How did Christianity come to Senegal


Legal situation on religious freedom and its actual application

Article 1 of the Senegalese constitution clearly regulates the separation between the state and religious organizations.1 Article 24 grants religious communities freedom of religion and the right to administer and organize themselves.2

The predominant religion is Islam.3 Most Muslims belong to Sufi brotherhoods, which can be found particularly in the north of the country, while most Christians, especially Catholics, live in the southwest. (At the time of French colonial rule in the 19th century, Catholic missionary activity was limited to regions where Islam was not yet widespread. During missionary work, care was taken to maintain social peace.)4 There are also a small number of Protestants in the country. Many Muslims and Christians mix their religious customs with traditional African rites. Most of the followers of traditional African religions can be found in southeast Senegal.5

Everyday life in Senegal is shaped by the spirit of tolerance. In matters of family law, Muslims have the right to choose between Sharia and civil law. Conversions are possible and accepted.6 All religious communities must be officially registered in order to receive state recognition as an organization. Registration is a prerequisite for an organization to do business, open bank accounts, own property, receive financial support from private sources and take advantage of certain tax advantages.7

In the education system, the state endeavors to ensure that religious communities are treated equally. In state primary schools, up to four hours of religious instruction are offered on a voluntary basis per week. Parents can opt for Muslim or Christian classes.8 In addition, there are schools run by religious organizations that receive government support if they meet educational standards. Christian schools are attended by Muslims in the majority.9

In 2016, the Senegalese state supported the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is mandatory for Muslims, with 1,500 free flight tickets. Catholic pilgrimages to Rome and Israel were also promoted.10

The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs require domestic and foreign religious communities to submit an annual activity report and to disclose financial transactions. The intention is to uncover the financing of possible terrorist activities as early as possible. No illegal activities in this direction became known during the reporting period.11



Christians are a respected minority in Senegal. Christian and Muslim holidays are often celebrated together by people of both faiths. André Gueye, Catholic Bishop of Thiès, explains: “We live in friendship and unity. Sure, sometimes we also have problems with the Muslims - it's like a married couple. But we try to solve them in dialogue. "12 The Islamic scholar Thomas Volk, who heads the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung's office in Senegal, sees the situation similarly. He says: “So far, the religious groups have worked together. Senegal is an exemplary example of successful interreligious dialogue. "13

Despite the climate of tolerance that prevails in the African country, there have been incidents with a religious background for several years. For example, at the beginning of February 2018, strangers carried out an attack on a church complex in Guédiawaye.14 A statue of the Virgin Mary was destroyed in the process. During the service on the following Sunday, the priest had to calm the disgruntled worshipers and warned of retaliation. A statement by the interior minister was read on television, describing the break into the church as a "disturbance of social peace" and an "attack on religious freedom". The Senegalese military and police have recruited additional forces to provide better protection against Islamist terrorist attacks.15

The vast majority of the devout Senegalese belong to one of the four great Sufi brotherhoods. These stand for a peaceful Islam and traditionally stand up for the common good. One of the brotherhoods, for example, organizes the bus network in Dakar. The Sufi brotherhoods are seen as a guarantor of cohesion in society and as a buffer against extremism.16

In the last few years the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS) has carried out attacks on several followers of Sufism. There are also increasing signs that a stricter interpretation of Islam is gradually gaining a foothold in Senegal. For example, one now sees more women with full veils on the streets. "Senegalese Muslims are under pressure from Saudi Arabia," explains Thomas Volk.17 Saudi Arabia builds mosques, grants young Senegalese scholarships and sends imams to the country. Iran is also appearing self-confidently in the country and recently opened a small university in Dakar. Thomas Volk explains: “We often see the proxy dispute between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. But we have less on our radar that it can also take place in Africa. "

In the reporting period, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) drew attention to cases of abuse that are said to have occurred in traditional Koran schools, the so-called Daaras.18 Children in these schools have been reported to have been victims of physical and sexual violence. In addition, children are said to have been forced to beg. The NGOs called on the government to better control the Koran schools and prosecute the perpetrators. In July 2016, the state began implementing a 2005 law banning child begging, a common phenomenon in Senegal.19


