Freedom of indigenous spirituality gets short shrift by African states

Although African indigenous spirituality has been proclaimed a cultural treasure in UN and UNESCO documents, African states are increasingly denying or marginalizing the freedom of such religious expressions, according to a new report by the USCIRF, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The USCIRF is a bipartisan independent commission whose members are appointed by the congressional leaders of both parties and nominated by the president. According to its April 4 report, “Within the discourse on freedom of religion or belief in Africa, the experiences of practitioners of African traditional and indigenous religions are often neglected or peripheral. Some of the most significant challenges adherents of these faith traditions endure include violence and impunity, legal restrictions and coercion, the desecration of sacred lands and objects, and official and societal discrimination.” As the newsletter Bitter Winter (April 10) reports, the document points out that “While some experts assessed that the number of practitioners of African traditional and indigenous religions decreased throughout the 20th century and predicted they would continue to do so, recent decades have seen a resurgence of traditional and indigenous practitioners in the region.”

Samburu ceremony celebration, Kenya, Africa (source: Alex Strachan / Pixabay).

The report points to cases of Christian and Muslim extremists attacking gatherings of African indigenous spirituality, such as when Islamic State fighters in a Mozambique insurgency attacked a male initiation ceremony and beheaded over a dozen men and teenage boys. In 2022, Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria slit the throats of 20 women they accused of witchcraft. Even in democratic African states, “some governments discriminate against practitioners of African traditional and indigenous religions…many of whom are religious minorities in their areas of origin, based on their beliefs. State institutions like founding documents, judicial procedures, and school curricula show overt favoritism for faiths like Christianity or Islam and skepticism or bias against traditional or indigenous religions,” the report states. Bitter Winter editor Massimo Introvigne adds that in the specific case of South Africa, its Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) has applied to African indigenous spirituality and some Christian minorities categories of Western anti-cult discourse.

(Bitter Winter,