By Melvin Tejan Mansaray
During an interview with the Parliamentary Update Group (PUG) following the close of Fifth Legislature’s Delocalized Meeting of the Joint Committees on Education, Science and Culture/Health and Communication and Information Technology staged in Praia, Cape Verde, from the 14th to the 18th September, 2022 on the theme: “Religious Tolerance and Harmony: Essential Factors for Development, Peace and Stability in the ECOWAS Region,” a Member of the Economic
Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Parliament, who also doubles as a Member of the Sierra Leone Delegation to the Community
Parliament, Honorable Shiaka Musa Sama, said that in Cape Verde, it is a criminal offence to attack a place and people of faith; furthering that this should be applied across the West African sub-region.
Hon. Sama said that having the right legal climate will go a long way in deterring religious intolerance, citing the classical example of Cape Verde.
“It is important to have laws that deter people from being religiously intolerant, because during the meeting we all agreed that for the sub-region to have sustainable development, we must promote religious tolerance. We cannot all belong to the same religion; it is natural that we have to belong to different religions, sometimes for ulterior motives, we have got people preaching religious intolerance for their own selfish interest. We have seen in places like Nigeria and other parts of the region, where people have lost their lives, where one group of people is being set against another based on religion. We have seen how people have suffered because of violence that emanated from religious intolerance. I think some people cannot change willingly, we must ensure that we have provisions in our laws that would discourage religious intolerance. For example, in Cape Verde, we are told by one of their officials that they have got provisions in their laws that guarantee freedom of worship, and also prescribe penalties for people who try to prevent others from exercising their religious faiths. We are told that people can be imprisoned for up to eighteen months for violations that have to do with religious intolerance. I feel that we should take the next step by ensuring that we review our laws to make sure that we include provisions that will discourage religious intolerance,” Hon. Sama said.
He emphasized that there should be punitive measures against persons that are religiously intolerant, adding that “we have to respect the rights of others to hold opinions and practice their religion. Religion should be a personal thing and a personal relationship between one and their Maker.”
Hon. Sama noted that people must have a right to hold and keep their personal religious beliefs, but in so doing, also recognize the rights of others to practice their religious belief, adding that this can also be achieved by inter-religious dialogues by way of idea exchange through means of evangelism to persons of other religion, but however cautioned that, “we have to avoid public utterances that will encourage religious intolerance that will portray one religion as bad over the other, because of the religion that they practice.”
Hon. Sama said: “Of course, we have to be careful about the things we say publicly in churches and mosques, because when one is preaching to their followers they have more freedom on what to say and what not to say, because you are all of the same faith.”
He recalled how in his native Sierra Leone, a certain preacher almost ignited a religious feud because of the public utterances of a certain Nigerian Pastor, Victor Ajesafe, who said it is either you are a Christian or a pagan, and there is nothing like Islam or other religions.
“I think religious speeches must be regulated by the state, for example when you make derogatory remarks against another religious group publicly that will not augur well for those who are affected. I think people should be careful of what they say, because all of the religious books preach tolerance. All the religious divine books preach how one should treat their neighbors as themselves, they talk about extending kindness to people within and outside of one’s own faith,” He said.
He encouraged state and non-state actors to increase on the level of awareness on religious tolerance, noting that there are a lot of misinterpretation of religious texts, with some Muslims and Christians having a wrong interpretation of the scriptures, adding that, “I think what we need is a lot of education and understanding that if you want to be a good Muslim or Christian, what matters most is character, you have to follow the teachings of your book, all of which are mainly meant to make you a better person, to make you peacefully coexist with others in your community, it is not meant to create war or increase hostilities among people, but meant for people to live at peace within their communities and worship their creator.”
Hon. Sama concluded by saying that the Community Parliament and other National Assemblies do have a role to play in creating the conducive legal climate to deter religious intolerance, adding that, “I think this idea of religious tolerance should be discussed at the Heads of State level.”
“As an ECOWAS Parliament, we have MPs from different Parliaments, we have to take the message home to our Parliaments and ensure that we put some of these provisions that will encourage religious tolerance
into our law books and also design programmes in the Parliament that will ensure that Members go out as Committees and delegations, with programmes tailored towards taking ECOWAS to the people and engage communities in our home countries. We have to ensure that we preach this message of religious tolerance far and wide by using the mass media, religious bodies, etc. As was contained in our recommendations, we have to organize training and workshops and meetings with religious leaders, traditional leaders and other groups of people to ensure that they have a clear understanding of the way forward as a region in the direction of our vision for religious tolerance,” Hon. Sama said.
He nonetheless appraised the ECOWAS Delocalized meeting as good in having people from different countries from the sub region coming together to share experiences, from which he has learnt a lot and noted that it is his opinion that West Africa is doing well in terms of religious tolerance, despite having a few troubled spots but with such efforts by the ECOWAS Parliament, it will help reduce tensions in those trouble spots.
Apparently, the U.S. Department of State 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom on Cape Verde highlighted that: “The constitution and other laws protect the right of individuals to choose, practice, profess, and change their religion. The law provides for freedom of religion and worship and provide for equal rights in accordance with the constitution and international law. The law requires religious groups to prove they have 500 members before they may register formally as religious groups, according to certain rights and privileges. Under a concordat with the Holy See, the government grants privileges to the Roman Catholic Church not received by other groups, including recognition of the legal status of the Catholic Church and Catholic marriages under civil law. Five public schools piloted the optional Religious and Moral Education curriculum (EMRC), produced by the Catholic Church. Some non-Catholic religious groups objected, and some parents said their children would not participate. There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” In terms of religious demography, the U.S. government estimates Cape Verde’s total population at 576,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). The national government’s statistics indicate 77 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 10 percent Protestant, and 2 percent Muslim; 11percent does not identify with any religion. The second-largest Christian denomination is the Church of the Nazarene. Other Christian denominations include Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Assemblies of God, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, Independent Baptists, and other Pentecostal and evangelical Christian groups. There are small Baha’i and Jewish communities.