On January 26, the Federal High Court found all 13 Muslim defendants guilty of crimes of terrorism for their role in the 2012 killing of an imam in Dessie, Amhara Region. The group received prison terms ranging from three years and eight months to 16 years.
In April the EHRC reported to the parliament on its investigations into the dozens of deaths at the October 2016 Irreecha festival, a large Oromo religious and cultural celebration. The commission recommended the government hold local and regional officials of Oromia accountable for failing to stop the festival in advance. The commission attributed blame for the deaths to the Oromo Media Network, a diaspora-based media outlet, for fueling the unrest leading to the incident. The government filed terrorist charges against the network (in absentia) in March for allegedly rendering support to terrorists, which was listed as a crime under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and punishable by imprisonment from 10 to 15 years. The trial continued as of year’s end.
A court-ordered EHRC report documented what it stated was the authorities’ torture of 16 inmates, which included targeting of Muslim inmates, in a federal prison. Inmates told the EHRC prison officials in Shoa Robit Prison subjected them to various forms of torture during a three-month period in 2016 and holding them in what was described by the report as inhumane conditions for five months in 2017. Muslim inmates reported the officers shouted anti-Muslim language and further harassed, threatened, and intimidated them based on their religious beliefs. Inmates criticized the EHRC for not extending its findings of torture by prison officials to cover the 176 other inmates they alleged were tortured, objected to the report’s failure to hold prison officials or Federal Police officers who carried out the torture accountable for their actions, and requested an independent investigation be conducted.
In January an NGO reported the Supreme Court had acquitted three Protestants who had been sentenced to nine years in prison by a lower court judge in 2014 for allegedly burning down an EOC church. The ruling left the three still liable for paying for the damage to the church, but a separate court order in May released them from that responsibility. According to the NGO account, the three maintained they had been falsely convicted and had offered witnesses in support of their innocence, but the lower court judge had ignored their testimony.
According to NGO reports, in June authorities ordered the Full Gospel Church in Tikil Dingaye, a Pentecostal church in Amhara Region, to stop meeting in a residential area in the wake of a mob attack on the church. The attackers had assaulted some of the church members and then destroyed the church’s meeting hall, offices, and the accommodations of a church worker. After the attack, according to the NGO, a church member was arrested for “illegal activities” that “incited religious clashes,” and when the church officials asked authorities in Gondar for protection against further attacks, they received a letter informing them they were no longer allowed to conduct religious services there. According to media accounts, the attackers were believed to be members of the student association Mahibere Kidusan, an organization established under the auspices of the EOC to support and preserve EOC traditions. Representatives of Mahibere Kidusan denied involvement in the attack, saying no members of their association had been questioned or charged by police in connection with the attack.
The SOE made protests illegal for most of the year, and there were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.
Muslim community members continued to assert the government had co-opted religious leaders to impose Al-Ahbash, a Sufi religious movement rooted in Lebanon and different from indigenous Islam, on local Islamic religious practice, despite government statements made in previous years saying it no longer supported a program to impose Al-Ahbash. Reports from the Muslim community suggested the government continued to arrange for the dissemination of Al-Ahbash teachings, and, consequently, Friday prayers still conformed to Al-Ahbash teachings.
In June during Ramadan, Muslims in the town of Adwa, Tigray Region, reported authorities denied them access to their mosques, alleging the community supported a movement for religious freedom for the country’s Muslims.
Muslim community members reported widespread sentiment in their community that the government exercised excessive influence over the EIASC, which remained the lead religious organization for the country’s Muslims, managing religious activities in the approximately 40,000 mosques and annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca. Some Muslim community members also reported continued governmental interference in religious affairs.
The Directorate for Registration of Religious Groups within MoFPDA reported it had registered 1,600 religious groups and associations as of 2016.
Members of some religious groups continued to state the EOC exemption from the registration requirement for all other religious groups constituted an unfair double standard.
Although holding religious services inside public institutions remained banned per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state, the government continued to mandate public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays for workers to attend Islamic prayers. Private companies were not required to follow this policy.
Protestants continued to report local officials discriminated against them with regard to religious registration and the allocation of land for churches and cemeteries.
In July the media reported a government announcement saying it would issue national identity cards to the nearly 1,000 Rastafarians who had been living in the country for many years as stateless persons. The measure reportedly would grant the Rastafarians residency but would not give them citizenship.
Two opposition parties (the All Ethiopian Unity Party and Blue Party), in what the media characterized as an attempt to embarrass the government, reported government officials in the town of Legetafo Legedadi, Oromia, had demolished a church belonging to the EOC and confiscated sacred items on August 7. The town’s administration told the media that authorities had demolished the church because it was built illegally, thereby violating the master development plan of the town.
The MoFPDA continued to work with the EIASC and civil society groups to sponsor workshops and training of religious leaders, elders, and community members with the stated purpose of decreasing the potential for sectarian violence.