The provisional federal constitution (PFC) provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion, makes Islam the state religion, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. Most areas of the country beyond greater Mogadishu remain outside federal government control. Federal Member State (FMS) administrations, including Puntland, Jubaland, South West State, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and self-declared independent Somaliland, govern their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but do not fully control them. Somaliland’s constitution declares Islam the state religion, prohibits Muslims from converting to another religion, bars the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and requires all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia. According to several Christian advocacy groups working in the region, on January 25, Somaliland police in Hargeisa arrested six local residents on charges of offenses against the state religion and inciting others to disobey laws relating to public order. On August 5, a Hargeisa court dismissed all charges against the group and released them immediately. The Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education continued to implement its curriculum, declaring that a secular education with a focus on Islamic values and instruction in Somali was important in order to counter efforts by the terrorist group al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law.
During the year, the terrorist group al-Shabaab attacked government-linked forces and targets throughout the country and pressured noncombatants to support the group’s extremist ideology. According to media reports, al-Shabaab killed, injured, or harassed persons for a variety of reasons, including failure to adhere to the group’s religious edicts. During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, Somali security forces, police, and troops from contributing countries of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christian crusaders” intent on invading and occupying the country. During the year, the group conducted public executions of persons whom the group accused of committing crimes such as sorcery and spying, according to local and international press reports. Al-Shabaab continued its practice of targeting humanitarian aid workers, often accusing them of seeking to convert individuals to Christianity. Compared with the same period in 2020, there was a decrease in violence against aid workers. From January to October, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Access Unit recorded at least 194 security incidents that directly affected humanitarian operations, with two aid workers killed, eight injured, 11 detained, and one abducted.
Strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions continued. Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas. Those suspected of conversion reportedly faced harassment by members of their community.
Travel by U.S. government officials remained limited to select areas when security conditions permitted. U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom remained focused on supporting efforts to bring stability and reestablish rule of law, in addition to advocating for freedom of speech and assembly.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 12.1 million (midyear 2021). Other sources, including the Federal Government of Somalia, estimate the population to be at least 15.7 million. According to the Federal Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. According to the World Atlas, members of other religious groups combined constitute less than 1 percent of the population and include a small Christian community of approximately 1,000, a small Sufi Muslim community, and an unknown number of Shia Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and those not affiliated with any religion.
The Somali Bantu population, the majority of whom are Muslim, largely inhabits the southern and central regions of the country near the Shabelle and Jubba Rivers. Some Somali Bantu also maintain traditional animist beliefs.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The PFC provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion but prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam. It states all citizens, regardless of religion, have equal rights and duties before the law but establishes Islam as the state religion and requires laws to comply with sharia principles. While the PFC does not explicitly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions, sharia has been interpreted to forbid conversion from Islam. No exemptions from application of sharia legal principles exist for non-Muslims under the law.
Somaliland’s constitution makes Islam the state religion, prohibits Muslims from converting, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. Other administrations, including Galmudug, Hirshabelle, Jubaland, and South West State, have constitutions identifying Islam as the official religion. These constitutions stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. Galmudug, Hirshabelle, and South West State do not have laws directly addressing religious freedom.
The national penal code generally remains valid in all regions of the country. It does not prohibit conversion from Islam to another religion, but it criminalizes blasphemy and “defamation of Islam,” which carry penalties of up to two years in prison. Given sharia’s role as the ostensible basis for national laws and the prohibition under Islamic jurisprudence for Muslims’ conversion to other religions, the relationship among sharia, the PFC, and the penal code remains unclear.
The PFC requires the President, but not other office holders, to be Muslim. The Somaliland constitution requires Somaliland’s President and candidates for Vice President and the House of Representatives to be Muslim.
The judiciary in most areas relies on xeer (traditional and customary law), sharia, and the penal code. Xeer is believed to predate Islamic and colonial traditions, and in many areas, elders will look to local precedents of xeer before examining relevant sharia references. Each area individually regulates and enforces religious expression, often inconsistently. In areas controlled by al-Shabaab, sharia is the only formally recognized legal system, although reports indicate that xeer is applied in some cases. The PFC recognizes xeer as a mechanism for dispute resolution. In 2017, the federal government adopted a traditional dispute resolution policy that mainstreams the application of xeer but limits its application to mediating “nonserious” crimes. The application of xeer to criminal matters is not standardized.
The Somaliland constitution prohibits the formation of political parties based on a particular religious group, religious beliefs, or interpretation of religious doctrine, while the PFC and the constitutions of other FMS administrations do not contain this prohibition.
