The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but mandates equality for persons of all faiths. The government maintained its authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including assets and personnel of all mosques. Non-Muslim groups register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which conducts lengthy background checks as part of the registration process. The government continued to implement a decree for state control of mosques, and the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs’ High Islamic Council closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons. The ministry did not take any disciplinary action against imams deemed extremist. In September the government began to introduce the new mandatory Civic and Moral Education curriculum, based on Islam, in public schools across the country.
Norms and customs continued to discourage conversion from Islam. Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.
In April the Ambassador hosted a lunch to connect religious leaders with their counterparts of different faiths. U.S. embassy officials met regularly with religious minority leaders to discuss equitable treatment of religious groups by the government.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 903,000 (midyear 2019 estimate), of which 94 percent is Sunni Muslim. According to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Shia Muslims, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Jews, Baha’is, and atheists constitute the remaining 6 percent. Non-Muslims are generally foreign-born citizens and expatriates, highly concentrated in Djibouti City.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the registered refugee population at 30,000, of whom 44 percent are from Somalia, 36 percent from Ethiopia, 17 percent from Yemen, and 3 percent from Eritrea. Refugees are both Muslim and non-Muslim, but no data exists on their religious breakdown.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Islam is the religion of the state, according to the constitution. The constitution mandates the government respect all faiths and guarantees equality before the law, regardless of one’s religion. The law does not impose sanctions on those who do not observe Islamic teachings or who practice other religious beliefs. The constitution prohibits religiously based political parties.
It is illegal for any faith to proselytize in public.
The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs has authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including mosques, religious events, and private Islamic schools. The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education jointly oversee the school curricula and teacher certification of approximately 40 Islamic schools. The public school system is secular. Private schools run by religious organizations have the option to offer civic education courses based on Islam.
The president swears an Islamic religious oath.
Muslims may bring personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance either to family courts, whose code includes elements of civil and Islamic law, or to civil courts. Civil courts address the same matters for non-Muslims. Citizens are officially considered Muslims if they do not specifically identify with another religious group. The family courts, referred to as sharia courts, have two stages. The complainant first brings their grievance to the neighborhood council (Qadi), which either issues a judgment or transmits the case to the family court. If the complainant is not satisfied with the decision of the Qadi or the family court, he or she may appeal to the court of first instance of the family court or the supreme Sharia Council.
The government requires all foreign and domestic non-Muslim religious groups to register by submitting an application to the Ministry of Interior, which conducts a lengthy background investigation of the group. The investigation reviews group leadership, religious affiliation, sources of finance, and the group’s objectives within the country. Ties to religious groups considered extremist, strong political agendas, and relations with unfriendly foreign nations are factors that could cause a group’s application to be rejected. Domestic and foreign Muslim religious groups must inform the High Islamic Council at the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs of their existence and intent to operate. Muslim and non-Muslim foreign religious groups must also gain approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to operate in the country. Once approved, every foreign religious group signs a one-year agreement detailing the scope of its activities. Foreign religious groups must submit quarterly reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and renew their agreements every year. The quarterly report details activities, origin of funding for activities, and scope of work completed, and it identifies beneficiaries. Non-Muslim religious groups may not operate in the interim while awaiting registration.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The country has declared a reservation regarding proselytizing in open public spaces.
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 of the ministry and transferred ownership of mosque properties and other assets to the government. The government completed implementation of the decree for all mosques in Djibouti City but had not done so in outlying regions due to financial constraints. In July the government announced its intention to give all registered religious leaders utilities subsidies for water and electricity. In August government officials reiterated a decree aimed at eliminating political activity from mosques, providing greater government oversight of mosque assets and activities, and countering foreign influence. Although imams remained under the direction of the government, mosques’ properties continued to be controlled by individual congregations, since the government department designated to manage these assets still was not operational. The ministry’s High Islamic Council continued to send instructions on and closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons. The ministry disciplined one imam for criticizing the government over a salary dispute. During the year, however, the ministry reported no cases involving polarizing or political speech from imams, unlike the previous year.
