Angola has denied recent claims it “banned” the practice of Islam soon after the country allegedly shut down most mosques and led a campaign against veiled Muslim women, according to human rights activists.

On Monday, the Angolan Embassy in Washington issued a statement refuting the claims. “The Republic of Angola… it’s a country that does not interfere in religion. We have a lot of religions there. It is freedom of religion. We have Catholic, Protestants, Baptists, Muslims and evangelical people,” read the statement.

However, the Guardian reported that, under Angolan law, Islam has yet to receive legal recognition, explaining that in order to qualify, a religious organization needs 100,000 members, whereas Muslim Angolans number 90,000 (out of about 18 million). According to the report, the Angolan justice ministry last month “rejected the applications of 194 organisations, including one from the Islamic community.”

The Islamic Community of Angola claimed that the country’s considerations stem from discrimination and religious intolerance; of the 78 mosques in the country, according to the organization, all have been shut over the past few years, except for those in the capital, and persons who practice Islam risk being found guilty of violating the law.

“From what I have heard, Angola is the first country in the world that has decided to ban Islam,” the Guardian quoted Elias Isaac, the country director of the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (Osisa), as saying. “This is a crazy madness. The government is intolerant of any difference.”

The paper further quoted David Já, the president of the ICA, as saying: “We can say that Islam has been banned in Angola. You need 100,000 to be recognized as a religion or officially you cannot pray.”

But the reports remain conflicting as to whether indeed the country banned the religion or had shut the mosques due to violations of building permits, as South Africa’s website Daily Maverick suggested.

Earlier in the week, Angola’s minister of culture, Rosa Cruz e Silva, was quoted by Britain’s Daily Mail as conceding that “the legalization of Islam has not been approved by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights,” adding that as a result the mosques would be closed until further notice.

However, Manuel Fernando, the director of the National Institute for Religious Affairs, a part of the ministry of culture, was quoted by Daily Maverick as saying that “there is no war in Angola against Islam or any other religion. There is no official position that targets the destruction or closure of places of worship, whichever they are.”

Já maintained that in 2010, the Angolan government began shutting mosques, including one that was burned down “a day after authorities had warned us that we should have not built the mosque where we had and that it had to be built somewhere else.

“The government justified by saying that it was an invasion of Angolan culture and a threat to Christian values,” he was quoted by the Guardian as saying, adding that another mosque had been destroyed in the capital, Luanda, earlier this month and over 100 copies of the Koran were burned.

Muslims were usually required to shut down a mosque themselves but if they fail to do so, the government intervenes, Já said.

“They usually issue a legal request for us to destroy the building and give us 73 hours to do so. Failure to do so results in government authorities doing it themselves.”

Já also claimed that Muslim women who wear the traditional veil have also been targeted. “As things stand, most Muslim women are afraid to wear the veil. A woman was assaulted in hospital in Luanda for wearing a veil, and on another occasion, a young Muslim lady was beaten up and told to leave the country because she was wearing a veil,” he told the Guardian.

“Most recently, young girls were prohibited from wearing the veil in Catholic schools and, when we went there to confront the nuns, they simply said they couldn’t allow it. Although there is not an explicit written law prohibiting the use of the veil in Angola, the government has prohibited the practice of the faith and women are afraid to express their faith in that sense,” he added.