Mauritania’s population is estimated at 3.6 million, and is officially 100% Muslim. The majority of the small number of non-Muslims are expatriates. The expatriate Christian community is served by the Roman Catholic church, which has a presence in five cities, together with one registered Protestant church.
Mauritania’s constitution establishes Islam as the religion of the State and also as the religion of Mauritanian citizens. Apostasy is prohibited by the Penal Code, which states that any Muslim found guilty of apostasy, by word or deed, and who does not repent within three days will be condemned to death. Any activity construed as non-Islamic proselytism is strictly prohibited. The Press Act proscribes the printing, distribution and importation of non-Islamic religious materials, though private ownership is not illegal. While the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education oversees religious affairs, the authorisation of the Ministry of the Interior is required for gatherings, including non-Islamic religious meetings. While churches are not formally registered, non-Islamic worship is permitted within a small number of designated sites, which are exclusively for non-Mauritanians. In early 2016 Mauritania established a ‘Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ with a mandate to monitor and enforce adherence with Islamic law, prompting concerns about arbitrary or brutal enforcement, based on the reputation of the similar commission in Saudi Arabia.
Mauritania acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 17th November 2004. The ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion (Article 18). It also upholds the rights of minorities and the principle of non-discrimination. However, Mauritania’s accession to the ICCPR was made with a reservation stating that, while Mauritania accepted the provisions of Article 18, the application of these provisions and the provisions relating to marriage would be made without prejudice to Islamic law.
Christians face severe restrictions in practice. While expatriate Christians are permitted to worship, Christian activities are restricted to designated compounds. Christians and Christian NGOs must ensure that they avoid any interaction with Muslims that could be construed as proselytism. Mauritanian nationals who choose to leave Islam would in principle face the death sentence under the apostasy provisions of the Penal Code, although there are no known examples of a judicial death sentence being applied for apostasy in recent years. However, those who leave Islam are likely to face strong family and societal pressure. In extreme cases those who leave Islam can face violent responses from family or community members.