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. Religious signage was permitted at the Catholic Church. Muslim citizens were permitted to enter Christian churches, although societal pressure discouraged conversion. There were no limitations on the importation of religious literature for registered non-Islamic groups. No other Christian groups and no non-Christian groups had legal recognition from the government. The government subsidized the cost of utilities at some church properties of registered non-Islamic groups, since it considered some church properties to be part of the national patrimony. Religious groups not 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 Baha’is, were not registered with the government but operated privately without incident, according to Christian leaders. Observers stated these groups and other religious minorities hosted worship gatherings in private housing and usually at night, in part because of reduced police presence at that time. The groups coordinated loosely with the country’s security forces, which continued to impose curfews and noise restrictions.
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 and the threat of government intervention. Government officials noted that any violation of the law forbidding public proselytizing would summon the police. The government continued to permit a limited number of Christian missionaries to sell religious books and pamphlets at a bookstore in Djibouti City.
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. The government required foreign religious leaders to regularize their status by purchasing a residency card for 24,000 Djiboutian francs ($140).
Local public schools continued to observe only Islamic holidays, but under the direction of the Ministry of Education, schools in refugee camps continued to permit students of other religious groups to miss class for their respective religious holidays. The ministry continued work on revising the national curriculum, including reforming civic and moral education courses to promote religious inclusivity.
In September the government began to introduce the new mandatory Civic and Moral Education curriculum, based on Islam, in public schools across the country.
In July the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs organized logistics for 1,500 individuals to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca. As part of the official mandate, the ministry applied for visas, gathered information for health cards, including arranging vaccination appointments, and coordinated with travel agencies to organize food and lodging.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Societal norms and customs discouraged conversion from Islam, but conversions reportedly occurred, particularly for marriages with non-Muslim partners. Christian groups reported continued discrimination in employment and education against converts to Christianity who changed their names. Non-Muslims reportedly hid their religious status for increased job options and societal acceptance. Both Muslim and Christian leaders acknowledged conversion from Islam was detrimental to a person’s social status; Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials met with Ministry of Education and Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs representatives to ensure that religious minorities within refugee camps would continue to be allowed to observe their respective holidays.
The Ambassador hosted three iftars, two in Djibouti City and one in Obock, to highlight religious plurality and religious diversity. The embassy again welcomed a U.S. military Muslim chaplain as a special guest to speak on the importance of religious tolerance.
In October and November in connection with International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy shared a series of stories from survivors of religious persecution on its Facebook page to highlight the importance of religious tolerance.
In April the Ambassador hosted a lunch to connect religious leaders with their counterparts of different faiths. Attendees represented the Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox faith communities. The leaders discussed areas for mutual understanding and greater collaboration.
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 arrest and mistreatment and released on the condition that they formally renounce their faith, although some unregistered groups are allowed to operate, and the government tolerates their worship activities. 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. Haji Ibrahim Younus, arrested in 2018 for taking part in the funeral for Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, reportedly died in prison in January following an extended period in detention during which, according to religious groups, he did not receive adequate medical care. Said Mohamed Ali, who also participated in the funeral, died in June after physical abuse in prison and delayed medical assistance. In successive waves between May and August, the government arrested approximately 300 members of unrecognized Christian groups. There was no information on the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, the charges against them, if any, or if they remained in detention. The government closed a number of Catholic and other religious-run secondary schools and health clinics, citing a 1995 law prohibiting religious institutions from providing social services. Authorities continued to confine former Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios to house arrest, where he has remained since 2006; in July Church officials excommunicated him for “heresy,” although he was allowed to live in a Patriarchate residence. 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 52 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, although many reportedly were released. The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994 for refusing to participate in the referendum that created the independent state of Eritrea.
The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious communities 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 worship services and religious celebrations. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals organized by both the recognized and unrecognized religious groups were widely attended, including by senior government officials.
U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including 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 bilateral meetings with senior Eritrean officials in Washington, New York, and Asmara. The government welcomed the September visit of a U.S. government delegation to open a new dialogue on these issues. U.S. embassy officials met with clergy and other members of religious groups, both registered and unregistered. Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of individuals, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, and 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 December 18, 2019, 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 (midyear 2019 estimate). 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 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, is 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
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. Some members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law reportedly continue to be subject to a provisional penal code that officially was replaced four years ago; the code sets penalties for failure to register and noncompliance. The current provisional penal code does not directly address penalties for religious groups that fail to register or otherwise comply with the law but includes a punishment for “unlawful assembly” of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 5,001 to 20,000 nakfa ($330-$1,330).
