Eritrea

Executive Summary

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as the freedom to practice any religion.  The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups:  the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea.  Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups, and their members can be subjected to additional security service scrutiny.  The government appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community.  International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media continued to report members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions.  Members of unrecognized religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and deaths in custody due to mistreatment and harsh prison conditions, and detention without explanation of individuals observing the recognized faiths.  In March Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur died of unknown causes in police custody, where he had been kept since October 2017.  Reports indicated police arrested hundreds of protesters, including minors, at or soon after his funeral.  In 2017, the government closed a secondary school sponsored by an Islamic organization but later allowed the school to reopen for one year; in contrast, a private school sponsored by an Islamic organization remained closed.  NGOs reported two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses died early in the year in Mai Serwa Prison outside of Asmara.  International media and NGOs reported authorities conditionally released some Christians from unregistered groups from prison during the year after they had renounced their faith in 2014.  Authorities continued to confine Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios under house arrest, where he has remained since 2006.  The government granted entry to prominent Ethiopian television evangelist Suraphel Demissie in June as part of the first set of flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara after the airways reopened; onlookers filmed him preaching on the streets of Asmara.  NGOs reported the government continued to detain 345 church leaders and officials without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 53 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith.  An unknown number of Muslim protesters remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.  The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994.  Some religious organization representatives reported an improved climate for obtaining visas for foreign colleagues to visit Eritrea and increased ability to call their counterparts in Ethiopia.

The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious community sources created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom.  Religious leaders of all denominations and the faithful regularly attended celebrations or funerals organized by the recognized religious groups.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including the March protests surrounding the death of Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur, the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios.  Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during a series of bilateral meetings with visiting senior Eritrean officials in Washington on multiple occasions during the year.  Embassy officials met with clergy, leaders, and other representatives of religious groups, both registered and unregistered.  Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of interlocutors, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, as well as UN officials.  Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.  Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at six million (July 2018 estimate); a population census has not been conducted since 2010.  There are no reliable figures on religious affiliation.  Some government, religious, and international sources estimate the population to be 49 percent Christian and 49 percent Sunni Muslim.  The Pew Foundation in 2016 estimated the population to be 63 percent Christian and 37 percent Muslim.  The Christian population is predominantly Eritrean Orthodox.  Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals, constitute less than 5 percent of the Christian population.  Some estimates suggest 2 percent of the population is traditionally animist.  The Baha’i community reports approximately 200 members.  Only one Jew reportedly remains in the country.

A majority of the population in the southern and central regions is Christian.  A majority of the Tigrinya, the largest ethnic group, are Christian.  The Tigre and the Rashaida, the largest minority ethnic groups, are predominantly Muslim and reside mainly in the northern regions of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and the freedom to practice any religion.

Proclamation 73/1995 calls for separation of religion and state; outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, including concerning foreign relations and social activities; establishes an Office of Religious Affairs; and requires religious groups to register with the government or cease activities.  Members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law are subject to penalties under the provisional penal code.  Such penalties may include imprisonment and fines.  The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official recognition.  Each application must include a description of the religious group’s history in the country; an explanation of the uniqueness or benefit the group offers compared with other religious groups; names and personal information of the group’s leaders; detailed information on assets; a description of the group’s conformity to local culture; and a declaration of all foreign sources of funding.

The Office of Religious Affairs has registered four religious groups:  the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation).  A 2002 decree requires all other religious groups to submit registration applications and to cease religious activities and services prior to approval.  The government has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002.

The government appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Sunni Islamic community.

Religious groups must obtain government approval to build facilities for worship.

While the law does not specifically address religious education in public schools, Proclamation 73/1995 outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, and education is not included as an approved activity.  In practice, religious instruction is commonplace within worship communities.

