Six African countries – Botswana, Mali, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, and Kenya – rank among the world’s most tolerant societies in terms of religious freedoms. That’s according to the latest study by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. It measured the amount of government regulation, government favoritism toward a particular religion, and the amount of social pressures and constraints imposed by other faiths and organized groups in the country. These factors, along with a high economic correlation had a close bearing on the study’s rankings of more than 100 countries worldwide. Eritrea and Sudan ranked among the most restrictive. Paul Marshall is the Hudson Institute Center’s Senior Fellow and editor of its latest study, Religious Freedom in the World 2007. In Washington, he said that the 20 African countries studied revealed several success stories and also displayed some surprising anomalies.
“Sub-Saharan Africa scores lower than western Europe and the North Atlantic countries, all of which tend to score pretty highly with ones, twos, or threes. It scores better than North Africa and West Asia (sometimes called the greater Middle East),” he says.
Among the surprises, Tanzania, an upper mid-level qualifier, revealed a large amount of government regulation. Marshall attributes this escalation to “Christian-Muslim tensions, and the questions of pulling in Zanzibar and Pemba. Dealing with the mainland,” he says, “you’ve had some more militant Muslim groups and you’ve also had violence from some Christian groups.”
Zimbabwe, the fourth worst-ranked of the African countries studied, showed high government favoritism toward one church over another. According to Marshall, this development stems from dramatic political changes in the country more than it reflects religious motivations.
“What you get in Zimbabwe is not favoritism towards a religion on theological grounds, but on the degree to which religious groups may be regarded by the government as a threat or insufficiently subordinate. So the churches which have been critical of the government on human rights grounds, the government has tended to crack down on those. The pattern of discrimination is depending on whether the churches take up a particular human rights mission,” he notes.
Ethiopia falls in a problematic range, along with Zimbabwe and Nigeria, with findings that Addis Ababa shows favoritism to the Orthodox church and to some Muslim groups. However, Marshall says, neighboring Eritrea fares much lower than its rival neighbor, “as one of the worst countries in the world for religious freedom,” with excessive government manipulation of the Orthodox patriarchy and the detention of more than two-thousand Evangelicals and Pentacostals -- about one-tenth of the members of those religious sects in the country.
In Nigeria, the Hudson study examines the impact of Muslim sharia law on religious freedoms in the country’s 12 northern states, and also finds that traditional patterns of doing business often hamper free religious expression.
“You get government favoritism of religion all over because of corruption – that is, who can buy them off, or if the ruler tends to be a member of this church, so he rewards his friends. So corruption and nepotism have an effect throughout Nigeria, and you get a lot of violence,” notes Marshall.
The Hudson Institute Senior Fellow says his study can have important implications for individuals concerned about societies’ rights to practice religion and live in freedom. He notes that the largest non-governmental organizations tend to be religious ones and the degree to which religious groups and institutions flourish in a society can have a positive effect on a country’s economic and political development.
“The study shows that religious freedom correlates very well with firstly economic freedom, and the development of markets. Secondly, it correlates with economic well-being, that income levels measure equality. It actually correlates even better than income with indexing, as measured in this context, by numbers of cell phones in use. And we have grounds to believe that we can actually show, in general, religious freedom helps development. This is true in Sub-Saharan Africa especially,” he says.