Perspectives for Religious Freedom

Extremist currents have existed in Senegal since the 1950s, when stricter interpretations of Islam, influenced by Saudi Arabia, spread throughout the country.20 Although Wahhabis and Salafists have so far lived together peacefully with the traditional Sufi brotherhoods, the fear of radical forces from abroad is now clearly increasing. Even if there have not yet been any major acts of violence, the attacks on Christian institutions and symbols are seen by some as a disturbing sign of radicalization among Muslims.21

The realities of the matter seem at least in part to justify the concern. According to observers, more and more young Senegalese are opting for the Koran school or the Arab university.22 This worsens their chances on the job market, where knowledge of French is often an important requirement.23 For some years it has been observed that more and more young people are withdrawing from the traditional Sufi brotherhoods. Instead, they feel drawn to the Islamists, who also offer them a social network.

Many claim that the religious radicalization of young Senegalese is related to the increasing poverty in the country.24 It drives young people not only into the clutches of radical forces, but also to flee to Europe. In terms of refugee numbers, Senegal ranks fourth among sub-Saharan countries and first among West African countries. According to official estimates, more than 400,000 Senegalese left the country in 2011 alone. If you add the number of refugees that are not recorded, it may be twice or three times as many.25 The country is in a vicious circle. The fact that a large number of young, often well-trained workers are leaving the country weakens the traditionally moderate Muslim and Christian denominations. This makes them more susceptible to the intrusion of radical and violent forces, which in turn prompts even more people to leave the country.

It can therefore be assumed that effective measures to reduce poverty and improve future prospects can also help contain the dangers of jihadism in West Africa. There is an urgent need to combat corruption and nepotism in government agencies and agencies. The infrastructure also needs to be expanded. Last but not least, the country has to overcome outdated economic structures, which to a large extent still originate from the colonial era, such as the concentration on peanut cultivation, which is often associated with environmental pollution and a high level of dependence on the world market.26

A successful fight against jihadism in the neighboring states of Senegal, especially in the immediate neighboring country of Mali, would also be of particular importance. In view of the violence emanating from the terrorist groups Al-Qaida and IS in Mali, the risk of extremist attacks is also increasing in Senegal. Many Senegalese view it with great concern that radicalized young compatriots in Libya are joining IS.27 In January 2017 there was reassuring news from Gambia, a country almost entirely surrounded by Senegal. The newly elected Gambian President Adama Barrow overturned a decision by his predecessor, long-time dictator Yahya Jammeh, who declared Gambia (after Mauritania the second African country) to be an Islamic republic in 2015.28 The former British colony had previously been a secular state.29

  1. Constitution of the Republic of Senegal 2001 (as amended in 2009) English version, (accessed on March 30, 2018).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Office for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2016 International Religious Freedom Report - Senegal, US State Department, (accessed March 30, 2018).
  4. Köhrer, Ellen: In Senegal, love has no religion,, December 8, 2011, (accessed on March 31, 2018).
  5. Office for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Report on International Religious Freedom 2016 - Senegal, loc. cit.
  6. Köhrer, Ellen, loc. cit.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Catholic news agency, KNA, quoted in Islamische Zeitung, January 4, 2018, (accessed March 30, 2018).
  13. Ibid.
  14. “Senegal: Attack on Church”, Vatican News, February 6, 2018, (accessed on March 30, 2018 ).
  15. Catholic News Agency, KNA, loc. cit.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Office for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Report on International Religious Freedom 2016 - Senegal, loc. cit.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Harjes, Christine: How stable is Senegal's moderate Islam ?, Deutsche Welle, January 29, 2016, (accessed on March 30, 2018 ).
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. "Caritas Senegal: 'Let us give back hope to young people; migration is not the only way for the future ‘", agenzia fides, January 15, 2018, on March 30, 2018 (accessed on March 30, 2018).
  26. Cf. Holzer, Birgit: Senegal wants to tackle its ascent, Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, March 15, 2018, (accessed on 30. March 2018).
  27. Munzinger Archive 2018, Munzinger countries: Senegal. (accessed on March 30, 2018).
  28. Sridharan, Vasudevan: "Adama Barrow removes 'Islamic' from The Gambia's official name", International Business times UK, January 30, 2017, 1603686 (accessed March 30, 2018) and Munzinger Archive 2018, Munzinger Lands: Gambia. (accessed on March 30, 2018).
  29. Scheen, Thomas: The royal houses fell from the Gulf, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 6, 2016, .html (accessed March 31, 2018).