The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs continued its efforts to implement a 2014 decree executing a law on state control of mosques, which converted the status of imams, including refugee imams, to civil service employees under the ministry and transferred ownership of mosque properties and other assets to the government. The ministry’s High Islamic Council sent instructions on and closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons, reportedly dismissing imams for sermons deemed extremist. Government officials stated the decree aimed to eliminate political activity from mosques, provide greater government oversight of mosque assets and activities, and counter foreign influence. Virtually all mosques in the country had an imam who was a civil service employee.
In November the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs organized its fifth annual forum of ulemas (Muslim scholars) from East Africa, including ulemas from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. President Ismail Omar Guelleh opened the forum, noting the main theme was a review of “religious conceptions and cultural perceptions” to change “mentalities and behaviors.” Participants in the three-day forum discussed strategies of leveraging social media in East Africa to engage youth, promote tolerance, and mitigate violent extremism.
The government continued to permit registered non-Islamic groups, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, to operate freely, according to Christian leaders. For registered non-Islamic groups, the government subsidized the cost of utilities at church properties, since it considered some church properties to be part of the national patrimony. Religious groups not independently registered with the government, such as Ethiopian Protestant and non-Sunni Muslim congregations, operated under the auspices of registered groups. Smaller groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Bahais, were not registered with the government but operated privately without incident, according to Christian leaders.
The government continued to recognize legal Islamic marriages conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and civil marriages conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior for non-Muslims and interfaith couples. The government also recognized non-Islamic religious marriages, when documentation from the religious organization performing the ceremony was provided.
The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs continued to sponsor a program in which religious leaders visited public schools for one-hour sessions to answer students’ questions about religion. Participation in these weekly sessions, designed to broaden students’ knowledge of world religions, was not mandatory.
The government continued to allow non-Islamic religious groups to host events and proselytize on the groups’ private property; in practice, groups refrained from proselytizing in public spaces, such as hotels or street corners, due to cultural sensitivities. The government continued to permit a limited number of Christian missionaries to sell religious books and pamphlets at a local bookstore.
The government continued to issue visas to foreign Islamic and non-Islamic clergy and missionaries, but required they belong to registered religious groups before they could work in the country or operate nongovernmental organizations.
Local public schools continued to observe only Islamic holidays, but schools permitted refugee students to miss class for their respective religious holidays.
In response to a violent ISIS attack on Christians in Egypt on April 9 (Palm Sunday), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent messages of condolence condemning the attack and expressing its solidarity with the victims’ families. The government-run newspaper, La Nation, published the ministry’s message.