The constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief in theory, but the government under previous President Jammeh promoted and tightly controlled religion, especially the Sunni Islam of more than 90% of the population, and railed against atheism. Numerous other justice and human rights issues connected to government control of religion and free expression have arisen in recent years. However, the new President Adama Barrow has pledged to reform and liberalize.
The Gambia elevates crimes against religious adherents (Criminal Code, Article 117), stating:
[anyone who] destroys, damages or defiles a place of worship or any object which is held sacred by that class of persons with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of the class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to religion, commits a misdemeanour.
A person convicted on these charges is subject to a fine and/or imprisonment not exceeding two years.
Moreover, the code criminalizes any insult to religion of any denomination and uttering words with intent to wound religious feelings:
[anyone] who, with deliberate intention to wounding the religious feelings of a person, utters or writes any word, or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture in the sight of that person, or places any object in the sight of that person, commits a misdemeanour and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of one year.
In July 2010, President Jammeh stressed that people should believe in God, saying that “If you don’t believe in God, you can never be grateful to humanity and you are even below a pig.”
In 2009, state forces led mass hunts for those accused of witchcraft. Nearly 1,000 people were kidnapped, with many brought to secret government detention centers, beaten, and forced to drink hallucinogens, resulting in two deaths. The New York Times reported that the witch-hunting campaign had been sparked by President Jammeh’s belief that the recent death of his aunt was caused by witchcraft.