In Defense of Religious Freedom in Ethiopia

rfThe Precarious State of Religious Freedom in Ethiopia

In a weekly column entitled “Unity in Divinity” this past June, I expressed grave concern over official encroachments on religious freedom in Ethiopia. I lamented the fact that religious freedom was becoming a new focal target of official human rights violations. But I was also encouraged by the steadfast resistance of some principled Christian and Muslim religious leaders to official interference in religious affairs. I noted that “For the past two decades, Ethiopia has been the scene of crimes against humanity and crimes against nature. Now Ethiopian religious leaders say Ethiopia is the scene of crimes against divinity. Christian and Muslim leaders and followers today are standing together and locking arms to defend religious freedom and each other’s rights to freely exercise their consciences.”

Officials of the ruling regime in Ethiopia see the issue of religious freedom as a problem of “religious extremism”.  The late Meles Zenawi alleged that some Christians at the Timket celebrations (baptism of Jesus, epiphany) earlier this year had carried signs and slogans expressing their desire to have a “Christian government in Ethiopia”.  He also leveled similar accusations against some Ethiopian Muslims protesting official interference in their religious affairs for being “Salafis” linked to Al Qaeda. Meles claimed that “for the first time, an Al Qaeda cell has been found in Ethiopia. Most of them in Bale and Arsi. All of the members of this cell are Salafis. This is not to say all Salafis in Ethiopia are Al Qaeda members. Most of them are not. But these Salafis have been observed distorting the real teachings [of Islam].”

A Statement issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) last month not only dismissed allegations of religious extremism but also expressed “deep concern about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia.” USCIRF virtually indicted the “the Ethiopian government [for seeking] to force a change in the sect of Islam practiced nationwide” and for “punishing [Muslim] clergy and laity who have resisted.” According to the USCIRF Statement,

since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash Islamic sect on the country’s Muslim community, a community that traditionally has practiced the Sufi form of Islam.   The government also has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC).  Previously viewed as an independent body, EIASC is now viewed as a government-controlled institution.  The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia. Muslims throughout Ethiopia have been arrested during peaceful protests: On October 29, the Ethiopia government charged 29 protestors with terrorism and attempting to establish an Islamic state.

USCIRF Commissioner Azizah al-Hibri bluntly stated,

These charges are only the latest and most concerning attempt  by the Ethiopian government to crush opposition to its efforts to control the practice of religion by imposing on Ethiopian Muslims a specific interpretation of Islam. The individuals charged were among tens of thousands peacefully protesting the government’s violations of international standards and their constitutional right to religious freedom.  The Ethiopian government should cease interfering in the internal affairs of its Muslim community and immediately and unconditionally release those wrongfully imprisoned.

It is important to note some very important facts about USCIRF to underscore the significance of its findings. First, USCIRF is not an NGO, a partisan human rights advocacy group or organization or a government agency. It is an independent Commission established by the U.S. Congress (the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998) for the purpose of “monitoring the status of freedom of religion or belief abroad and to provide policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.”  Second, Commissioners are appointed in a bipartisan process by the U.S. President and Democratic and Republican leaders in the U.S. House and Senate.  Third, Commissioners are “selected among distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law.” Fourth, as an independent body, USCIRF’s mission is to “examine the actions of foreign governments against these universal standards and by their freely undertaken international commitments” such as those found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Statement of USCIRF is based on substantial evidence that freedom of religion in Ethiopia is under sustained official attack.

Ethiopia’s International and Constitutional Obligations to Uphold Freedom of Religion

The ruling regime’s constitutional duty to respect the religious freedom of its citizens revolves around its obligations to prevent the establishment of an official religion and refrain from interference in the free exercise of religious belief. Article 11 of the Ethiopian Constitution (which could be described as the “establishment article”) mandates “separation of state and religion” to ensure that the “Ethiopian State is a secular state” and that “no state religion” is established. This article creates a reciprocal obligation between religion and state by prohibiting the “State [from] interfere[ing] in religious affairs” and “religion [from] interfere[ing] in the affairs of the State.” Article 27 (which could be described as the “free exercise of religion article”) guarantees “Everyone the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” including the “freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” Article 27 prohibits “coercion by force or any other means, which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”

The constitutional language of Articles 11 and 27 is derived almost verbatim from Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ratified by Ethiopia on December 10, 1948) and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by Ethiopia on June 11, 1993) which provide  that  “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” Article 8 of the African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights similarly guarantees “freedom of conscience [and] the profession and free practice of religion” and prohibits States from enacting “measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms”. Article 13 of the Ethiopian Constitution incorporates by explicit reference as the law of the land international legal obligations in securing fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom: “The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter [“Chapter Three, Fundamental Rights and Freedoms”] shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.

