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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: Niger

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999

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Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution, which was suspended in April 1999 by the ruling National Reconciliation Council (CRN) following the assassination of President Ibrahim Mainassara Bare, provided for freedom of religion, and both the Bare Government and the current transitional National Reconciliation Council (CRN) respected this right in practice. The new Constitution, which was approved in a referendum on July 18, provides for "the right of the free development of each individual in their . . . spiritual, cultural and religious dimensions" and stipulates that "these rights and liberties are to be exercised in the respect of the laws and regulations in force." The Government supports the freedom to practice one's religious beliefs as long as persons respect public order, social peace, and national unity.

Religious organizations must register with the Interior Ministry. This registration is a formality and there is no evidence that it has ever been denied.

Islam is the dominant religion and is practiced by over 90 percent of the population. Christians (including Jehovah's Witnesses) and Baha'is practice freely. Islam is dominant throughout the country. The cities of Say, Kiota, Agadez, and Madarounfa are considered holy by the local Islamic communities, and the practice of other religions in those cities is not as well tolerated as in other areas. Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, account for less than 5 percent of the population and are particularly active in Niamey and other urban centers with expatriate populations. As Christianity was the religion of French colonial institutions, its followers include many local believers from the educated, the elite, and the colonial families, as well as Africans from neighboring coastal countries, particularly Benin, Togo, and Ghana. There is a Christian community in Galmi, Tahoua Department, which houses a hospital and health center run by Society for International Missions (SIM) missionaries and has been in operation for over 40 years. The Baha'is are very active and represent a small percentage of the population (in the thousands). They are located primarily in Niamey and in communities on the west side of the Niger River, bordering Burkina Faso. Followers of the Baha'i faith have sponsored religious tolerance campaigns and have had press coverage of some of their activities. A small percentage of the population practice traditional indigenous religions.

Christmas and Easter, along with Muslim holy days, are recognized national holidays. No religious group is subsidized officially to conduct its activities, although the Islamic Association has a weekly broadcast on the government-owned (and the only) television station. Christian programming generally is broadcast only on special occasions like Christmas.

The State must authorize construction of any place of worship.

Foreign missionaries work freely, but their organizations must be registered officially as associations.

Active Christian missionary organizations include Southern Baptist, Evangelical Baptist, Catholic, Assemblies of God, Seventh-Day Adventist, SIM, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Beyond proselytizing, most missionary groups generally offer development assistance as well.

There were instances during the period covered by this report in which local police were not confident they could ensure the safety of foreign missionaries, and local authorities ordered the closure of a church in Niamey but did not enforce it (see Section II).

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

There are generally amicable relations between the various religious communities, but there have been instances when members of the majority religion (Islam) have not been tolerant of the rights of members of minority religions to practice their faith.

On April 19, 1998, Catholic and Protestant churches in Maradi, in the south central region on the Nigerian border, were attacked by a group of demonstrators who allegedly included some local Shi'a Muslims. Some injuries to parishioners were reported and altars and religious artifacts were damaged or destroyed. Police responded within 40 minutes and arrested some of the demonstrators.

In mid-November 1998, members of a Baptist mission encountered problems with some members of the local Muslim community in Say, one of the Islamic holy cities and site of the Islamic University. Baptist missionaries had been active in the region for over a year and were well accepted by the population until they considered building a church. At that time, some local community members threatened to burn down their houses unless they left Say by the end of the week. When the Baptist mission members advised the authorities, they were told that, while it was within their rights to be there, the local police force could not ensure their safety. The missionaries continue to work in the Say region, but they have decided to postpone their church-building plans for the time being.

On April 15, 1999, the Assemblies of God church in the capital, Niamey, was notified by the mayor's office that it must close until the "new order" is established, presumably until a democratically elected government is in place, in early 2000. The church has been in its location since 1996 and has had an ongoing problem with one of it neighbors. The neighbor, who is from another Christian group, has been trying actively to have the church closed since its establishment. The church has been trying to find an amicable solution to maintain its good relationships in the community while protecting its interests against attacks by the neighbor. The police and local authorities had been responsive and supported the church's right to exist in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, it appears that the neighbor somehow persuaded the authorities to close the church.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. The Embassy regularly emphasizes the importance of a spirit of tolerance in its public statements and in meetings with government officials and members of civil society.

The Embassy maintains good relationships with minority religious groups, most of which are long-term resident missionaries and well-known members of the American community. Embassy personnel also have contact with the Catholic mission, the Baha'i community, and Islamic organizations.

Embassy representatives have intervened directly with government officials on behalf of a Baptist mission and the Assemblies of God Church. Embassy officers in November and December 1998 met with Baptist mission representatives on three separate occasions to discuss the problems in Say (see Section II). The Deputy Chief of Mission then met with the Minister of Interior to raise the Embassy's concerns for the safety of U.S. citizens, as well as the threat posed to the Constitution's provision for religious freedom. The Deputy Chief of Mission on January 11, 1999 also called on the Sous-Prefet of Say to express U.S. Government concern about the incidents. The missionaries continue to work in Say, but have decided against building a church at this time.

The Embassy's Regional Security Officer has tried unsuccessfully to get further details from his police contacts on the reason for the order for closure of the Assemblies of God church (see Section II). Embassy officers met with the Mayor of Niamey on May 21 to raise concerns about perceived restrictions on religious freedom. Embassy representatives reminded the Mayor of the need to respect all human rights and the commitment that the transitional Government has made to do this. He had not been aware of the issue, expressed concern, and promised to look into it. The Mayor subsequently notified the Embassy that the matter had been resolved. However, the order has not been revoked, although it has not been enforced and the church remains open.

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