By law, all citizens between 18 and 50 must perform national service, with limited exceptions, including for health reasons such as physical disability or pregnancy.  A compulsory citizen militia requires persons not in the military, including many who had been demobilized, elderly, or otherwise exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend militia training.  Failure to participate in the militia or national service could result in detention.  Militia duties mostly involve security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling.  Militia training primarily involves occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures.  The law does not provide for conscientious objector status for religious reasons, nor are there alternative activities for persons willing to perform national service but unwilling to engage in military or militia activities.

The law prohibits any involvement in politics by religious groups.

The government requires all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to departing the country.  The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information.  Starting in September, an exit visa or other travel documents are not required to cross the newly opened land border with Ethiopia.

The law limits foreign financing for religious groups.  The only contributions legally allowed are from local followers, the government, or government-approved foreign

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The UK-based religious freedom advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses news service reported two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses died early in the year in Mai Serwa Prison outside Asmara.  Both had been in detention since 2008 without charge.  The organizations stated that 76-year-old Habtemichael Tesfamariam died on January 3, and Habtemichael Mekonen, age 77, died on March 6.

In March Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur died of unknown causes while in police custody.  He was reportedly in his late 80s or early 90s when he died.  He had been in custody since October 2017.  NGO and international media reports indicated police arrested hundreds of protesters (including minors) at his funeral.  It was not clear how many protesters remained in detention at year’s end, although sources indicated authorities released many of them.

CSW reported in October that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including three men who had been imprisoned without charge for 22 years, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 53 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith.  An unknown number of Muslim detainees remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and in March.

Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who appeared in public in July 2017, remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting the government’s interference in church affairs.

Determining the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.

The government did not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service and continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service.  The government continued to hold Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons.  Authorities prevented prisoners held for national security reasons from having visitors, and families often did not know where the government held such prisoners.  Authorities generally permitted family members to visit prisoners detained for religious reasons only.  Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter.

In July and August international media and NGOs reported the release from detention of more than 30 Christians from unregistered groups.  Reports stated the government released 35 Christians after they renounced their religion four years earlier.  Another individual reported that one Jehovah’s Witness was transferred from prison to house detention but was still surveilled by security authorities.

Christian advocacy organizations reported the detention of 19 members of the Full Gospel Church in Godaif, Asmara, in July, and of 21 Christians at a gathering in Asmara in August.  The status of the members was unknown at year’s end.

Religious groups were able to print and distribute documents only with the authorization of the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.

The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders.  Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching religious beliefs to others.

The government permitted the Al Diaa Islamic secondary school, which the government had closed in 2017, to reopen in September.  Al Mahad, another school originally founded as an Islamic-based primary and secondary school, remained closed since 2017.  Al Mahad reportedly faced increasing government pressure, including to deemphasize the religious aspects of its curriculum; in recent years, the government permitted the school to teach only elementary school-age children.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.  The government also required all customers to present a national identification card to use computers at private internet cafes, where most individuals accessed the internet.  This identification requirement rendered Jehovah’s Witnesses generally unable to use the internet.

Arrests and releases often went unreported.  Information from outside the capital was extremely limited.  Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge.  International religious organizations reported authorities interrogated detainees about their religious affiliations and asked them to identify members of unregistered religious groups.

The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.

When the government opened the land border with Ethiopia in September, the government did not require exit visas or other travel documents for Eritreans crossing into Ethiopia.  How long this procedure would remain in effect was unclear.  The government continued to require all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to airport departure.  The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information.  Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences.

The government continued to allow only the practice of Sunni Islam and continued to ban all other practice of Islam.

Official attitudes toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities differed.  Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting.  Local authorities sometimes denied government coupons (which allowed shoppers to make purchases at discounted prices at certain stores) to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.

Diaspora groups noted authorities controlled virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups.  The leaders of the four groups continued to state their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice, but individuals privately reported restrictions on import of religious items used for worship.  Whether authorities used these restrictions to target religious groups was unclear, since import licenses remained generally restricted.  Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.

