Religion and the State in Angola

The fact that Angola does not recognise Islam as a faith that is practised in the country might give the impression that the Angolan state is particularly Islamophobic. The Angolan media has not hesitated to promote stereotypes that associate Islam with illegal immigration, terrorism and practices that “threaten” the national culture. Often these views are expressed by leading opinion makers in politics, the churches and other institutions.

In fact, ever since Angolan independence, the relationship between state power and religion has been marked by political intolerance, ambivalence and co-optation, sometimes in turn and sometimes simultaneously. Right after independence, the official doctrine of atheist Marxist-Leninism served to justify the persecution of religious faiths. In his study of the political stances taken by Angolan Protestants after independence, Benedict Schubert describes the MPLA’s strategy to control churches in the single-party era:

“In its totalitarian project, the Angolan government had to find a way to fit the churches into the system in such a way as to eliminate, by incorporating them, the danger that they represented as the only mass organisations outside of the initiative and the direct control of the state.”

Schubert notes that “there has been continuity in the religious policy put forward by the authorities” with the clear objective of controlling the churches: something that can still be seen today.

Violence and co-optation do not in themselves explain the MPLA’s way of keeping the churches under control since the party came to power in 1975. Ambivalence also needs to be taken into consideration.

The academic Homi Bhabha argues that ambivalence is one of the most effective strategies used by a discriminatory power, whether at the level of discourse or the level of physical control. It legitimises stereotypes “as a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what was always established and known, and something that has to be repeated anxiously”.

It is this ambivalence that has allowed those in power to maintain political control over the religious leadership, by offering privileges to their allies, and by shutting out those who are critical. The church representatives, in turn, play their part in maintaining this ambivalence in the relationship between church and state. Sucgh leaders play in accordance with their day to day individual and collective interests.

Historical overview


Upon independence on 11 November, when Marxism-Leninism was officially installed in Angola, all religious groups had to act without official recognition, on the margins of the law.

On 20 November, the messianic leader Simão Toco, leader of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Earth, wrote a letter to President Agostinho Neto, his friend and former colleague, the content of which represented the first great challenge by a religious entity to the country’s rulers.

“All who follow Comrade President Dr Neto, as well as those who follow President Holden Roberto and Dr Savimbi, who are the chiefs of the Angolan people, are following the laws that allow them to kill, and those who follow Simão Toco cannot and will not take up arms to kill their brothers, nor even so much as contribute money for the purchase of arms. But they can indeed contribute in the form of food to feed the people …”

The Tocoist Church came to be persecuted as it was considered subversive and associated with the  National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). According to the official discourse, most of  Toco’s followers came from the northern region where the FNLA drew most of its support. The other prophetic church with roots in Africa, the Kimbanguist Church, also suffered persecution in the same part of the country: the provinces of Uige, Zaire and Cabinda. Its followers were from the same region and were often confused with the Tocoists. Because of the similarity to the Tocoist Church, the Kimbanguists were also assumed to be supporters of the FNLA. They were suspected of having links to the Mobutu regime in the then Zaire, and therefore labeled to be agents of imperialism.


An interesting summary of the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses shows that on 27 May, the government used radio broadcasts to order the MPLA action committees and mass organisations to keep a close watch on the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Apart from the government, “the Catholic Church made daily announcements on its radio station to the effect that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were subversives,” according to Carlos Cadi’s account.

In November the same year, the Methodist Church set out what would come to be the model for the relationship between church and state promoted by the MPLA. Bishop Emílio de Carvalho argued in favour of “Christian service in building a socialist society” and unequivocally gave his loyalty to the totalitarian project of the time. In this way he and his faith escaped political persecution.


On 25 January President Agostinho Neto abolished the Angolan Catholic broadcaster, Rádio Ecclésia by means of Decree 5/78, which incorporated the station into “the information and propaganda apparatus of the MPLA-Workers’ Party”. At the same time, official propaganda published in the state newspaper Jornal de Angola tried to justify the abolition of Rádio Ecclésia by accusing it of broadcasting messages from the anti-Neto faction of the MPLA on 27 May 1977.