The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official registration. 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, which has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002, states that it is willing to register new religious groups but has not received any applications.
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 18 months of national service, with limited exceptions, including for health reasons such as physical disability or pregnancy. In times of emergency, the length of national service may be extended indefinitely, and the country officially has been in a state of emergency since the beginning of the 1998 war with Ethiopia. A compulsory citizen militia requires some 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. An exit visa or other travel documents are not required to cross the newly opened land border with Ethiopia, although the government has not yet established crossing procedures and closes the border at times.
The law limits foreign financing for religious groups, including registered groups. The only contributions legally allowed are from local followers, the government, or government-approved foreign sources.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Haji Ibrahim Younus, a Muslim elder arrested in 2018 for taking part in the funeral for Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, reportedly died in prison in January following an extended period in detention during which, according to religious groups, he did not receive adequate medical care. Said Mohamed Ali, who also participated in the funeral, died in June after physical abuse in prison and delayed medical assistance.
In June security forces arrested five Orthodox priests from the Debre-Bizen Monastery, three of whom were older than 70, for protesting government interference in church affairs and for their support of Abune Antonios as the legitimate patriarch.
According to a report by Release International, the government imposed tight security throughout May in advance of Independence Day celebrations, and police raided several Protestant groups. The government reportedly arrested 141 Christians in Asmara, including 14 minors, on May 10, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), only 50 of whom were reportedly subsequently released. Another 30 Christians were arrested in early June, according to international media. On June 23, there were 70 more, including 10 children, arrested in Keren, followed by another 80 on August 18 in Godaif. No information was available as to the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, or the charges against them, if any.
CSW reported that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including some who had been imprisoned without charge for 23 years, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 52 Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than half of whom had been in prison for more than 20 years, for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith. There were unconfirmed reports that most of the Muslim detainees, arrested following protests in Asmara in 2017 and 2018, were released.
Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who last 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, including religious prisoners, from having visitors. Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter.
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 their religious beliefs to others.
In June the government closed at least seven Roman Catholic-run secondary schools and 22 Church-run health clinics, as well as some secondary schools run by other religious groups, citing a 1995 law prohibiting the provision of social services by religious groups. According to the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, as well as international news organizations, the closures followed a call in April by the Catholic Church for the government to effect urgent reforms to reduce emigration and to open a dialogue on peace and reconciliation. Catholic bishops characterized the school closures as motivated by “hatred against the faith and against religion” in a September letter to the minister of education. The Catholic Church was forced to transfer operation and administrative authority of clinics to the Ministry of Health. According to Catholic Relief Services, authorities closed the last Catholic hospital on July 5. Police forcibly removed the nuns who ran the facility and sealed the doors, preventing the nuns from taking hospital equipment with them. In June the Eritrean Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva issued a press release responding to Kravetz’s comments that cited regulations limiting the activities of religious organizations specifically. According to the press release, Regulation 73/1995 does not allow religious institutions to “conduct developmental activities in areas of their choice” nor to solicit funds from external donors.
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.
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 affiliation 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.
Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences. According to a report by the European Asylum Support Office, the issuance of exit visas was inconsistent and did not adhere to any consistent policy; members of nonrecognized religious communities could be denied exit visas solely on the basis of their religious affiliation.
The government continued to allow only the practice of Sunni Islam and ban all other practice of Islam.
Official attitudes differed toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities. 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 ration coupons to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.
Diaspora groups reported authorities controlled directly or indirectly 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, among other obstacles, 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.
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, which was maintained by the 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 the members of the center had access to the building. A Baha’i temple built outside of Asmara was allowed to operate. 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, as well as fear of imprisonment or other government actions, 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 government permitted church news services to videotape and publish interviews with foreign diplomats during the public celebration of the Eritrean Orthodox Meskel holiday.
