Last Updated 9 November 2020

The Republic of Rwanda is a small country in Central East Africa bordering Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s mainly rural population is over 12 million giving the country the highest population density on mainland Africa.1 Rwanda’s recent history is dominated by Hutu/Tutsi ethnic tensions leading to the Rwandan Civil War and subsequent 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by President Paul Kagame, has ruled the country since 1994, when it ousted forces responsible for that year’s genocide and ended a civil war. While the regime has maintained stability and economic growth, it has also suppressed political dissent though pervasive surveillance, intimidation, and suspected assassinations.2

According to the most recent data (2013) the largest religion is Roman Catholicism comprising 56.5 percent Roman Catholic, 37.1 percent Protestant, 4.6 percent Muslim. 1.7 percent of Rwandans identify as having no religious beliefs. Given that less than two percent of the population describe themselves as non-religious it can be difficult to find significant data about the experiences these people may face in modern Rwanda.

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda3 is a largely secular document and no preference is given to a single religion.

However, the document does not explicitly protect non-religious people, using the phrase “religion or faith” instead of more inclusive phrases from the international framework such as “religion or belief” or “thought and belief”:

“Discrimination of whatever kind based on, inter alia, ethnic origin, tribe, clan, colour, sex, region, social origin, religion or faith, opinion, economic status, culture, language, social status, physical or mental disability or any other form of discrimination is prohibited and punishable by law.”

— Article 11, Constitution of Rwanda

However, the non-religious would find constitutional protections in the references to freedom from discrimination and freedom of thought:

“Freedom of thought, opinion, conscience, religion, worship and the public manifestation thereof is guaranteed by the State in accordance with conditions determined by law.”

— Article 33, Constitution of Rwanda

According to Article 54 of the Constitution:

“Political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, lineage, region, sex, religion or any other division which may lead to discrimination.”

Religious Oaths

Under Article 61 of the Constitution, all public officials, including the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, senior Ministers of State, Senators, senior officers of Rwanda defence forces and national police, senior judges and prosecutors are all expected to swear an oath ending:

“Should I fail to honour this oath, may I face the rigours of law. So help me God.”

No secular alternative is available. Those who do not swear the oath forfeit their position. The law does not make accommodations for those whose beliefs are not consistent with this requirement.4

Registration of religious organizations

Under the law, faith-based organizations – be they religious groups and nongovernmental organizations associated with religious groups, any organization, umbrella organization, or ministry –  must obtain legal status from the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB) prior to commencing operations.5 Legal representatives of registered religious organizations must hold an academic degree while preachers with supervisory responsibilities must to hold a degree in theology.6;

In 2018, the Rwandan authorities used laws regulating building regulations and noise pollution to close places of worship or restrict religious groups’ activities. This included an edict banning mosques in Kigali from using loudspeakers to play the call to prayer and the closure of some 8,760 places of worship, many of which have subsequently reopened once they could prove compliance.7;

Education and children’s rights

All students in public primary school and the first three years of secondary education must take a class covering world religions, ethics and citizenship. The law does not include opt-out provisions (though nor does the law specify penalties for not taking part in the class).8

The law permits private religious schools and provides state funding to some of them. A presidential order guarantees in theory students attending any government-subsidized school the right to worship according to their beliefs during the school day, as long as their religious groups are registered in the country and the students’ worship practices do not interfere with learning and teaching activities. The order does not stipulate any procedure for arranging special accommodations. In practice, there have been reports that state-funded religious schools had required all students to attend Mass regardless of personal faith, and in some cases students faced punishment or expulsion for their failure to participate.9

At university level there is a government scholarship for orphans of the genocide and many of these institutions are religious in nature and require religious adherence.

Arbitrary detention

Children are among those arbitrarily detained in Gikondo transit center as part of a “rehabilitation” program for those exhibiting “deviant behaviors” – defined as prostitution, drug use, begging, vagrancy, informal street vending, or any other deviant behavior that is harmful to the public. Conditions in the unofficial detention center are reported to be inhumane, with detainees subjected to beatings and ill-treatment. Authorities often do not provide basic necessities, such as a regular supply and reasonable quantities of food and clean water for detainees, who are often held in cramped conditions.10

Family, community and society

Though the non-religious are technically protected by the laws and Constitution of the Republic, Rwanda is still a very religious population and atheists who “come out” are often ostracised by the local community. As with many similarly religious societies, the threat of ostracism can make it difficult to provide accurate numbers of non-religious people living in Rwanda.


Jehovah’s Witnesses face discrimination and the possibility of arrest owing to the incompatibility of their beliefs with the laws of the nation.11;

While the law does not criminalize same-sex sexual activity, the Constitution defines marriage as a contract between a man and a woman, as such precluding LGBTQ+ individuals from marrying. Further, social stigma against the LGBTQ+ community persists, and no laws specifically provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.12

Women’s rights

The law grants equal rights to men and women regarding marriage and divorce. However, penalties for spousal rape are much lighter than for other forms of rape. Domestic violence remains widespread and seldom reported despite government programs to combat it.