The Catholic bishops justify the position they took at that time by recalling that straight after independence “Rádio Ecclésia was obliged by the government to be linked to Rádio Nacional [the state broadcaster] and had to transmit mostly government programmes, even those with atheist propaganda”. According to the bishops, “on 27 May 1977, the organisers of the attempted coup took hold of Rádio Nacional. Because it was linked to Rádio Nacional, Rádio Ecclésia through no fault of its own transmitted whatever was ordered from there. When the officials found out what was happening, they cut off the power. This did not prevent Rádio Ecclésia from being occupied by military force the next day.

On 4 February, the MPLA announced in a public speech its plan to separate the Catholic Church in Angola from the Holy See in the Vatican.

In accordance with a directive from the MPLA-Workers’ Party Political Bureau, the Secretary of State for Social Affairs issued a decree confiscating donations sent from abroad to churches and religious organisations and intended to be distributed to the population. The preface to Executive Decree 26/78 reaffirmed the authorisation given by the MPLA on 8 March 1978, which allowed the churches to receive external help to support the population. Hunger took hold and social problems multiplied. The churches received assistance from abroad, and the MPLA confiscated it and distributed it for its own political purposes.

The government subjected Reverend Domingos Alexandre Coxe of the Kimbanguist Church to two years in the Kibala Re-education Camp, with no formal charge.


The Ministry of Justice issued Executive Degree 19/80, ordering all existing churches to be registered within 90 days.


In spite of the one-party system, the MPLA arranged for the election of new representatives of the churches to the Activists’ Bench of the Secretary of State for Culture. Complaints of electoral fraud and other internal problems deepened divisions within the church.

“The MPLA-Workers’ Party has ordered the recognition of all churches and religious organisations that exist in the People’s Republic of Angola.” With this preamble, the Ministry of Justice at last legalised twelve churches and religious organisations, seven years after the order to register them.” Through Executive Decree 9/87 of 24 January, the Justice Ministry complied with the MPLA’s instructions and granted recognition to the Evangelical Church of South-western Angola, the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola, the Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Church of Angola, the Reformed Evangelical Church of Angola, The Church of Jesus Christ on Earth (Kimbanguist), the Pentecostal Assembly of God, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Baptist Convention of Angola and the Union of Evangelical Churches of Angola.

One of the most noteworthy cases of political violence by the government against the churches took place on 15 February, when military and security forces executed 35 members of the Tocoist Church in Terra Nova, according to information supplied to Maka Angola by a senior church official.


According to a detailed report by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Carlos Cadi, the government arbitrarily imprisoned 300 members of that church who had declared themselves neutral and refused to participate in the war.


Executive Decree 46/91 by the Justice Ministry and the then Secretary of State for Culture brought the process of recognising churches and religious organisations into line with the revised Constitutional Law. In accordance with the broadening of citizens’ fundamental rights, the decree was intended to guarantee “the freedom and the exercise of religion and of conscience”.

According to the decree (article 4), “recognition cannot be denied, except in cases in which the information supplied is not true or if the doctrine, the norms and the religious practices are against public order and the national interest”.


During the course of the year, various government decrees granted recognition to a total of 29 churches, including three factions of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the World (the Tocoists), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Christian Congregation of Afro-European Friendship.

President José Eduardo dos Santos abandoned atheism, was married in the Catholic Church and baptised his children.


On 10 February, the government, through the then Minister of Social Communication, Hendrick Vaal Neto, accused Rádio Ecclésia of practising “antenna terrorism”. The government expressed its displeasure with the critical and independent editorial line that the Catholic broadcaster was taking at that time.

Rádio Ecclésia responded with a statement that, in a way, also sums up the ambivalence of various government officials who profess religious beliefs: “By attacking Rádio Ecclésia’s editorial line and calling the broadcaster a terrorist, [the minister] is implicitly also calling the Catholic Church of Angola, of which His Excellency is a member, a terrorist – this church which has demonstrated its integrity over the years, despite all the restrictions.”