Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has said his West African country is now an Islamic republic. The nation has a sizeable Christian minority alongside the large Muslim majority.
Jammeh made his announcement on Friday at a political rally in the city of Brufut, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of the capital, Banjul.
"In line with the country's religious identity and values, I proclaim Gambia as an Islamic state," the 50-year-old Jammeh said, adding that the country would "respect the rights of ciitzens."
Among other things, he said there would be no rules on dress.
If the declaration is constitutionally confirmed, the impoverished country, a former British colony, would join Mauritania to become the second Islamic republic in Africa. Iran and Pakistan are among the other nations that have taken the title.
About 90 percent of Gambia's population of 1.9 million adhere to Islam. Of the remainder, 8 percent are Christian, while a further 2 percent are classed as following "indigenous beliefs."
Poor human rights record
Jammeh himself, who has been the authoritarian leader of the country since taking power in a coup in 1994, has propagated an image of himself as a particularly pious Muslim.
Since becoming leader, he has enforced strict rules against homosexuality and media freedom, with the New York-based activist group Human Rights Watch (HRW) denouncing his regime as one of the most repressive in the world in September.
HRW said paramilitaries and secret police in the country were responsible for torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Jammeh's government has often also come under fire from Western powersfor violations of human rights.
It remains to be seen whether Jammeh's declaration will be accepted by other leading forces in the country.
The Supreme Islamic Council, the country's Islamic body, has so far made no comment on the presidential announcement, with its chairman, Imam Momodou Lamin Touray, saying the declaration had not even been discussed yet.
Hamat Bah of the opposition National Reconciliation Party cast doubt on the legitimacy of the president's move.
"There is a constitutional clause that says that Gambia is a secular state," he said. "You cannot make such a declaration without going through a referendum."
Gambia is one of the world's poorest countries. Almost half its population lives in poverty, and life expectancy is 59, according to World Bank statistics.
tj/jm (AP, dpa, AFP)