activities such as pilgrimages and religious holidays for followers of all religions.
The constitution prohibits public schools from offering religious instruction, but it permits private schools to do so. Privately funded madrassahs teach the standard government curriculum, as well as Islam. Non-Muslim students in these schools are not required to attend Islamic religious classes. Private Catholic schools teach the standard government curriculum and Catholic religious classes. Non-Catholic students in these schools are not required to attend Catholic religious classes. Informal schools, known locally as Quranic schools, which some students attend in lieu of public schools, do not follow a government curriculum and offer religious instruction exclusively.
The law defines marriage as secular. Couples who seek legal recognition must have a civil ceremony, which they may follow with a religious ceremony. A man may choose between a monogamous or polygamous marriage. The religious customs of the deceased determine inheritance rights, and civil courts consider these customs when they adjudicate such cases; however, many cases are settled informally.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The transition government proposed a draft law on religious freedom and policies surrounding the free exercise of worship. The Council of Ministers adopted the draft law in December 2021 and the request for full adoption and implementation of the law was pending CNT approval as of year’s end. The proposed law would enable the MARCC more easily to oversee religious organizations by having a primary role in approving their registration applications, as the registration process and review is currently managed by the MATD alone.
The MARCC, in coordination with the Archbishop of Bamako, Cardinal Jean Zerbo, organized the annual Catholic pilgrimage to Kita, which took place from November 19-20. Cardinal Zerbo, former Prime Minister Moussa Mara, and Minister of Religious Affairs, Worship, and Customs Mahamadou Kone took part in the pilgrimage, as did members of the Union of Young Malian Muslims (UJMA). As part of the pilgrimage, a UJMA representative marched from Kayes to Kita (approximately 250 miles) to demonstrate UJMA’s support for interfaith dialogue. According to the Protestant church in the country, in May, the transition government assisted the church with approximately CFA 20 million ($32,500) to hold a gathering of more than 50,000 Protestant believers in Bamako. In September, the transition government also funded the pilgrimage of Protestants to Jerusalem. According to the MARCC, in addition to providing technical assistance, the transition government funded travel, housing, and food for Muslims to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage.
In June, the HCI held a workshop in collaboration with the MARCC aiming to assist preachers throughout the country in reducing extremist messaging that incites intolerance and violence. In September, the transition government assisted the HCI in organizing an international conference bringing together religious and community leaders from approximately 10 countries to discuss strategies for countering violent extremism that uses religious ideologies. The conference established a regional framework of religious and community leaders who will work together to counter violent extremism. The MARCC also renewed with the Moroccan government a training program for imams on preaching moderate interpretations of Islam. The agreement was signed in October to train 300 imams over five years.
In October 2020, the National Secretariat for the Prevention and the Fight Against Violent Extremism within the MARCC, with the assistance of the UN Development Program, launched a study of factors influencing extremism related to religion. In July 2021, using the results from the 2020 study, the transition government finalized a 2021-25 national action plan on countering and preventing violent extremism and terrorism that included interfaith efforts and the promotion of religious tolerance.
The Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission held its fifth public hearing in June, covering cases relating to gender-based violence and child victims of the conflict. All public hearings were broadcast on national television. As of June 9, the commission had heard the testimony of a total of 32,300 individuals since its launch in 2014, including cases involving religious freedom violations. Political events in the country, the COVID-19 pandemic, growing security concerns in the central and northern regions, a lack of transportation for victims, and a lack of access in camps for displaced persons limited the collection of testimony. The commission’s mandate ended on December 31, with a final report expected in 2023.
Caritas representatives and some Protestant leaders stated that although there were far fewer Christians than Muslims in the country, they did not experience unequal treatment by the transition government, and in their opinion the transition government was adhering to the constitutional requirement to treat all religions equally. Transition government officials from the MARCC continued to emphasize and cite that the constitution and government practices provide for the freedom to worship and practice any religion, including the freedom to not engage in religious practices. During consultations on the draft constitution in November, the Coordination Framework for Islamic Associations (an umbrella group for Islamic associations) requested the transition government remove references to secularism, and instead establish Islam as the official religion of the country, including mandating teaching Islam and Arabic in the country’s public education system. In response, the transition government repeatedly stated its commitment to retaining a secular framework in the constitution.
