Religion in Angola

1. Religions in Angola

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Angola in 2009 was perceived as the event of the year. President José Eduardo dos Santos, for many years representative of an atheistic party, received the head of the Catholic Church with music and a deep bow at the Luanda airport, and tens of thousands of people cheered the pontiff. The stay, limited to Luanda from March 20 to 23, 2009, attracted worldwide attention because it took place in an African country under the sign of strong changes, which was expressed in meetings with numerous political authorities and the diplomatic corps as well as in the meeting with bishops of Angola and São Tomé in the Apostolic Nunciature.

On February 8, the Apostolic Nuncio of Angola, Archbishop Becciu of Vatican Radio, commented on the reasons for the Pope’s visit: “There are still areas, for example in the northeast, that have not yet been reached by evangelization, we have dioceses as large as Italy, with few priests and religious. Recently, new young bishops have been appointed. The Pope’s visit will … stimulate the arrival of other mission institutes”. The conditions for the further evangelization of Angola by the Roman Catholic Church were the acceptance of the Church, whose missionaries were murdered during the civil war, and the Pope’s reminder to the rulers: “The many Angolans who live under the poverty threshold must not be forgotten”. Already in his welcoming speech he demanded the dialogue of the previous conflict parties and after a long civil war to continue on the path of reconciliation.

In his Angelus prayer on the Cimangola plain of Luanda, he sent an appeal for peace around the globe beyond Angola (“Our prayer today rises from Angola, from Africa, and embraces the whole world”). Let all on earth “turn their eyes to Africa, to this great continent so full of hope, but also thirsting for justice, peace, a healthy and integral development that can guarantee its people a future of progress and peace”.

His solemn Mass in the open air was attended by one million faithful. It began with his regret at the death of two young women and 40 injured young people on the way to a youth meeting with the Pope the day before. It is the task of the Catholic Church in Angola and throughout Africa to give the world a sign of unity. The papal message for Angola: “Reconciliation, justice and peace”.

Two elevations stand out from Angola’s relief of faith: Christianity and (traditional) natural religions.

For the traditional religions all general characteristics formulated by Father Raul Ruiz de Asúa Altuna in his work “CULTURA TRADICIONAL BANTO” (“Traditional Culture of the Bantu”) apply, with which he at the same time opposes allegations that the traditional Bantu religion is merely a conglomerate of superstition which has never overcome the level of an elementary fetishism. While traditional religion obviously contains elements of fetishism, animism, naturism, ancestralism, manism, animantism and totemism, it cannot be reduced to any of these aspects.

Fetishism was already mentioned by the Portuguese Duarte Lopez during his visit to the Congo Empire in 1591, because there objects served as objects of worship, which, carved in stone or wood, represented snakes, birds, other animals, plants and trees. In humble rites, people kneeled down in front of these objects, fell to the ground with their faces, covered their faces with dust, implored their help and donated offerings. In view of the wide spread of this cult in Africa, Charles de Brosses first used the term fetishism as a scientific term in a book in 1760. Fetishes are objects made by humans, which have a vital force inherent in them, which humans (want to) make use of.

The traditional religion of Angola is expressed in the communication of the individual with the community, with the visible and invisible world, through its rites, invocations, sacrifices, celebrations, initiation ceremonies. It contains a pragmatic variant aimed at a good life, material goods, fertility, health, a rich harvest and a quiet way of life. At the same time it is supported by a sensitive spirituality and the supremacy of the mystical. As an integral part of the Bantu culture, it directly influences all areas of life.

The belief in spirits is widespread everywhere. Spirits mediate between people and a higher being. According to the ideas of the Mbundu the quituta live in rivers, in the bush, in rocks or springs, can appear as snakes with horns, as terrible monsters in the embodiment of relatives, they proclaim good or evil. Spirits take residence in special places or in trees. For many Angolans, they reside in the gigantic embondeiros (baobabs). These are therefore sacred, and they build small hut altars at the feet of the tree giants, before which they perform their cults. Wizards hang cadavers on the branches to prevent evil actions of the spirits. According to their belief, there are air, rain, storm and ground spirits, spirits of the forest, lakes, rivers and springs, fishing, hunting, agriculture, travel, savannah and those responsible for diseases. Though powerful, they are good-heartedly influenced by gifts, small offerings and calling spells. The hunter begs them for good prey and gives them the first piece. Women sacrifice them a handful of grains or flour. The complex of natural religions includes views on life and death. After death one meets with the ancestors and returns to the living. Death is a journey, man goes from his own and meets them again. One lives dying and dies alive. However, with death a part of the person is lost forever, the human reality ends, his spirit, the soul continues to exist. The body remains without life, cold. There are also certain rites and funeral ceremonies for death, which are expressed in the clothing, the body and face painting, the hairstyles, the grave goods and the rules for the further life of the widow. Influence is the belief that the ancestors accompany the daily activities of the living. They exist in an invisible reality.