Articles 123-127 of the Penal Code13 outlines the criminal sanctions applied in cases of abortion, which range from six months to 20 years in prison, in addition to fines. Abortion is only permitted in cases of child pregnancy, rape, forced marriage, incest, or the endangerment of the life of the mother or child, in which circumstances the woman seeking an abortion must apply to the court for an order (Article 125). It is a criminal offence to advertise “drugs, materials and any other substances believed to induce abortion.”

In April 2019, President Kagame pardoned some 365 women who had been jailed for receiving or otherwise being involved in illegal abortions. The president freed another 52 women serving prison terms for such offenses in October.14

Justice for the Rwandan Genocide

The quest for justice for the victims of the genocide continues to progress, with a significant number of people responsible for the genocide, including former high-level government officials and other key figures, having been brought to justice.15

In November 2016, the Catholic Church formally acknowledged and apologized for its role in acts of genocide.16

However, according to ARTICLE 19, “[u]nder the Presidency of Kagame, discussion of the 1994 genocide is severely restricted, meaning that genuine truth and reconciliation is limited.”17

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Despite constitutional protections the Rwandan government still places limits of freedom of speech and political opposition and this is important to Rwandans in general and non-religious Rwandans in particular. The government has imposed various legal restrictions and informal controls on the media, and press freedom groups have accused the government of intimidating independent journalists. The government justifies its repressive media control by invoking the role of “hate media” in inciting the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The authorities use laws against “genocide ideology” and “divisionism” to punish criticism of the government.

In response to its review of the revised Penal Code in 2018, ARTICLE 19 commented:

“ARTICLE 19 recognises that the horrific atrocities which took place during the 1994 genocide are undoubtedly a core contextual background to the country’s approach to tackling discrimination and intolerance, and create a unique and challenging context to tackle issues of ‘hate speech’ and division. Nonetheless, instead of making genuine efforts to tackle these issues, the government has used excessively broad and repressive criminal laws to silence genuine discussion of the genocide, which, instead of targeting discrimination, is likely to silence victims of the genocide and discrimination. Instead of seeking to build stability and an open democracy through the embedding of human rights standards in the country’s laws and policies, the government has reverted to silencing criticism and violating the right to free speech.”18

According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020:

“State interference and intimidation have forced many civil society actors and journalists to stop working on sensitive political or human rights issues. Most print and broadcast media continued to be heavily dominated by pro-government views. Independent civil society organizations are very weak, and few document and expose human rights violations by state agents.”19

In October 2019, an investigation conducted by the Financial Times revealed that Israeli software developed by the NSO Group was used to spy on political dissidents and critics living abroad.20 

Criminalizing religious “insult”

Articles 153-154 of the Penal Code21 establish the penalties imposed upon those who hinder the free practice of religion or insult religious rites.

Under Article 153, “[a]ny person who: 1º by use of violence, insults or threats, compels or prevents one or more persons from practicing religious rituals or celebrating religious festivities of a legally recognized religious denomination; 2º causes trouble or disorder, prevents, delays or interrupts religious rituals conducted in
public in a legally recognized manner” is liable to up to two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of between one million and two million Rwandan francs (approximately US$1,062-2,120). The penalties rise to 3-5 years and fines of between 3 and 5 million francs, should a criminal act be carried out by an association of people.

Article 154, criminalizes the “public defamation of religious rituals, symbols and religious cult objects by use of actions, words, signs, writings, gestures or threats” providing penalties of between 15 days and three months in prison, and/or fines of up to 2 million Rwandan francs.

Though these laws are designed to protect freedom of worship it clearly risks over-extension, and are unnecessary given protections from discrimination on the basis of religion provided elsewhere in the legislation, and could be interpreted as a de facto blasphemy law.

In April 2019, the Rwandan Supreme Court ruled that Article 154 of the Penal Code was incompatible with Article 38 of the Constitution and should therefore be repealed.22; In July 2019, the Minister for Legal and Constitutional Affairs presented a draft law seeking to amend the penal code in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.23 As of November 2020, the Penal Code does not appear to have been amended.

Freedom of association and assembly

Although the Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, this right is limited in practice. Fear of arrest serves as a deterrent to protests, and gatherings are sometimes disrupted even when organizers obtain official authorization.24

Highlighted cases

In an interview with Rwandan writer and atheist Eric Bright, he related some of the experiences faced by people of no faith in the country, saying: “I remember one day when I went to one local radio, Contact FM, to speak about atheism. The presenter was a man of science even though he was a devout Muslim. People started calling insulting me. Many pastors called to say that the show should be stopped immediately”


“In many ways Rwanda is a secular state and this makes me happy. But there are other things that I’m not happy with. For instance, no school can give me freedom to choose atheism in religious lessons. It’s either you follow this religious belief or not. Also, as an atheist I can never attain some of the top leadership of the country because it requires a religious oath.”

— Eric Bright, Rwandan journalist

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