The government permitted church news services to videotape and publish interviews with foreign diplomats during the public celebration of the Eritrean Orthodox holiday Meskel.

Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged.  Religious structures used by unregistered Jewish and Greek Orthodox groups continued to exist in Asmara.  The government protected the historic Jewish synagogue building, maintained by an individual reported to be the country’s last remaining Jew.  Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Christ, remained shuttered.  The government allowed the Baha’i center to remain open, and, according to reports, the members of the center had access to the building except for prayer meetings.  The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, but the government did not permit religious services on the site.  The Anglican Church building held services but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Some church leaders continued to state the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.

Government control of all mass media continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government repression against them, according to observers.  Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship, according to group members.

The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the mufti of the Sunni Islamic community and the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower-level officials for both communities.  Lay administrators appointed by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice managed some Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.

The government continued to permit a limited number of Sunni Muslims, mainly the elderly and those not fit for military service, to take part in the Hajj, travel abroad for religious study, and host clerics from abroad.  The government generally did not permit Muslim groups to receive funding from countries where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened to import foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.

The government granted entry to the prominent Ethiopian Pentecostal Christian television evangelist Suraphel Demissie in June.  Onlookers filmed him preaching on the streets of Asmara.

The government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations.  The government permitted Catholic clergy to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers Church officials considered adequate; they were discouraged from attending certain religious events while overseas.  Students attending the Roman Catholic seminary, as well as Catholic nuns, did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government, according to Church officials.  Some Catholic leaders stated, however, national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training abroad, because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas.

Three ministers, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims.  Foreign diplomats, however, reported that individuals in positions of power, both in government and outside, often expressed reluctance to share power with Muslim compatriots and distrusted foreign Muslims.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Government control of all media, expression, and public discourse limited information available concerning societal actions affecting religious freedom.  Churches and mosques were located in close proximity, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on various religious holidays and other events.  Senior Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran religious leaders sat as honored guests alongside the ranking Eritrean Orthodox officials during the high-profile public celebration of Meskel on September 27.

Some Christian leaders continued to report Muslim leaders and communities were willing to collaborate on community projects.  Ecumenical and interreligious committees did not exist, although local leaders met informally, and religious holidays featured public displays of interfaith cooperation.  Representatives of each of the official religions attended the state dinners for several visiting foreign officials.  Some Muslims expressed privately their feelings of stress and scrutiny in professional and educational settings because of their faith.

In January media reported that unknown persons vandalized the Jewish section of the main cemetery in Asmara.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials to raise religious freedom concerns, including the protests and subsequent arrests in March; they also advocated for the release of Jehovah’s Witnesses and an alternative service for conscientious objectors refusing to bear arms for religious reasons; and expressed concern over the continued detention of patriarch Abune Antonios.  Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during a series of bilateral meetings with visiting senior Eritrean officials in Washington on multiple occasions during the year.  Embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom with a wide range of partners, including visiting international delegations, Asmara- and regionally based diplomats accredited to the government, UN officials, and other international organization representatives.  Embassy officials used social media to highlight the importance of religious tolerance and public diplomacy programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Embassy staff met with clergy, leaders, and other representatives of most religious groups, including unregistered groups.  Some embassy requests via the government to meet with religious leaders went unanswered, however.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, section 402(b), for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.  Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The constitution codifies the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state.  On January 20, security forces fired teargas on a group of youth singing politically charged messages in Woldia town during Epiphany celebrations.  The Amhara regional government pledged to investigate the incident.  The local Human Rights Council (HRCO) reported security forces subsequently shot and killed eight Orthodox Church members; this was followed by further protests and killings.  On February 16, the government declared a state of emergency (SOE) that restricted organized opposition and antigovernment protests, which also affected religious activities.  The House of Peoples’ Representatives voted on June 5 to lift the SOE, effective immediately.  There were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.  On August 1, representatives of the exiled synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios, returned to the country and reunited with the synod in Ethiopia headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.  The reconciliation effort had the direct support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and ended a 26-year schism in the Orthodox Church.  On August 4, three Muslim scholars, Sheik Seid Ahmed Mustafa, Sheik Jabir Abdella, and Sheik Sherif Muhdin, returned to the country after decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.  The scholars told local media they returned in response to Prime Minister Abiy’s calls to return and build the country.

