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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

Religious organizations and faiths that were present in the country prior to independence, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, the Presbyterian Church, the Seventh-Day Adventists, Hindus, and Muslims, are recognized in a parliamentary decree. These groups also receive a lump-sum payment every year from the Ministry of Finance based upon the number of adherents, as determined by a 10-year census. Newer religious organizations (which must have a minimum of 7 members) are registered by the Registrar of Associations and are recognized as a legal entity with tax-free privileges. No groups are known to have been refused registration.

In the 1990 census, out of a population of more than 1 million persons, approximately 50 percent claimed to be Hindu, 32 percent Christian, 16 percent Muslim, and less than 1 percent Baha'i, Jewish, or Buddhist. Also less than 1 percent claimed to be atheists or agnostics. There are no figures for those who actually practice their faith, but there are estimates that the figure is around 60 percent for all religious groups.

Approximately 85%t of Christians are Roman Catholic. The remaining 15% are members of the following churches: Adventist, Assembly of God, Christian Tamil, Church of England, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Evangelical, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Sunni Muslims account for over 90% of the Muslims; however, there are some Shi'a Muslims.

Many Buddhists are also practicing Catholics, since many citizens of Chinese ancestry have sent, and continue to send, their children to the Loreto Convent primary schools located in the major towns.

The north tends to be more Hindu and the south is more Catholic. There are also large populations of Hindus and Catholics in the main cities from the capital of Port Louis to the central cities of Quatre Bornes and Curepipe, and most Muslims and Christian churches are concentrated in these areas. The offshore island of Rodrigues, with a population of 35,200, is predominantly Catholic.

While the Government is secular in both name and practice, for political reasons it has favored the Hindu majority of the population. The Government spent $3 million (75 million Mauritian rupees) to expand a road going to the Hindu pilgrimage site for the annual Maha Shrivaratree festival. The Government couched the expense in terms of public safety, since the large portable shrines carried by the pilgrims had caused significant traffic hazards. In February 1998, the Prime Minister also declared a national holiday for all Hindus who celebrated Maha Shrivaratree. There were outspoken protests by those who were not Hindu or did not have "Hindu-sounding" last names and were, therefore, not eligible for the paid holiday.

Foreign missionary groups are allowed to operate on a case-by-case basis. There are no government regulations detailing the conditions of their presence or limiting their proselytizing activities. Groups must obtain both a visa and a work permit for each missionary.

While some Creole political groups alleged that Creoles received unjust treatment from the police, there was no evidence that this was based solely on religious differences. Such incidents likely were largely a result of ethnic differences, since the police force is predominantly Indo-Mauritian.

In February 1999, riots broke out after Creole demonstrators protested the death in police custody of a popular local singer, who was arrested for smoking marijuana (see Section II). The disturbances ended after religious and social leaders and the President intervened to quell tensions. As a result, and at the invitation of Catholic and Hindu religious leaders, the President began work to establish an interreligious council.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow minor U.S. citizens who had been forced to convert their religion to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Tensions between the Hindu majority and Christian Creole and Muslim minorities persist and resulted in violent confrontations during the period covered by this report. Creole and Muslim minorities attempted to keep public attention focused on alleged societal injustices and Hindu discrimination against them.

Mauritius is a small island nation, and ethnic groups, known as "communities," are quite tightly knit. Intermarriage is relatively rare. An individual's name easily identifies his or her ethnic and religious background. There is a strong correlation between religious affiliation and ethnicity. Citizens of Indian ethnicity are usually Hindus or Muslims. Citizens of Chinese ancestry usually practice both Buddhism and Catholicism. Creoles and citizens of European-descent are usually Catholic. However, there is a growing number of Hindu converts to evangelical Christian churches, a fact that is of growing concern to Hindu organizations.

In February 1999, Creole demonstrators protested the death in police custody of a popular local singer, who was arrested for smoking marijuana. The riots began as a confrontation between the Creole community and the police, but took on a potentially explosive ethnic character as other ethnic groups joined forces with the Creoles or the police. At least four persons were killed, more than 100 were wounded, and numerous businesses were looted.

In May 1999, a 1-day riot by residents of the town of Palma, a predominantly Hindu and Creole area, broke out after a vehicle driven by a Catholic priest ran over and killed two Hindu girls. However, the majority of rioters were protesting the lack of enforcement of speed limits, not the fact that the driver in the accident was a Catholic priest or that the victims were Hindu. The town is bisected by the main road from the plateau to the beach on the west coast.

A week later, fans rioted after the national soccer championship when the historically Creole team defeated the historically Muslim team. That night seven persons died in a fire set in a Chinese social club in Port Louis. The precise motives for the arson attack remain unclear but the casino club, which served alcoholic beverages and is alleged to have allowed prostitution, was located near the main mosque.

In April 1999, the head of the Catholic diocese invited all other religious heads to meet to discuss solutions to the tensions but none accepted. After a second invitation, the head of Hindu House responded favorably. The outcome of their meeting included an invitation to the President to establish an interreligious council (see Section I).

Some minorities, usually Creoles and Muslims, allege that a glass ceiling exists within the upper echelons of the civil service that prevents them from reaching the highest levels.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. The U.S. Ambassador met with leaders of all the religious communities during the period covered by this report.

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Revised last: 29-09-1999