1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Religion in Africa: High tolerance for other faiths

March 12, 2024

Muslims and Christians in much of sub-Saharan Africa have a long history of religious tolerance. Sierra Leone in particular stands out as a positive example.

A wooden cross lies on a Bible while a wooden crescent lies on a Quran
In 2020, Africa had some 650 million Christians and 330 million MuslimsImage: Fred de Noyelle/Godong/picture alliance

"In Sierra Leone, the practice of sharing food among Muslims during Ramadan is not limited to Muslims," said Murtala Mohamed Kamara, a Muslim who lives in the capital, Freetown. "Christians provide food for their Muslim friends and family members during Ramadan, too."

Ramadan, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer and introspection, started in Sierra Leone on Monday.

Some 77% of people in Sierra Leone identify as Muslim and 22% as Christian. The two religions have a history of coexisting peacefully despite the 1991-2002 civil war that claimed an estimated 50,000 lives in the West African nation.

"Sierra Leone is unique when it comes to religion," Mariama Binta Caulker, a pastor's wife, told DW. "We believe that Christians and Muslims have no differences. What is most important is our hearts."

Ramadan and Lent share fasting, other similarities

Sierra Leone's enviable religious tolerance

Numerous studies support Caulker's assertion, such as a 2022 survey carried out in Freetown by the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg.

It found that Freetown's residents had many "close social bonds" with people of other religions, something which is "quite extraordinary," said doctoral researcher Julia Köbrich, who worked on the study. 

"People live in inter-religious families where maybe the father and the mother adhere to different religions. They have friends from various religions, often because they went to the same school and made friends there. But also in other places, there's a lot of interreligious mixing."

Sierra Leoneans also show a great deal of respect for people of different religions, Köbrich said, in both how they behave towards them and speak about them.

"They show that they see people of other religions as equals," she told DW.

Bailor Amid Saheed Kamara (no relation to Murtala Kamara), a Muslim, says he is a great example of Sierra Leone's openness to different religions.

"I just married a Christian woman, and I'm not coercing her in any way to come to my religion," the Freetown resident told DW. "I have siblings who are Christians and so many friends who are Christians." 

"It's been this way for quite a long time since I was born. We actually cohabitate in a very peaceful manner. … There is nothing like animosity that is building amongst us." 

Voters in the Muslim-majority country even reelected a Christian president last year, Julius Maada Bio, whose wife, Fatima Maada Bio, is a Muslim.

A street vendor sells fruit on the street in Freetown, as motorbikes and cars whizz past and other sellers sit on the road's edge
Sierra Leone has a low a low rate of religious discrimination compared to many other African nationsImage: Seth/Xinhuapicture alliance

Africa deeply religious and conservative

Similar to Sierra Leone, many other nations in sub-Saharan Africa have a high degree of religious tolerance. This is perhaps contrary to expectations for what is a deeply religious and religiously conservative continent.

Africa is one of the most religious places on earth, with 95% of people identifying with a religion, according to a 2020 Afrobarometer survey. More than half, or 56%, of the continent's population are Christian, and one-third, or 34%, are Muslim.

The two religions are distributed broadly along geographical lines, with Christians predominantly in the south of the continent and Muslims in the north. They meet in a wide swathe of countries that run from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in the west to Ethiopia and Eritrea in the east — with some nations heavily Muslim and others heavily Christian. 

Africans are mostly socially conservative, regardless of whether they are Christian or Muslim, and are mainly opposed to sex before marriage, homosexual behavior and abortion.

Strong culture of religious harmony

Despite this, many African nations have a deep-rooted culture of religious tolerance. On average, almost 9 out of 10, or 87%, say they would "strongly like," "somewhat like," or "not care" if they lived next door to people of a different religion, according to the Afrobarometer survey.

Among the 34 nations surveyed, Ivory Coast and Gabon had the highest tolerance with 98%, with Sierra Leone slightly lower at 94%. Sudan (65%) and Niger (56%) had the lowest.

Of the 47 Muslim-majority countries in the world, only 11 protect the right to religious freedom — eight of which are found in Africa and include Senegal, Gambia and Sierra Leone. 

"Across the region is a culture of interreligious harmony that is unusual in the world," writes political scientist Daniel Philpott in an excerpt from his book Religious Freedom in Islam.

However, this harmony is at risk in parts of Africa such as Nigeria, Mali, Gambia and Burkina Faso. Threats include a sharp rise in religious violence, an upsurge in extremism and the marginalization of certain groups associated with a particular religion. 

Some 22% of Nigerians surveyed in the 2020 Afrobarometer reported discrimination based on religion in the previous year — the highest rate of the 34 African countries included in the study. In Sierra Leone, it was only 6%. 

Religious tolerance still faces challenges in Sierra Leone, stresses social scientist Julia Köbrich. But communities and society make an effort to advocate for peace and bring people of different religions together to resolve any kind of conflict — not just religious ones. 

Back in Freetown, with Ramadan underway, the culture of interreligious harmony is ever-present. 

"It's like every Sierra Leonean is now [during Ramadan] directly or indirectly a Muslim," said Joseph Mannah Brima, a Christian. "That's because we share everything. We exchange gifts."

"So, Christian brothers are preparing food even when they are not Muslims. They are preparing that for their Muslim brothers and sisters."

Murtala Mohammad Kamara in Freetown contributed to this article. 

Edited by: Keith Walker

Sharing Ramadan meals in sustainable packaging

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.