Brazilian Missionaries Released from Senegal Prison–But Legal Challenges Remain
Two Brazilian missionaries held in a Senegal jail without charge for five months were released on bail this month, yet still face accusations they operated youth programs without permits.
The Brazilian National Organisation of Evangelical Lawyers for the Defence of Fundamental Civic Freedoms (ANAJURE) says a final judgment on their case is expected within 30 days of their April 5 release.
Jose Dilson Da Silva is a missionary with the Brazilian Presbyterian Church in the Senegalese capital Dakar. Zeneide Moreira Novais, who works for Missao Servos, runs an orphanage for street children in Mbour, 80 kilometres south of Dakar.
ANAJURE President Uziel Santana told World Watch Monitor that the complaint about forceful conversions of Muslims found a legal foothold in the discovery that one of Da Silva's projects, Project Obadiah, had been operating without necessary licenses.
The original accusations were of child trafficking and conspiracy to break the law. The charges of conspiracy, "exploitation of minors" and "juvenile diversion," according to ANAJURE, were "proved later by the local authorities themselves as unfounded." Yet the two missionaries remained in detention, and authorities never appeared before a judge to argue why it would be lawful to keep them locked up.
ANAJURE President Uziel Santana told World Watch Monitor that the complaint about forceful conversions of Muslims found a legal foothold in the discovery that Da Silva's projects had been operating without necessary licenses. Santana said Da Silva had attempted to obtain the permits when he began Project Obadiah, but was defrauded by a bogus lawyer who took his money without securing the licenses. Santana said Da Silva let the issue lie.
"However, at the police station, the issue about the permits was not important," he said. "The main problem was ‘Christianization.' A misplaced legal comma gives room to any complaint against Christians."
Santana said ANAJURE was able to obtain the missionaries' release by persuading the judge that the licensing snafu is the only mark on their otherwise spotless records in Senegal.
"When we submitted evidences that they didn't have criminal records, both were temporarily free to go," he said. "They (are required) to present themselves fortnightly at the jail and have no authorization to leave the country. Within 30 days of their release they will be judged." In the meantime, Santana said ANAJURE is working on obtaining the necessary permits for Project Obadiah.
Many thousands of children in West Africa, some as young as 3 or 4 years old and mainly from rural poor families who cannot afford to raise them, are sent to cities like Dakar for an education, which consists mainly of Koranic classes. These "talibes," or "students of the Koran," are required to beg on the streets, overseen by older talibe boys, and can become subject to various abuses.
The release of the two missionaries was welcomed with relief by members of Christian communities in Thies. An expatriate who attended the Sunday service at the Baptist Church told Watch World Monitor that there were tears of joy and an emotional time of prayer.
This detention without trial of foreign Christian workers raises a number of questions in a country seen as a democratic model in Africa and known for its culture of tolerance, which is seen in various ways in Senegal: Christians and Muslims are buried in the same cemeteries in several cities such as Joal, and Ziguinchor in the Casamance. However, as with many West African countries, Senegal has high poverty and widespread unemployment; human trafficking and child exploitation are a serious social concern, despite a relatively stable economy.