Amulets and talismans play an important role in the exercise of the rites. The amulet is a small object, gifted with secret power, mysterious, which protects the owner from misfortune. It exists for all purposes: against diseases, malignancies, accidents and visitations. They can be worn on the body, on the arms, legs, hips, neck, sometimes they are hidden on gravestones.

The medicine men (Curandeiros) are also an essential part of the Bantu culture as carriers of medical experiences and due to the knowledge, special knowledge and useful secrets taken over from the ancestors. This is due to the fact that the Bantu concept of disease must be understood in a socio-religious context.

The most important specialist in bantum magic is the fortune teller (Adivinho). The word is not to be equated with the usual European language. In the majority of cases the fortune tellers are Curandeiros, specialized healers. In Angola they are called “Kimbanda” and “Nganga”. Almost always the Adivinhos are men, women serve mostly as medium. The medium mediates directly between the inhabitants of the invisible world and the living.

On the evangelization of Angola

Already at the end of the 15th century missionaries of the Franciscans and Dominicans travelled with the Portuguese expeditions to the Congo Empire, spreading the Catholic faith and baptizing members of the ruling dynasties. In 1513 Pope Leo X received a delegation from the Congo Empire. The Portuguese missionaries and priests participated in the lucrative ivory, copper, silver and slave trade. In 1560 a Portuguese expedition led by Paulo Dias de Novais (nephew of Bartolomeu Dias) landed in the Ngola Empire. Four Jesuits belonged to it: two priests and two monks. The Portuguese were held captive for five years and regained their freedom when P. D. de Novais helped Ngola defeat an insurgent adversary. In 1563 the Jesuit Father José Anchieta expressed his attitude towards the local population as follows: “For this kind of people there is no better sermon than sword and iron rod”. Asking for military support from the Portuguese Crown, the Ngola P. D. de Novais allowed Novais to return to Europe with a shipload of slaves, ivory and copper. In 1575 the Portuguese settled in Luanda and built a chapel and a church. Luanda exported 12,000 “pieces” of slaves, 4,000 of whom died during the crossing. According to Fréderic Mauro, the number rose to 14,000 the following year. In 1700, the Capuchin monks working in Angola announced that they had married more than 50,000 people and had been baptized 300,000 times since 1677.

In 1760 the Jesuits (7 priests, 6 laymen) were expelled from Angola. Since they had enormous land possessions in Brazil, they had tried to procure slaves in Angola as labourers for their fazendas.

The trade with slaves for overseas export as well as to inner-African countries was taken for granted and God-given over the centuries. Slaves replaced trade money, i.e. it was possible to settle other goods or debts with slaves. In a declaration of the Luanda priests in 1593 it was stated: “It is not a scandal if the Angolan priests pay their debts with slaves, because in Europe the money in circulation consists of gold or silver, in Brazil of sugar, in Angola and the neighbouring empires of slaves. The slaves that the priests sold were not only those who gave them the chiefs (sobas), some were given to them as alms or left to them in the will, but not all of them are needed by them for ministries, as some send wheat or other things for which there is no use in the house.

In 1800, 30 priests worked in Angola, half of them Angolans. In the interior there were 16 churches. In 1880 the chronicles recorded for the first time the activity of Protestants in Angola. Mention was made of the English Baptist Missionary Society, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the United Church of Canada, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Brethren’s Mission. On the Benguela plateau 7-day Adventists worked. After the Berlin (Congo) Conference in 1884/85, Protestant efforts to become effective inland intensified. Especially in the area between Luanda and Malange the Methodist Episcopal Church under Bishop William Taylor was successful. Overall, the missionary activities increased to the extent that Portugal endeavored to finally dominate the inner parts of the country.

2. Statistics and organisations

yearPercentage of white population in Angolatotal population
19009 1772 700 000
191012 0002 900 000
191313 000 
192742 843 
193043 5003 300 000
193159 493 
195078 8264 100 000

On the activities of religious institutions

1900125 Father, monks, nuns
191024 Catholic missions, 73 000 Catholic Angolans
1920-192416 missions founded
1921-1930Half of all hospitals were run by missionaries (1/3 Protestant).
1950103 Catholic missions with 274 missionaries and 595 ministerial assistants. 3 dioceses. The number of Catholics was estimated at 1 million (1/4 of the population).
1954There were 337 primary schools (139 official) with 573 teachers (293 in official schools) and 17 433 pupils. There were also 919 Escolas rudimentares (elementary schools). 784 were under the Catholic Church, the others under the Protestant Church. It taught 1141 teachers the 35 361 pupils.
1957there were 387 Catholic priests in Angola and about 1 500 000 Catholics. Father of different orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines) were active in about 100 missions and parish churches, supported by religious sisters.

On the work of Protestant and other institutions

In 1910, the Protestant missionaries Stober and Swan lamented the continuation of the slave trade in the Bailundo and Cuanza regions.

