Ugandan legislation pits Muslims vs. Christians over power of courts

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KAMPALA, Uganda — Christians call a proposed religious law a sly attempt to favor Muslims in this predominantly Christian country and warn that it could promote Islamic fundamentalism. Muslims say the reaction to the bill just shows Islamophobia.

The Muslim Personal Law bill - which would give more power to Islamic Kadhi courts for Muslims on matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance - is straining relations between Uganda’s two largest religious groups.

Each side is vowing to resist the other to protect what both say are the fundamental rights of their respective communities.

The dispute also highlights an apparent contradiction between two sections of the Ugandan Constitution.

Muslims, who make up roughly 12 percent of Uganda’s 32 million people, point to Article 129 of the constitution, which explicitly allows for the creation of Kadhi civil courts. Under current law, Kadhi court decisions are not legally binding.

Christians argue that Article 129 conflicts with another section of the constitution, Article 21, which states that all people are equal under the law in all spheres of life. Institutionalizing the Islamic courts would give the country two parallel legal systems that would undermine the secular nature of the Ugandan Constitution, Christian leaders say.

“Let it not be a nationally enforceable law,” said the Rev. Umar Mulinde, a former Muslim who is senior pastor of the Christian Gospel Life International in Kampala. “Life will get worse for non-Muslims.”

Christians and followers of traditional African religions faced persecution under the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970s. After Amin’s overthrow in 1979, Muslims suffered a backlash under the short but brutal reign of Milton Abote.

Relations generally have been good under President Yoweri Museveni, who is in his 25th year in power.

Mr. Mulinde and leaders of the powerful evangelical community and the Ugandan Joint Christian Council have been pressing Ugandan parliamentarians to reject the Muslim court bill when it comes to a vote, likely later this year.

They also have successfully pressured the Uganda Law Reform Commission, which worked with Muslims to agree on a final draft to weakenthe bill.

Sewaya Muhamud, chairman of the Muslim Technical Committee on the Muslim Personal Law Bill, was shocked in September to see a proposed draft from the commission that limited the power of Kadhi courts to marriage, divorce and inheritance.

“It does nothing to protect Muslim family values,” he said. “We want to exercise our right to worship in accordance with the principles of Islam.”

Muslims, though, have been evasive on how the bill would affect those accused of apostasy, or the rejection of Islam by Muslims who fall out of the faith or convert to other religions. That religious crime could be punishable by death under Islamic tradition.

Some Muslim leaders insist that Christian fears on apostasy are overblown because Kadhi courts will operate only at the magistrate level and appeals would be handled by a secular higher court. Those decisions would be guided by the Ugandan Constitution - which calls for freedom of religion - and not Islamic law.

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