On August 4, in the Somali region, an organized group of Muslim youth reportedly killed six priests and burned down at least eight Ethiopian Orthodox churches during widespread civil unrest in Jijiga.  On August 25, in Bure town, followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church stoned a man to death after accusing him of attempting to set a church on fire.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups.  The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) said it continued to hold foreign actors responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.  The Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE) stated that the major faith communities in most of the country respected each other’s religious observances and practices while permitting intermarriage and conversion.

U.S. embassy and Department of State officers met officials from the Ministry of Peace, which includes the previous Ministry of Federal and Pastoralist Development Affairs, throughout the year for continued discussions on religious tolerance, radicalization, and ongoing reforms led by Prime Minister Abiy.  Embassy representatives also met with the leaders from the EIASC, Catholic Church in Ethiopia, IRCE, the Jewish Community, and EOC to discuss how these groups could contribute to religious tolerance.  Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim community and with NGOs to discuss their concerns about government interference in religious affairs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 108.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  The most recent census, conducted in 2007, estimated 44 percent of the population adheres to the EOC, 34 percent are Sunni Muslim, and 19 percent belong to Christian evangelical and Pentecostal groups.  The overall population, however, has since changed significantly, and observers in and outside the government state those numbers are not necessarily representative of the present composition.  The EOC predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in the Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions.  Established Protestant churches are strongest in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, Gambella, and parts of Oromia.  Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Eastern Rite and Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and practitioners of indigenous religions.  The Rastafarian community numbers approximately 1,000 and its members primarily reside in Addis Ababa and the town of Shashemene in the Oromia Region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution requires the separation of state and religion, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall religion interfere in state affairs.  It permits limitations on religious freedom as prescribed by law in order to protect public safety, education, and morals, as well as to guarantee the independence of government from religion.  The law criminalizes religious defamation and incitement of one religious group against another.  The law permits sharia courts to adjudicate personal status cases, provided both parties are Muslim and consent to the court’s jurisdiction.

The SOE put in place on February 16 and lifted on June 5 included provisions affecting religious activities such as the requirement for authorization from the SOE Command Post for public gatherings and a prohibition on chanting political slogans during religious holidays.

Registration and licensing of religious groups fall under the mandate of the Directorate of Faith and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Peace, which requires unregistered religious groups to submit a founding document, the national identity cards of its founders, and the permanent address of the religious institution and planned regional branches.  The registration process also requires an application letter, information on board members, meeting minutes, information on the founders, financial reports, offices, name, and symbols.  Religious group applicants must have at least 50 individuals for registration as a religious entity, and 15 for registration as a ministry or association.  During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper and, if there are no objections, registration is granted.

Unlike other religious groups, the EOC is not registered by the Ministry of Peace but obtains registration through a provision in the civil code passed during the imperial era that is still in force.  Registration with the ministry confers legal status on a religious group, which gives the group the right to congregate and to obtain land to build a place of worship and establish a cemetery.  Unregistered groups do not receive these benefits.  Religious groups must renew their registration at least every five years; failure to do so may result in a fine.

Registered religious organizations are required to provide annual activity and financial reports.  Activity reports must describe evangelical activities and list new members, newly ordained clergy, and new houses of worship.

Under the constitution the government owns all land; religious groups must apply to both the regional and local governments for land allocation, including for land to build places of worship.