Observers noted that the government exerted significant direct and indirect influence over the appointment of heads of recognized religious communities, including the Eritrean Orthodox Church and Sunni Islamic community, and some NGOs said that authorities directly controlled the appointments. The government continued to deny this, stating these decisions were made entirely by religious communities. The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the acting head of the Sunni Islamic community and the acting head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower level officials for both communities. Observers said that since the 2017 death of the former mufti, Sheik Alamin Osman Alamin, the government-friendly executive director of the mufti office, Sheik Salim Ibrahim Al-Muktar, in effect was acting as head of the Islamic community.
The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church remained without a patriarch since the 2015 death of the fourth patriarch, Abune Dioskoros. In July the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church excommunicated the third patriarch, Abune Antonios, in home detention since 2006, for “heresy.” In July the BBC reported that some analysts believe he was expelled so the government could have full control of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Lay administrators appointed by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice managed some 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 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.
While the overwhelming majority of high-level officials, both military and civilian, were Christian, 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 to each other, 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 28.
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.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy representatives met with government officials to raise religious freedom concerns, including seeking a path forward for unregistered groups. 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 senior country officials in Washington, New York, and Asmara on multiple occasions during the year. Embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom with a wide range of partners, including visiting international delegations, Asmara-based 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 members of some religious groups, including unregistered groups. During the year, however, some embassy requests via the government to meet with religious leaders went unanswered.
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 December 18, 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.
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 July 18, violence broke out in Sidama Zone, Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) Region, in connection with demands for regional statehood. According to media affiliated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC), attackers killed a priest and two followers of the Church, burned three churches to the ground, and partially destroyed four churches in the violence. On February 3, youth members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Mekane Yesus, Amhara Region, burned mosques and vandalized Muslim-owned businesses. The Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC reported that security forces detained 55 followers of the Church on September 27 during processions for the eve of the Meskel holiday (finding of the true cross). In March the government lifted restrictions on charities and societies, including faith-based organizations, from engaging in rights-based advocacy and accepting foreign funding. In May the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) revised a directive that had limited the formation of fully fledged Islamic (interest-free) banks.
In December attackers burned down four mosques and one church in Mota Town, Amhara Region, prompting condemnation by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and sparking protests by several thousand Muslims across the country. 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. EOTC followers in several towns of Amhara Region staged peaceful protests on September 15 and 22 to condemn attacks against the Church, religious leaders, and followers in Sidama Zone in the SNNP Region.
U.S. embassy and Department of State officials met officials from the Ministry of Peace throughout the year for continued discussions on religious tolerance and radicalization. Embassy representatives met with prominent members of the Protestant Christian community and with NGOs to discuss the government’s role in religious affairs and their assessment about the growing influence of Protestantism in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 111.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The most recent census, conducted in 2007, estimated 44 percent of the population adheres to the EOTC, 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. Most observers believe the evangelical and Pentecostal proportion of the population has increased. The EOTC predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in the Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions. Established Protestant churches have the most adherents in the SNNP and Gambella Regions and parts of Oromia Region. 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 Oromia Region.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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.
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; the rights and privileges are the same for each category. During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper; if there are no objections, registration is granted.
Unlike other religious groups, the EOTC 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 proselytizing 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, a government agency 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.
In March the government revised a law that had restricted rights-based advocacy activities and foreign funding sources of charities and societies, including faith-based organizations. The new law allows all civil society organizations to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities and to collect and obtain funding from any legal source.
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.
In May the NBE revised its directive to allow the formation of fully fledged Islamic (interest-free) banks. Seven business groups started the process of establishing Islamic banks. Previously, 10 commercial banks provided interest-free banking service through dedicated windows. In an emergency session on July 31, the House of People’s Representatives approved a revised proclamation on banking and customs providing the legal basis for the NBE to implement its directive and facilitate the establishment of Islamic banking services.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On July 18, groups of individuals from the Sidama ethnic group demanding regional statehood attacked a church in Sidama Zone, SNNP Region. Ministry of Peace officials confirmed that mobs attacked religious institutions but did not give details. Media affiliated with the EOTC reported that the mob killed a priest and two followers of the Church, burned three churches to the ground, and partially destroyed four others. Local researchers who investigated the media claims could not determine the motivation of the attack. Organized groups of youth vandalized the Chironie St. Emmanuel Church, according to local press reporting. The chief priest of Bore Debre Genet St. Mary Church in neighboring Oromia Region told media that his church sheltered 474 internally displaced persons, including deacons and priests whose churches were burned during the conflict. Media reported police arrested hundreds of suspects as well as leaders of a Sidama youth group known as Ejjetto.