On October 31, a video circulated on social media showing Mamadou Dembele, an adherent to Kemetism, stepping on a Quran. Dembele advocated a return to African religions like Kemetism and dismissed Christianity and Islam as not true religions of Africans. The same day, the general prosecutor opened an investigation into the incident, stating Dembele’s comments were contradictory to freedom of religion and were designed to provoke tensions between Muslim and other communities. MARCC Minister Kone also condemned Dembele’s comments, promised all faith communities that MARCC would remain involved, and called for calm. Transition President Assimi Goita on November 2 further condemned the action and comments and expressed sympathy with the Muslim community, while calling for a peaceful response. The Kemetic community also condemned Dembele’s actions. The HIC held a peaceful demonstration in Bamako on November 4, with an estimated 40-60,000 people in attendance, to protest Dembele’s comments and actions. Authorities also detained the leader of Kemetism in Mali, Fakoly Doumbia, on November 1 after he criticized Minister Kone’s condemnation of Dembele’s words and actions. On November 3, a Bamako court charged Doumbia and five other followers of Kemetism with “offenses of a religious nature capable of causing disturbance to public order.” At year’s end, Doumbia and the five others remained in detention pending further investigation.
The 147-member National Transition Council, the country’s transition legislative body formed by the transition government in 2020, included four seats reserved for representatives of three religious associations. One seat is held by a Catholic, one by a Muslim, and two by Protestants. In October, 26 members were added to CNT, bringing the total to 147. The HCI objected to the CNT’s decision to reserve a second seat for a Protestant member without also allocating an additional seat for a Muslim member.
Actions by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Throughout the year, mostly in the central and northern regions, domestic and transnational terrorist groups (including al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates Ansar al-Din, Macina Liberation Front, and al-Mourabitoune), united under the umbrella group JNIM, and the Islamic State in the Sahel (ISIS Sahel), both U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations, continued attacks on domestic and international security forces, UN peacekeepers, civilians, and others they reportedly perceived as not adhering to their interpretation of Islam. Both JNIM and ISIS-Sahel controlled significant territory in the northern and central regions. According to nongovernmental organizations and security experts, armed groups in some instances coopted preexisting intercommunal and ethnic tensions to further sow instability and violence; therefore, it was not possible to attribute some incidents entirely to religious motives. Several of JNIM’s public messages repeated an intent to govern the country according to sharia. According to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali’s (MINUSMA) Human Rights Protection Division (HRPD), terrorist groups forced populations under their control to pay taxes for local services that the groups referred called zakat (the traditional annual charitable contribution required of all Muslims) and enforced prohibitions on organizing local festivals, ceremonies, and listening to music. Women were often forced to wear full-face veils and body-covering clothing, and men were often forced to wear clothing which did not go past their ankles. According to MINUSMA, on May 9, in the village of Echelle in the Goundam subdivision of the Timbuktu region, 12 women who were not, in JNIM’s view, wearing appropriate clothing received 20 lashes each, while 13 men wearing hairstyles or facial hair deemed inappropriate were forcibly groomed.
Civil society organizations continued to report that the transition government and security forces struggled to tamp down the violence generated by these extremist groups and that the actions of such groups limited the transition government’s capacity to govern and bring perpetrators to justice, especially in rural areas.
A UN Secretary General’s report released on March 30 cited at least nine instances of alleged extremist groups attacking mosques, imposing their beliefs on worshippers, and threatening severe punishments on anyone acting contrary to those beliefs. This practice was recorded in particular in the Douentza and Timbuktu Regions.
According to the media, on September 18, individuals affiliated with ISIS-Sahel, based on their interpretation of sharia, imposed a penalty of whipping on a couple accused of adultery, resulting in their deaths.
On November 20, a German priest, Hans-Joachim Lohre, was abducted in Bamako by unidentified individuals while on his way to attend Mass. His whereabouts remained unknown at the end of the year. No group claimed responsibility. On November 24, police announced the arrest of two individuals in Bamako in the case, and the investigation was pending at year’s end.
Several influential imams, civil society organizations, and transition government officials cautioned against divisive language that conflated certain ethnic groups, such as Fulani populations, with groups of violent extremists motivated by religious ideology. For example, in early April following a counterterrorism operation in the town of Moura that allegedly killed over 300 civilians, many of whom were Fulani, the army chief of staff, the civil society organization Tabital Pulaaku, and the HCI issued statements warning against conflating members of the Fulani community with terrorists.
According to Caritas, most Catholic churches in the country remained open throughout the year.
Islamist armed groups targeted and closed government schools that taught any curriculum not based on Islam, and many schools closed due to threats of violence or lack of adequate security. According to Caritas, schools that closed in prior years due to threats of violence or conflict had not reopened. As of year’s end, according to UN reporting, 1,950 schools remained closed due to a lack of adequate security, affecting over 587,000 children. Most closures occurred in the Mopti and Menaka regions.