Government policy prohibits the holding of religious services inside public institutions, per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state.  The government mandates that public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays for workers to attend Islamic prayers.  Private companies are not required to follow this policy.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public and private schools, although both public and private schools may organize clubs based on shared religious values.  The law permits the establishment of a separate category of religious schools under the auspices of churches and mosques.  The Charities and Societies Agency, an agency of the government accountable to the federal attorney general, and the Ministry of Education regulate religious schools, which provide both secular and religious instruction.  The Ministry of Education oversees the secular component of education provided by religious schools.

The law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion.

A government proclamation prohibits certain charities, societies, and associations, including those associated with faith-based organizations that engage in rights-based advocacy, and prevents civil society organizations from receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources.  Rights-based advocacy includes activities promoting human and democratic rights or equality of nations, nationalities, peoples, genders, and religions; protecting the rights of children or persons with disabilities; advancing conflict resolution or reconciliation; and enhancing the efficiency of the justice system or law enforcement services.  Religious groups undertaking development activities are required to register their development arms as charities with the Charities and Societies Agency and follow legal guidelines originating from the Charities and Societies Proclamation.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On January 20, during Orthodox Christian Epiphany celebrations, also known as the Timket festival, security forces fired teargas in Woldia town, North Wollo Zone of the Amhara Region, on a group of youth who, while following a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (Tabot), the most sacred item in the church, shifted to political messaging in their cheers and songs, according to media reports.  The Tabot fell to the ground during the incident, after which the youths threw rocks at the security forces.  According to an August 9 report by independent rights group Human Rights Council (HRCO), government security forces shot and killed eight and wounded 16 followers of the EOC during the protest.  Subsequently, residents of Woldia and nearby towns Kobo, Robit, Mersa, Wurgessa and Dessie staged protests, which the report stated turned violent; according to the HRCO, security forces killed eight of those protesters and injured nine others.  Government officials promised to investigate the incident, but as of year’s end there was no public report of findings or of anyone being held accountable.

The government released Ahmedin Jebel and his co-defendants from Kality Prison on February 14.  Ahmedin, a member of the Muslim Arbitration Committee, a group formed in 2011 to protest the government’s interference in religion and to advocate for the resolution of Muslim grievances, was arrested in 2012 along with several other activists.  The government brought terrorist charges against him and several codefendants, and they were found guilty.  In August 2015, the court sentenced Ahmedin to 22 years in prison.  Prior to his release, he was one of the few Muslim activists who remained in jail following the pardoning of several other detainees in recent years.

The SOE made protests illegal for four months.  There were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.  No religious group reported repression of religious freedom under the SOE.

Reports of government imposition or dissemination of Al-Ahbash teachings (a Sufi religious movement rooted in Lebanon and different from indigenous Islam) declined during the year.

The Directorate for Registration of Religious Groups within the Ministry of Peace reported 816 religious institutions and 1,640 fellowships and religious associations were registered as of late in the year.

The EIASC 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 Muslims stated there was continued government interference in religious affairs, and some members of the Muslim community stated the EIASC lacked autonomy from the government.

Protestants continued to report that local officials discriminated against them with regard to religious registration and the allocation of land for churches and cemeteries.

On August 1, the exiled synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios, returned to Ethiopia after 27 years of exile in the United States, to reunite with the synod in Ethiopia headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.  The reconciliation ended 26 years of schism in the Orthodox Church.  Following the reconciliation, the two patriarchs were designated as equal heads of the reunited church, with Abune Merkorios assuming spiritual leadership and Abune Mathias assuming administrative leadership.  Media reported that Prime Minister Abiy played a central role in the mediation efforts by tasking mediators, and by personally attending and addressing a mediation conference in Washington D.C.

In collaboration with the government-sanctioned rights body Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), an inquiry committee of the EOC on August 8 reinstated 300 priests of the Addis Ababa Diocese, who were suspended in 2016 by the diocesan leadership.  In addition to concluding the priests should be paid their two-year salary in full, the committee dismissed 14 individuals, including the manager of the Addis Ababa Diocese, for illegally suspending the priests and violating their rights.