In Dire Dawa on January 21, an unidentified group of youth hurled rocks at followers of the EOTC returning from Epiphany celebrations. Orthodox youth retaliated by physically attacking the unidentified youth. Police intervened, using tear gas and arresting some participants in the incident. The clash was followed by unrest that evolved into broader political protests in the week that followed. On January 24, the Police Commission announced it had arrested 84 individuals suspected of participating in the clashes that broke out on January 21.
On February 3, youth members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Mekane Yesus in the Amhara Region burned mosques and vandalized Muslim-owned businesses. According to local government officials and religious leaders, Christians found an icon of St. Mary scattered among pieces of paper used to decorate the floor of a tent constructed for an Islamic wedding. Youth angered by this perceived desecration burned down two mosques, partially damaged a third, and vandalized shops owned by Muslim community members. Regional special police forces deployed to the area to help local police quell the unrest. Local media did not report any casualties associated with the incident. Federal and regional governments dispatched a team of officials to the town to hold public discussions between Muslims and Christians. Both Muslim and Christian groups condemned the incident and pledged to collaborate on rebuilding the destroyed mosques.
In February a group of Muslims attacked and burned seven Protestant churches in Halaba Kulito in the SNNP Region, according to local officials. Regional officials said the attacks were spurred by false news reports claiming mosques had been attacked by non-Muslims in the area. According to one report, the suspects chanted a jihadist slogan while attacking places of worship belonging to different Christian denominations. According to the report, municipal police were present but took no action, and order was not restored until state police arrived in the early afternoon.
In May there were reports of armed groups attacking Orthodox churches in North Shoa Zone of Oromia Region.
The Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC reported that security forces detained 55 followers on September 27 during processions on the eve of the Meskel holiday. Police said that 33 of the detainees wore T-shirts with messages demanding an end to attacks against the Church and that 12 of those detained carried sharp objects. Police released 37 of the detainees hours after the celebrations concluded.
In October there were reports of fighting during protests in Oromia Region. While the fighting was primarily along ethnic lines, the regional police commissioner stated that there were attempts to burn churches and mosques and that “there was a hidden agenda to divert the whole protest into an ethnic and religious conflict.” According to the mayor of the city of Adama in Oromia Region, 68 persons were arrested on suspicion of robbing and attempting to burn a mosque and an Orthodox church. In Dodala an Orthodox priest stated Orthodox Christians were targeted. In one week, eight persons were killed and buried in his church while 3,000 sheltered inside its compound.
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.
In 2018 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.
On May 1, Prime Minister Abiy brought together leaders of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (IASC) and the Muslim Arbitration Committee, a rival group, in an effort to resolve disputes within the Muslim community. Prime Minister Abiy’s effort prompted representatives from the Muslim community to agree at the meeting to replace the IASC (also referred to as Majlis) with a transitional council of Ulamas (Muslim scholars). The prime minister, accompanied by Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil, addressed the May 1 meeting of Muslim leaders and stated, “A united Muslim community is the foundation for national unity.” The goal of the 23-member transitional council is to prepare the legal and institutional framework for a new leadership structure for the Muslim community. Majlis leaders formally handed over power to the transitional council, which then elected Mufti Haji Oumer Idris, a respected elder, as its chairperson.
A group of local youth and police in the town of Bishoftu, Oromia Region, stopped Sunday School youth of Debremetsehet Kidanemihret Church of the EOTC during processions for the Meskel holiday on September 27, stating the EOTC followers wore clothes depicting an unauthorized version of the Ethiopian flag. The unauthorized version of the flag is closely linked with the country’s ethnic Amhara population and the EOTC. The Sunday School youth refused to change their uniforms and returned to the premises of the church. Reports stated that participants from other EOTC churches heard of the controversy and decided not to light a demera (large bonfire) in the absence of their fellow church members.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On December 20, attackers burned down four mosques in Mota Town, Amhara Region, north of Addis Ababa, during an outbreak of violence in which Muslim-owned businesses were also targeted, according to media reports. State-owned media reported that one church was also attacked. Prime Minister Abiy condemned the attack, calling it an attempt “by extremists to break down our rich history of religious tolerance and coexistence.” In the week following the incident, several thousand Muslims across the country demonstrated in protest. Police subsequently arrested 15 individuals suspected of involvement in the attacks.
