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Liberia - Religion

A US government source estimates the population is 3.9 million. As of 2004 the US Government estimated that as much as 40 percent of the population practices either Christianity or elements of both Christianity and traditional indigenous religions. Approximately 40 percent practices traditional indigenous religions exclusively. Approximately 20 percent of the population practices Islam, which continued to gain adherents. According to the 2008 National Population and Housing Census, the population is 85.6 percent Christian, 12.2 percent Muslim, 0.6 percent adherents of indigenous religious beliefs, 1.5 percent persons who claim no religion, and less than 1 percent members of other religious groups, including Bahais, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists.

The estimated percentage of the Muslim population is a source of contention. Unofficial reports and surveys estimate Muslims constitute between 10 and 20 percent of the population. Many members of religious groups incorporate elements of indigenous beliefs into their religious practices. Christian groups include Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal (AME), AME Zion, and a variety of Pentecostal churches.

Christians reside throughout the country. Muslims belong mainly to the Mandingo ethnic group, which resides throughout the country, and the Vai ethnic group, which lives predominantly in the west. There is also a predominantly Muslim Fula community throughout the country. The Fula people are referred to as a community not by location, but as a tribal segment of society.

During the regime of former President Taylor, dozens of Muslim citizens were jailed because they were perceived to be sympathizers of the nominally Muslim-dominated LURD rebel group. They were all released before President Taylor's departure from office. Under the NTGL there were no arrests based on religion or ethnicity. There were no state executions of any person based on his or her religion; it is presumed that in the past Taylor's forces killed some of the ethnic Mandigo Muslims who had been arrested on suspicion of being LURD collaborators.

During the conflict between the Taylor Government and LURD forces, pro-government militias suspected Mandingo Muslim youths of being sympathetic to the LURD cause and harassed, imprisoned, and tortured them. Also during the conflict, LURD forces reportedly destroyed churches in some areas that they captured from government troops. For example, in early 2003, during fighting between government troops and LURD rebel forces in the town of Ganta, rebel forces systematically burned down churches and destroyed church related buildings. When government troops later regained control of the town, they systematically destroyed mosques and homes that had belonged to ethnic Mandingo Muslims, who made up the bulk of LURD fighters.

While there was no legal basis for the action, the government strongly encouraged, and sometimes forced, public businesses and markets, including Muslim-owned or operated businesses and shops, to remain closed on Sundays and Christmas. The consequences of staying open were police harassment and closing down the shops, although the government allowed some Muslim-owned or operated shops to remain open for limited hours on Sundays. Muslim leaders raised this issue with the National Legislature and the Supreme Court, but by year’s end had not obtained a broader exemption for Muslim-owned or operated businesses.

Government ceremonies commonly included opening and closing prayers. The prayers were usually Christian but occasionally were both Christian and Muslim. In Lofa County, where a large number of the Muslims resided, opening and closing prayers were alternately Christian and Muslim. Muslim leaders asked the government to observe certain Islamic holy days as national holidays, but by year’s end the government had not responded to the request.

Ethnic groups in most regions participate in the indigenous religious practices of secret societies. There were reports of ritualistic killings (the act of killing for body parts for use in traditional rituals) from all parts of the country. The government treated ritualistic killings as homicides and investigated and prosecuted them accordingly; however, lack of community cooperation and credible witnesses generally hampered investigations.

Ritual killings, in which body parts used in traditional indigenous rituals are removed from the victim, continued to occur. Little reliable information is readily available about traditional religions associated with ritual killings. The number of such killings was difficult to ascertain since police often describe deaths as accidents even when body parts were removed. Deaths that appeared to be natural or accidental sometimes were rumored to be the work of ritual killers. It is believed that practitioners of traditional indigenous religions among the Grebo and Krahn ethnic groups, which are concentrated in the southeastern counties, most commonly engage in ritual killings.

Body parts of a member the group believed to be powerful were considered the most effective for the purposes of the rituals. The body parts most frequently removed included the heart, liver, and genitals. In some cases, the rituals reportedly involved eating body parts. Some traditional religious beliefs hold that human body parts, when consumed, grant special powers to the person who eats them. Fighters on all sides of the conflict (LURD, MODEL and the ex-Government/pro-Taylor forces) were reported to have engaged in such practices at times. During the civil war, faction leaders sometimes ate (and one faction leader had himself filmed eating) body parts of leaders of rival factions. Ritual killings for the purpose of obtaining body parts traditionally were committed by religious group members called "heart men"; however, since the civil war, criminals inured to killing also may sell body parts.

On 15 January 2013 the Ministery of Internal Affairs announced that All certificates and licenses issued to traditional healers, herbalists or “witch doctors” prior to this announcement are no longer valid. Any person holding a certificate or license as a traditional healer, herbalist, or “witch doctor” was instructed to report to the Central Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for re-validation. Henceforth, the initiation or induction of any person (adult or child) into a cultural practice or a traditional ritual was also prohibited without supervision of individuals duly approved by the National Traditional Council of Liberia and a license duly issued under the signature of the Minister of Internal Affairs.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, which had responsibility to oversee and guide traditional activities in Liberia, announced that, henceforth, no one is to compel, subject, or induct any other person into any cultural practice or ritual without the consent of the person being inducted or initiated. A person who uses any form of force or intimidation to compel another person to yield to, or to be initiated into, any tribal ritual or traditional practice was taking a risk and could be arrested, charged and prosecuted for violation of civil and human rights in Liberia.

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Page last modified: 07-10-2013 19:05:53 ZULU