On July 3, Prime Minister Abiy initiated an effort to resolve disputes within the Muslim community by bringing together leaders of the EIASC and the Muslim Arbitration Committee (MAC), previously rival groups.  The prime minister’s office stated the government maintained its neutrality when arbitrating between the two groups.  In a joint meeting, the two sides apologized to each other and pledged to resolve their disputes.  They agreed and set up a committee of nine members, three from each group as well as three elders and religious scholars.

On August 4, three Muslim scholars, Sheik Seid Ahmed Mustafa, Sheik Jabir Abdella, and Sheik Sherif Muhdin, returned to the country after more than two decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.  The scholars told local media that they returned in response to Prime Minister Abiy’s calls to return and help build the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 4, according to national and international media reports, an organized group of Muslim youth killed six priests and burned down at least eight EOC churches in the Somali Regional State during widespread civil unrest in Jijiga.

Participants at the annual Irreecha festival in late September celebrated peacefully, free of the violence that marred the event in 2016.  The PM’s office issued the following statement: “As we celebrate Irreecha, let’s all cherish our rich cultural heritages and unite in a shared purpose to build a bright future for our children.”

The IRCE, an organization established by seven religious institutions and operating independently from the government and whose mission is to promote interfaith harmony throughout the country, reported that major faith communities in most of the country respected each other’s religious observances and practices while permitting intermarriage and conversion.

In May Muslim community leaders said that Islam in the country was threatened by internal fracturing due to discord within the community.

The EIASC expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community.  The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers continued to engage with the Ministry of Peace and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on religious tolerance, countering violent extremism related to religion, and promotion of shared values.

Embassy representatives held meetings with religious leaders, including the Office of the Patriarch of the EOC, the president of the EIASC, and the cardinal heading the Catholic Church in the country, to discuss the role of faith-based organizations in improving religious tolerance within society.  Embassy officials met with recently released leaders of the MAC.

Embassy officials engaged with members of the IRCE to discuss religious tolerance and attacks on places of worship.  The embassy’s dialogue with the IRCE sought to strengthen the IRCE’s capacity to reduce religious violence through increased dialogue among religious communities and to assist the IRCE in achieving its stated goal of creating a platform to unify disparate religious groups around common interests and promoting interreligious harmony.

Uganda

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and stipulates there shall be no state religion.  It provides for freedom of belief, the right to practice and promote any religion, and to belong to and participate in the practices of any religious organization in a manner consistent with the constitution.  The government requires religious groups to register.  The government restricted activities of religious groups it defined as “illegal” and arrested some individuals it accused of running “illegal churches.”  Local nongovernmental organizations, the media, a politician, and the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) all stated the government disproportionately and unfairly arrested and imprisoned Muslims and continued to discriminate against Muslims when hiring senior and lower-level officials.  Former Minister of Security Henry Tumukunde accused the Uganda Police Force (UPF) of victimizing Muslims arrested in its quest to solve a spate of unresolved killings.

On October 4, media reported that Umar Mulinde, a pastor and Christian convert from Islam, complained that Muslims had broken into his house and stolen property worth 30 million shillings ($8,100).  The UPF was investigating the incident at year’s end.

The embassy brought together religious leaders to promote religious tolerance and diversity.  The embassy hosted an interfaith dialogue at which a U.S. Muslim cleric urged local leaders to build interfaith collaboration to prevent violent extremism.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 40.8 million (September 2018 estimate).  According to the most recent census, conducted in 2014, 39 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 32 percent Anglican, 14 percent Muslim, and 11 percent Pentecostal Christian.  Other religious groups, which collectively constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Seventh-day Adventists, adherents of indigenous beliefs, Baptists, Orthodox Christians, Hindus, Jews, and those with no religious affiliation.  The UMSC estimates Muslims (primarily Sunni) are closer to 25 percent of the population.  According to the Indian Association in Uganda, the largest non-African ethnic population is of Indian origin or descent, most of whom are Hindu.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and establishes there shall be no state religion.  It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, and the right to practice and promote any religion as well as to belong to and participate in the practices of any religious body or organization in a manner consistent with the constitution.  The constitution also stipulates the government may limit these rights by measures that are “reasonably justifiable for dealing with a state of emergency.”  The constitution prohibits the creation of political parties based on religion.

