Gambia's president has declared the tiny West African country an Islamic republic, saying it is line with the country's majority religion and is an effort to break from a colonial past.

President Yahya Jammeh made the declaration Friday at the end of a political rally. He said the decision is in line with the country's religious identity and values, which is about 90 percent Muslim. Jammeh assured the rights of the Christian community will be protected.

Jammeh said Gambia could not afford to continue a colonial legacy. The country gained independence from Britain in 1965.

An opposition leader has said this kind of decision needs to go through a referendum.

Jammeh seized power in 1994. Rights groups accuse him of gross human rights abuses, including a clampdown on political opponents.