The attitude of the Angolan government toward religion was inconsistent. The MPLA-PT's strong commitment to Marxism-Leninism meant that its attitude toward religion, at least officially, corresponded to that of the traditional Soviet Marxist-Leninist dogma, which generally characterized religion as antiquated and irrelevant to the construction of a new society. The government also viewed religion as an instrument of colonialism because of the Roman Catholic Church's close association with the Portuguese. Furthermore, because membership in the party was the road to influence, party leaders and many of the cadres were likely to have no formal religious commitment, or at any rate to deny having one (even though most of Angola's leaders in the 1980s were educated at Catholic, Baptist, or Congregational mission schools). Nonetheless, the government acknowledged the prevalence of religion in Angolan societies and officially recognized the equality of all religions, tolerating religious practices as long as the churches restricted themselves to spiritual matters. The state, however, did institute certain specific controls over religious organizations, and it was prepared to act quickly when it felt that it was challenged by the acts of a specific group. Thus, in early 1978 the MPLA-PT Political Bureau ordered the registration of "legitimate" churches and religious organizations. Although priests and missionaries were permitted to stay in the country as foreign residents and although religious groups or churches could receive goods from abroad, further construction of new churches without a permit was forbidden.
A conflict developed in the late 1970s between the government and the Roman Catholic Church. In December 1977, the bishops of Angola's three archdioceses, meeting in Lubango, drafted a pastoral letter subsequently read to all churches that claimed frequent violations of religious freedom. Their most specific complaint was that the establishment of a single system of education ignored the rights of parents. They also objected to the government's systematic atheistic propaganda and its silencing of the church's radio station in 1976. In response to charges of government meddling in religious affairs, President Neto issued a decree in January 1978 stating that there was complete separation between church and religious institutions. In addition, Jornal de Angola printed an attack on the bishops, accusing them of questioning the integrity of the Angolan revolutionary process.
The outcome of the conflict had repercussions for Protestant churches as well as for the Roman Catholic Church. In essence, the government made it clear that religious institutions were to adhere to government and party rulings regarding nonreligious issues.
In the late 1980s, there was a slight change in the government's policy toward religion. The president and others in the government and party elites, recognizing that political opposition had not coalesced around religious leaders, became less fearful of religious opposition and therefore more tolerant of religious groups in general. One exception was the Our Lord Jesus Christ Church in the World, an independent Christian sect founded in 1949 by Simon Mtoko (also spelled Simão Toco). Mtoko, a Protestant from Uíge Province, fashioned the sect after the Kimbanguist movement (not to be confused with traditional kimbanda practices, which had arisen in the Belgian Congo in the 1920s. The government had been especially suspicious of the Mtokoists because of their strong support in Benguela Province, most of whose residents were Ovimbundu, the principal supporters of UNITA. Mtokoists also were involved in riots in the Catate region of Bengo Province and in Luanda at the end of 1986, and they attacked a prison in Luanda in 1987 in an attempt to free fellow believers who had been arrested in the 1986 riots. As a result, the government banned the sect, claiming that its members had used religion to attack the state and had therefore lost their legitimacy. Subsequently, however, as part of the general relaxation of its policy on religion, the government softened its position on the sect and in March 1988 declared it a legal religion.
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