DAKAR, SENEGAL - Gambia's president declared the tiny West African country an Islamic republic, saying the decision was made because Islam is the religion of the majority of its citizens and to break from the nation's colonial past.
President Yahya Jammeh made the declaration Friday at the end of a political rally held on the coastal village Brufut, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of the capital, Banjul.
"In line with the country's religious identity and values, I proclaim Gambia as an Islamic state," the Gambian leader told his supporters. About 90 percent of Gambia's 1.8 million people are Muslim. Jammeh was making a declaration about the republic, and was not declaring it in line with the jihadist organization known as the Islamic State group.
"Gambia cannot afford to continue the colonial legacy," Jammeh said. The country gained independence from Britain in 1965.
In an attempt to allay the fears of religious minorities, Jammeh said the rights of Gambia's Christian community will be protected.
Jammeh said that there will be no mandates on dress. "We will be an Islamic state that would respect the rights of all citizens and non-citizens."
The head of the country's Islamic body wouldn't say if he endorsed the declaration.
"We haven't met yet to discuss over the presidential announcement," said Gambia's Supreme Islamic Council Chairman Imam Momodou Lamin Touray.
Hamat Bah of the opposition National Reconciliation Party criticized the decision. "There is a constitutional clause that says that Gambia is a secular state," he said. "You cannot make such a declaration without going through a referendum."
Gambia is a popular beach destination for British tourists although Jammeh's government has been regularly criticized by Britain and other Western powers for human rights abuses. Jammeh has ruled Gambia since seizing power in 1994.