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Christian fears over sharia courts bill in Uganda

Country/Region: Africa, Uganda

Ugandan Christian leaders have warned that life will get worse for non-Muslims under proposed legislation that would give sharia rulings the force of law.

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Ugandan Christians fear the consequences of the Muslim Personal Law bill

The Muslim Personal Law bill would give more power to Islamic Kadhi courts for Muslims on matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance. Christians fear that it could promote Islamic extremism and pave the way for a wider application of sharia in the predominantly Christian country. Muslims, who comprise around 12 per cent of the population, have been evasive on how the bill would affect those who convert from Islam; apostasy is a "crime" punishable by death under Islamic law.

Rev. Umar Mulinde, a former Muslim, now pastor of a church in Kampala, has, along with leaders of the Ugandan Joint Christian Council, been pressing the country's parliament to reject the bill when it comes to a vote, probably later this year.

He said:

Let it not be a nationally enforceable law. Life will get worse for non-Muslims.

Opponents argue that the law would create two parallel legal systems, undermining Article 21 of the Ugandan constitution, which states that all people are equal under the law in all spheres of life. But Muslim proponents of the bill point to Article 129 of the constitution, which explicitly allows for the creation of Kadhi civil courts, although their decisions are not currently legally binding. Advocates argue that failure to enact the Muslim Personal Law will prevent them from practising their religion freely and could severely harm interreligious relations.

Following pressure from Christians, the draft bill was weakened to limit the remit of Kadhi courts to marriage, divorce and inheritance. Sewaya Muhamud, chairman of the Muslim Technical Committee on the Muslim Personal Law Bill, said it did "nothing to protect Muslim family values", adding, "We want to exercise our right to worship in accordance with the principles of Islam."

Kadhi courts will operate only at the magistrate level, with appeals being handled by a secular, higher court. But the Muslim Technical Committee is pushing for their remit to extend to high-court levels.

Relations between Muslims and Christians have generally been good under President Yoweri Museveni, but conflict surrounding the bill is threatening to destabilise religious harmony. The legacy of the brutal persecution suffered by Christians under Idi Amin's dictatorship in the 1970s and the backlash against Muslims under Milton Obote still cast a shadow over the two communities.

There has been controversy and tension over the issue of Kadhi courts in neighbouring Kenya, which is also predominantly Christian. A new constitution, which retained Kadhi courts despite a court ruling that they were discriminatory, was passed in a referendum last year.

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