In 1913 still 20 000 to 40 000 slaves were sold. (John Harris: A escravatura portuguesa)

In the twenties politico-religious sects developed in the north of Angola such as

  • Zacarias Bonzo: A religião salvadora. Their call: “Africa belongs to the Africans!” The sect was controlled from Kinshasa (Congo).
  • Simão Toko: A Estrela Vermelha. The founder, a Baptist preacher, called himself “the last prophet Christ”.
  • Maíangí sect in Cabinda: It was committed to the destruction of the feitiços and forbade entering other churches.

In 1921, the High Commissioner of Angola, Norton de Matos, forbade the use of African languages in mission schools by decree no. 77.

In 1953, so-called “lassism” spread to various regions of Angola, triggered by Lassy Simon Zéphérin de Pionte Noire at the beginning of the 20th century. Lassy was an evangelist who attracted attention through his healings (“Curas”). Catholic, Protestant and animistic elements merged in his teaching.

 year
protestant Churches19491957
places of worship12223090
fathers95179
curate35243817
protestants127 750189 620

The current state

47% of the Angolan population (16 million) are followers of traditional natural religions.

Catholicism has been present in Angola since the end of the 15th century and Protestantism since the end of the 19th century. The number of Christians today is estimated at 50-51% of the population, with 38% accepted as Catholics and 13% as Protestants.

Islam has no historical basis in Angola. Today’s Sunni Muslims (1-2% of the population) are recruited from immigrant labour, especially in the north of the country.

Among the 5 archbishoprics of the Catholic Church in Angola are 14 dioceses. The Bishops’ Conference of Angola and São Tomé (Conferência Episcopal de Angola e São Tomé) brings together 18 dioceses under the direction of the Archbishop of Lubango (formerly Sá da Bandeira).

The Igreja Evangélica Luterana de Angola (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Angola) has its headquarters in Lubango (Huila Province). Its influence is particularly evident in the provinces of Namibe, Huila, Huambo, Luanda, Cabinda and Kunene. Since 2007, it has intensified its missionary activity in the cities.

There are 900-1000 religious communities in Angola.

Strong efforts have been made by Methodists in the Luanda-Malanja region, Baptists in Luanda and the northwest of the country, Lutherans in the south, Adventists, New Apostolic Christians (about 220,000 members; center: Luanda) and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Especially in the cities new communities are emerging, such as the Igréja Unida do Reino de Deus (United Church of the Kingdom of God).

The Conselho de Igréjas Cristas em Angola (Angolan Christian Council) has 22 member churches.

In Angolan religious practice, elements of traditional religion often overlap with those of Christian faith.

3. Significant theologians

Pope visits have left strong impressions in Angola. As early as 1992, the civil war-ridden country was given the honour of a Pope’s visit. On his apostolic journey, John Paul II visited Luanda, Huambo and Lubango from June 4 to 10. “The event was celebrated with great enthusiasm in all the dioceses”. (Bishop Filomeno Vieira Dias; Vice-President of the Bishops’ Conference of Angola and São Tomé; CEAST). To pay homage to the Pope, Angolan bishops wrote a book entitled “A Pope of our time” at the end of April 2011, which was intended to convey prayer suggestions to the faithful on 1 May 2011, the day of the beatification of the late Pontiff.

On his journey from Cameroon to Angola Pope Benedict XVI exposed himself to the criticism of many Catholics and aid organisations such as UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, because he had expressed his opinion on the AIDS problem in Africa at the beginning of his trip to Africa. Although in Angola only 1.6% of the population are afflicted with the immunodeficiency disease, his formulation that AIDS cannot be overcome “with condoms, on the contrary, that only aggravates the problem”, had made high waves of indignation. In Africa, 23 million people are infected with the HIV virus or suffer from the disease that has already broken out. For Pope Benedict XVI and the Roman Catholic Church the disease, which has serious consequences for Africa, is to be countered above all by chastity, sexual asceticism and faithfulness to one’s partners in heterosexual marriage. Thus they lean on Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae vitae”, which advocates sexual intercourse only for the purpose of procreating offspring. People all over the world call on the Church to correct its negative attitude towards contraceptives. Benedict XVI also criticized the Church from the exclave Cabinda. Priests and believers had expected that in his sermons he calls on the Angolan government to keep its promises to improve the living conditions of fishermen. They are no longer allowed to fish near the huge offshore boreholes. Oil production deprives them of their livelihood.

4. Bibliography

P. Raul Ruiz de Asúa Altuna, CULTURA TRADICIONAL BANTO; Secretariado Arquidiocesano de Pastoral; Luanda 1985

Fatima Viegas, Panorama das Religiões em Angola Independente (1975-2008); Ministério da Cultura/Instituto Nacional para os assuntos Religiosos; Luanda 2008

Pedro Ramos de Almeida, História do Colonialismo Portugues em África; Volumes 1-3; Editora Estampa,Lisboa 1978

História de Angola, Ministerio da Educação; Luanda 1976


Rainer Grajek: “Religion in Angola”, In: “Handbuch der Religionen der Welt”, Prof. Dr. Markus Porsche-Ludwig und Prof. Dr. Jürgen Bellers (Editora), Bautz Verlag 2012.

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