The Ruling Regime in Ethiopia Must Conform Its Actions to Its Own Constitution and Obligations Under International Law

There is substantial and independently verified evidence and a massive amount of anecdotal evidence in the form of testimony by victims of violations of religious freedom that the ruling regime in Ethiopia has engaged and continues to engage in acts that flagrantly violate the constitutional and legal rights of citizens to freely exercise their religion. The regime has sought to impose upon the Muslim community in Ethiopia not only leaders that it has chosen for that community but has also tried to impose its own preferred al-Ahbash Islamic sect on them. It has interfered in quintessentially religious affairs by engineering the election of preferred leaders to the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council which is the “central organizing body of the Muslim Community in Ethiopia” and manages 11 Regional Islamic Affairs Councils in various zones and districts. The regime has usurped established procedures to conduct elections of religious leaders in officially controlled centers instead of mosques. Religious leaders and administrators who have demanded official non-interference or refused to cooperate with officials in protest have been removed from office, persecuted and prosecuted. Religious dissidents and leaders have been placed under surveillance for pursuing purely religious activities and theri vocal opposition to official interference. As a result, the officially engineered Council has little credibility with the vast majority of Muslims and is generally viewed as an agency of the regime created by the regime and for the regime to serve the interests of the regime in politically controlling the Muslim population.

The ruling regime has produced no evidence to support its claims of subversion, terrorism and other allegations of criminality by those protesting official interference. There is no evidence to show that those demanding non-interference in their religious affairs are in alliance with any radical groups or have any intention whatsoever to seize political power or establish an “Islamic state” in Ethiopia. All independent observers confirm that the protesters seek nothing more than their constitutional right to democratically elect their own Islamic Affairs Supreme Council leaders. That is not an unreasonable demand. It is their democratic right. The protesters insist that the “leaders” elected for them by the regime do not have their consent nor can they faithfully represent their interests. They believe the regime selected leaders  could ultimately create strife, division  and conflict in the Muslim community throughout the country. It is also clear that the leaders that emerged from the regime orchestrated elections do not enjoy much credibility with a significant segment of the Muslim community.

The ruling regime has a bad habit of whipping out its “anti-terrorism law” every time it violates its own Constitution and laws by denying the rights of citizens to religious freedom, the right of the press to report freely and the right of citizens to freely express themselves.  Its arrest and detention of at least 29 Muslim leaders on charges of “terrorism” is just the most recent example of the regime’s indiscriminate and predictable use of its so-called anti-terrorism law as a cure all for all of its problems in society.

What the leaders of the regime in Ethiopia do not seem to  appreciate is the simple fact that there is a limit to the use of the “anti-terrorism law”. The regime cannot get legitimacy or acceptance by the people by exacting harsh punishment on citizens who exercise their constitutional rights. The “anti-terrorism law” is not a panacea to fix the complex political problems facing Ethiopian society. It does not guarantee stability or permanence for the regime. What the “anti-terrorism law” does is keep the regime blinded to the real problems, issues and demands of citizens in Ethiopian society. Citizens want and demand basic human dignity — to be respected and treated fairly by those in power and to have their human rights protected. They do not want to be treated as criminals for demanding or exercising their constitutional rights.

With their “anti-terrorism law”, the leaders of the regime see peaceful protesters and demonstrators in the streets demanding official non-interference in religious matter; but they are completely blinded to the quiet riot that is raging in the hearts and minds of citizens and communities throughout the country. They are blinded to the quiet riot among the masses of the youth whose sense of despair and hopelessness is deepened daily by lack of educational, employment and other opportunities for self-improvement and participation in the development of their country. For a time, the quiet riot of despair and hopelessness will simmer. But those in power today should not doubt that when hopelessness and despair reaches the boiling point of desperation and citizens  overcome their fear of fear, their winter of discontent will be made glorious by an inexorable spring, just like the “Arab Spring”. When that happens, the tables will turn and the “anti-terrorism law” will visit its erstwhile practitioners.

The regime could learn an important lesson from the counsel of two eminent U.S. Supreme Court Justices:

Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws. Our government teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.

As USCIRF deamnded, the regime must “release those it has arrested and end its religious freedom abuses and allow Muslims to practice peacefully their faith as they see fit.”

If government becomes the lawbreaker, it hastens its own demise.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:   and

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: