Caribbean countries discriminate against Rastafarians, Muslims – report

Nelson A. King 

WASHINGTON D.C., United States, Monday May 27, 2013 - The United States says several Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Haiti and the Bahamas, are engaged in discriminatory practices against Rastafarians, voodoo practitioners and Muslims.

In its International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, the Department of State says while there were no reports of abuses of religious freedom in Haiti, some members of the voodoo and Muslim communities “complained they did not enjoy the same legal protections as Christians”.

Voodoo, which is widely practiced in Haiti, is often blended with elements of other religions, usually Catholicism.

The leader of a prominent multi-denominational group reported that half the Haitian population practices some form of voodoo and that leaders and civil society representatives have expressed concern that the passage of a constitutional amendment in May, could criminalise the practice of voodoo and lead to increased discrimination.

But the report says government officials, including the prime minister, immediately responded to these concerns and stressed that the new amendment would not limit the freedom of religious expression.

It says government officials noted that a 2003 presidential decree recognising voodoo as a religious practice remained in force.

The report says that some Muslim religious leaders claimed that the Haitian government was reluctant to recognize Islam, and that Muslims married in a religious ceremony did not receive the same government recognition accorded to Christians who married in the church.

The Muslim leaders complained that religious ceremonies could obtain government recognition only through a civil court.

According to the State Department, the press reports a “growing number” of Muslims in Haiti since the January 12, 2010 earthquake.

In Jamaica, the State Department says there were reports of societal discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, stating that  Rastafarians alleged the overwhelmingly Christian population discriminated against them, “although there were signs of increasing acceptance.

“Rastafarians said that elements of their religion, such as wearing dreadlocks and smoking marijuana, presented serious barriers to their ability to find employment and achieve professional status in the official economy,” the report states.

It cites a Rastafarian group, the Church of Haile Selassie I, which it said is seeking religious incorporation “for the 15th year without success.

“Some Parliamentarians maintained Parliament should continue to deny incorporation because church members used marijuana, which was illegal, in religious services,” the report states, adding that “the church asserted this was not the case and indicated it used legal herbs”.

The report also says that Rastafarians continued to allege that law enforcement officials unfairly targeted them.

However, the report says it was not clear whether the reported discrimination was based on religious belief or was due to the group’s alleged illegal use of marijuana as part of religious practice.

With the exception of the concerns raised by Rastafarians, the State Department says there were no other reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice in Jamaica.

During a three-month state of emergency in Trinidad and Tobago, the State Department report notes that authorities in Port of Spain arrested 16 Muslim men who were allegedly plotting to assassinate the prime minister and three other cabinet ministers.

The report said that the government never charged the men with any crime and released them after one week.

It said Muslims have referred to this incident as “an example of bias against the Muslim community” and that several of those arrested claimed to be pursuing legal action against the Trinidad and Tobago government for wrongful arrest.

In the Bahamas, the State Department says Rastafarians alleged that prison officials were responsible for “ongoing discrimination against detainees at Fox Hill Prison.

“Specifically, they reported that prison officials cut the dreadlocks of Rastafarians held in custody for possession of small amounts of marijuana,” it says, stating that, under Bahamian law, “persons convicted for possession of as little as one marijuana cigarette face a maximum sentence of four years in prison”.

The report says that the Bahamian government defended the practice of cutting Rastafarians’ dreadlocks as “standard procedure for hygienic reasons”.

But the report says Rastafarians contended “it was in fact based on discrimination rather than hygiene”.

Washington also says Rastafarians reported that Fox Hill Prison “failed to meet their religious dietary requirements,” and that on November 19, The House of Rastafari, a Rastafarian group, declared its intention to appeal to the judiciary about these practices.

The State Department says Rastafarians in St. Kitts and Nevis “complained about the government’s prohibition of marijuana use, which they described as integral to their religious rituals.

“Members of the group stated they were being marginalized and were victims of religious intolerance,” it says, noting that, on August 17, the Nyabinghi Theocracy Order, a Rastafarian organization, held a march and rally in the capital.

“The prime minister affirmed that the government would not legalize marijuana,” the report says, adding that Rastafarians continued to complain of discrimination, especially in hiring and in schools.

Rastafarians continued to complain of the same alleged practice in Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the report noted.

In Dominica, St. Lucia, as well as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the report notes that Rastafarians also complained about the prohibition on marijuana use, “which was integral to their religious rituals”. (CMC) Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)