The government requires religious groups to register to obtain legal entity status.  According to the Uganda Registration Services Bureau, the government requires faith-based organizations to register as nonprofit organizations with the bureau and then to secure a five-year operating license from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.  Although there is no formal mechanism to request an exemption from the requirement to obtain an operating license, in practice larger religious groups, including the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, and the UMSC are de facto exempt, and the government does not require them to obtain an operating license.

In accordance with the constitution, religious instruction in public schools is optional.  The state has developed separate curricula for a number of world religions, including Christianity and Islam.  Public primary and secondary schools may choose which, if any, religious studies to incorporate into their curricula; however, they must adhere to the state-approved curriculum for each religion they choose to teach.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On October 4, local media reported the UPF arrested eight persons it accused of conducting an illegal meeting after it reportedly found them holding a nude prayer service.  The UPF accused the group’s leader, Aggrey Elias Mubangizi, of operating an illegal church.  The UPF released the eight without charge.

On September 26, local media reported the UPF arrested Alex Okello after he declared himself to be Jesus Christ and led 14 persons in Lira Town to drop out of school, cease work, and sell off their property in anticipation of the end of time, which Okello indicated would occur in October.  The UPF also arrested Okello’s 14 followers.  The UPF released Okello and the group a week later without charge.

On June 4, local media reported that the UPF cancelled an open-air prayer service organized by evangelical Christians in Iganga Town after Muslims in the area complained the event organizers ridiculed Islamic teachings.  The UPF said it cancelled the service to prevent violence, saying it had received intelligence that some Muslims planned to disrupt it.

Local media, Islamic civil society organizations, and the UMSC regularly stated that the government maintained a policy of discrimination against and persecution of Muslims, and that it continued to discriminate against Muslims when hiring senior and lower-level officials.  On May 21, local media reported that former Minister of Security Henry Tumukunde accused the UPF of victimizing Muslims in its quest to solve a spate of unresolved killings.  Local media reported that since 2010, the UPF had arrested at least 116 individuals, of whom 106 were Muslim, in relation to high-profile killings.  Local media reported the state had secured convictions of only 13 Muslim suspects since 2010 and no convictions in 2018.  The UMSC said authorities did not accord Muslim detainees the same rights to bail and access to visitors as to other detainees.

The inspector general of police in May denied the UPF victimized Muslims but added that once the UPF had credible evidence of a crime committed or plans to commit crime, it would not shy away from arresting Muslim suspects for fear of offending Muslims.

A group of evangelical Christian ministers said they would resist a draft government policy to regulate religious groups once it came into force, saying it was a violation of their religious freedom.  The government announced in December that the cabinet would in the same month vote on a draft policy that sought to introduce academic qualifications for religious leaders.  Evangelical ministers, however, said the government’s intent was to “turn every church pulpit into an NRM (National Resistance Movement) campaign platform by 2021,” and warned it would “definitely have a backlash, and it will not be pretty.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On October 4, media reported that Umar Mulinde, a pastor and Christian convert from Islam, complained that Muslims had broken into his house and stolen property worth 30 million shillings ($8,100).  The UPF said it would investigate the incident but did not release any findings by year’s end.  Mulinde had survived an acid attack in 2012, which he said his attackers carried out to avenge his conversion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

During a May 30 iftar, the ambassador urged religious and political leaders to promote interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.  In August the embassy hosted an interfaith dialogue of 35 interdenominational leaders, at which a U.S. scholar and interfaith activist urged local religious leaders to cultivate meaningful, lasting connections with persons of differing beliefs in order to prevent violent extremism.

International Religious Freedom Reports
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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future