The families of 14 of the Christian leaders were also arrested, according to the aid and advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). The charges against the Christians were unclear; there is no law against evangelism in Mauritania, but officials nevertheless forbid non-Muslims from “proselytizing” and ban any public expression of faith except Islam, according to the U.S. State Department’s most recent (2022) International Religious Freedom Report.
Apostasy, or leaving Islam, is punishable by death in the northwest African country, where the population is 98 percent Sunni Muslim and 1 percent Shia Muslim, and the constitution designates Islam as the sole religion of the citizenry and state.
At least three of the Christians were initially arrested on or shortly before November 30 in Selibaby, more than 600 kilometers (373 miles) south of the capital city of Nouakchott, according to Spanish news service EFE. The arrests stemmed from protests calling for Christians to be killed after a video of a baptism ceremony appeared on social media, according to the ICC and Christian leaders in the region.
“Tragically, this hostility has extended beyond the arrested individuals, affecting their families, who are now facing harassment from their neighbors,” the ICC reported on Wednesday (December 13). “The Mauritanian government finds itself in a delicate position, torn between its commitments to human rights reforms and greater religious freedom, asserting that the arrests were made to protect citizens and other radical Islamist elements.”
Mauritanian officials believe the arrests were necessary to address the “Christian problem” in the country, as the video raised awareness of the presence of Christianity in the area, according to ICC.
A Christian leader in Mauritania told CDI that the area protesting Muslims on December 2 called for the homes of Christians to be burned.”.
“According to the Muslims, half of the population in the village has become believers,” he said. “They want to stop the gospel’s progression in this closed land. The police arrested six leaders at the beginning, but after checking the phone of one leader, they found names. They are after any name they found on that phone.”
Mauritania’s 2018 Amendment to Penal Code Article 306 states that “any Muslim who explicitly apostatizes from Islam, or who says or does something that would require or include that, or who renounces what he knows to be required by the religion, shall be imprisoned for three days, during which time he will be asked to repent. If he does not repent, he will be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and his property will be transferred to the treasury of the Muslims.”
Mauritania’s laws and legal procedures derive from a mix of French civil law and Sharia (Islamic law). Still, there were calls from the public for increased application of the country’s sharia-based criminal code, according to the StatDepartment’s 2022 religious freedom report.”
“The law prohibits apostasy and blasphemy,” the report states,” “The criminal code mandates a death sentence for any Muslim convicted of apostasy or blasphemy. Still, the government has never applied capital punishment for apostasy or blasphemy.”
Faith-based non-governmental organizations must refrain from proselytizing or promoting any religion other than Islam, and the government must pre-approve all group meetings, “including non-Islamic religious gatherings and those held in private homes,” according to the report.
At the same time, non-Muslim religious leaders stated that the government typically does not prevent such groups from holding religious gatherings in private spaces, the report notes. It adds that possessing non-Islamic religious materials remained legal, although the government prohibited printing and distribution.
Although Mauritania is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides everyone the “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief” of their choice, the government continued to ban any public expression of religion except that of Islam, according to the religious freedom report.
“Authorized churches were able to conduct services within their premises but could not proselytize,” the report states. “An unofficial government requirement restricted non-Islamic worship to the few recognized Christian churches.”
Mauritania ranked 20th on the Open Doors 2023 World Watch List of the countries where it is most challenging to be a Christian.