The Federal Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs has legal authority to register religious groups. Guidance on how to register or what is required is inconsistent. The ministry has no ability to enforce such requirements outside of Mogadishu. Somaliland has no mechanism to register religious organizations and no specific requirements to register Islamic groups. Other FMS administrations have no mechanism to register religious organizations.
In Somaliland, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Somaliland Ministry of Religion. Somaliland law does not articulate consequences for operating without permission. Other FMS administrations require formal places of worship and religious schools to obtain permission to operate from local authorities.
The Federal Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs is responsible for monitoring religious affairs and promoting religious tolerance between practitioners of Islam and members of minority religious groups. Specific responsibilities of the ministry include arranging affairs for Somali Hajj pilgrims and developing messaging to counter al-Shabaab ideology. It also has the mandate to regulate religious instruction throughout the country. The law requires Islamic instruction in all schools, public or private. Private schools have more flexibility in determining their curricula. These schools must request approval from the Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education; however, requests are infrequent. Non-Muslim students attending public schools may request an exemption from Islamic instruction, but according to federal and FMS authorities, there have been no such requests.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.
The federal government continued to confront multiple challenges, including a persistent threat from al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization that promotes extreme interpretations of Islamic doctrine, including through violence, a stalemate in relations with the FMS governments, and attempts by external actors to increase influence at the subnational level. Despite the government’s reported attempts to strengthen governance, reform key security institutions, and carry out operations to combat al-Shabaab, the terrorist group continued to carry out attacks regularly in the capital and to control areas throughout the southern part of the country.
Federal and FMS governments maintained bans on the propagation of religions other than Islam. The federal government reportedly continued not to strictly enforce the registration requirement for religious groups opening schools for lay or religious instruction.
According to several Christian advocacy groups working in the region, on January 25, Somaliland police in Hargeisa arrested six local residents on charges of offenses against the state religion (Islam) and inciting others to disobey laws relating to public order. Three of them were also charged with apostasy and with spreading and teaching Christianity. These groups stated that Somaliland authorities denied their lawyers access to their clients ahead of the trial. On August 5, a Hargeisa court dismissed all charges against the group and released them immediately.
The Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education continued to implement its national curriculum framework, declaring that a secular education with a focus on Islamic values and instruction in Somali was important in order to counter efforts by the terrorist group al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law. In February, parliament adopted the Education Act which harmonized the structure of the education system, including religious education. This includes Somali as the language of instruction for primary school, Islamic religious instruction at all levels, and Arabic-language Islamic religion courses beginning at the primary level. Muslim clerics approved the new materials and trained teachers in Islamic ethics, according to ministry representatives.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There reportedly continued to be strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions.
Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas and continued to be socially unacceptable in all, while individuals suspected of conversion and their families were reportedly subject to harassment from members of their local communities.
Christians and members of other non-Muslim religious groups continued to report an inability to practice their religion openly due to fear of societal harassment across most of the country. The small Christian community continued to keep a low profile with regard to religious beliefs and practices. Other non-Islamic groups likely also refrained from openly practicing their religion.
There continued to be no public places of worship for non-Muslims other than in the international airport compound.
The only Catholic church in Somaliland remained closed, and observers stated that its reopening would be controversial. The church was briefly reopened in 2017 but was closed again by authorities, under public pressure.
Private schools continued to be the main source of primary education. The majority offered religious instruction in Islam. Quranic schools remained key sources of early education for most children. The education system also includes Islamic institutes that run parallel to general primary education and general secondary education and that result in an Islamic education certificate. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab-controlled areas, according to observers.
Although reliable data was hard to obtain, especially in the rural areas, the majority of young children appeared to be enrolled in Quranic schools, which fell under the authority of the Federal Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs and were typically managed by community-level organizations. According to government documents, parents remained the primary source of funding of all schooling in the country, but many Quranic schools received funding from external sources. The Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education stated it was beginning to develop a preprimary curriculum, but general implementation, and particularly acceptance by Quranic schools, was unclear.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Travel by U.S. government officials remained limited to select areas in Mogadishu when security conditions permitted. U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom focused on supporting the efforts of the government to bring stability and reestablish rule of law, in addition to advocating for freedom of speech and assembly. The embassy engaged with officials and opposition figures to dissuade the use of religion to threaten those with differing political or religious perspectives.
Embassy programs targeted socially marginalized individuals in areas where al-Shabaab maintained territorial control and continued to exert influence. They also focused on creating alternatives to al-Shabaab-administered sharia courts and justice systems.