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.
Followers of the EOTC in several towns in Amhara Region staged peaceful protests on September 15 and 22 to condemn attacks against the Church, its religious leaders, and its followers in Sidama Zone in the SNNP Region. Organizers of the protest told media they wanted those behind the attacks brought to justice.
The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community. One example the EIASC cited was foreign Salafist groups forcibly taking control of local mosques. 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 religious violent extremism, and promotion of shared values. Embassy officials specifically engaged the Ministry of Peace on the religious aspects of ethnic violence, seeking to identify ways to mitigate conflict and areas of partnership.
Embassy representatives held meetings with religious leaders, including the Office of the Patriarch of the EOTC, 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 engaged with members of the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE) to discuss religious tolerance and attacks on places of worship. In November a visiting senior official from the U.S. National Security Council and embassy officials met with IRCE and religious leaders to discuss the root causes of religious violence. 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 goal of creating a platform to unify disparate religious groups around common interests and promoting interreligious harmony.
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 remained outside federal government control. Federal Member State (FMS) administrations, including Puntland, Jubaland, South West State, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and self-declared independent Somaliland, governed their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but did not fully control them. The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland State declare Islam as the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion, bar the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and require all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia. In August the government began issuing approximately two million textbooks that reflect the new curriculum to students countrywide, according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Culture. Ministry officials declared that religious education was important in order to counter efforts by al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law.
According to media reports, by October the year was one of the deadliest years on record for fatalities from attacks by terrorist group al-Shabaab, with numbers already more than 1,200. Al-Shabaab killed, maimed, or harassed persons suspected of converting from Islam or those who failed to adhere to the group’s religious edicts. During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, members of parliament, Somali national armed 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 “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country. In July al-Shabaab killed an aid worker from the humanitarian nongovernmental organization (NGO) Lifeline in Buulo Cadey, in the Gedo Region of Jubaland State. In January al-Shabaab reportedly kidnapped 100 civilians who refused to pay the group zakat (tax). In July the group publicly executed 10 civilians in Hagar and Salagle, towns located in the Middle Juba Region of Jubaland State, for “spying” for foreign and Somali security forces. Al-Shabaab, which launched a primary and secondary education curriculum in 2017, continued to threaten parents, teachers, and communities who failed to adhere to al-Shabaab’s precepts.
Strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions continued. Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas and socially unacceptable in all. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment by members of their community. In June Christian media reported a woman in Burao, Somaliland, was reportedly beaten by her brothers, divorced by her husband, and separated from her two children after her husband found a Bible in a drawer in their home. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab-controlled areas, according to observers.
Following the reestablishment of a permanent diplomatic presence in December 2018, 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 11.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Other sources, including the World Bank, estimate the population to be at least 14.7 million. According to the federal Ministry of 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 individuals, a small Sufi Muslim community, and an unknown number of Shia Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and those not affiliated with any religion. Foreign workers, who are primarily from East African countries, belong mainly to non-Muslim religious groups.
The Somali Bantu population largely inhabits the southern and central regions of the country near the Shabelle and Jubba Rivers. The majority of the Somali Bantu population is Muslim but 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 forbids conversion from Islam. No exemptions from application of sharia legal principles exist for non-Muslims.
The constitutions of Somaliland in the northwest and Puntland State in the northeast make Islam the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting, prohibit the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia.
The Somaliland constitution states: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of belief and shall not be compelled to adopt another belief. Islamic Sharia does not accept that a Muslim can renounce his beliefs.” The Puntland State constitution prohibits any law or culture that contravenes Islam and prohibits demonstrations contrary to Islam. The constitution and other laws of Puntland State do not define contravention of Islam.
Other interim FMS 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. The Galmudug, Hirshabelle, and South West State interim administrations have not enacted 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.
Both the PFC and the Puntland State constitution require the president, but not other office holders, to be Muslim. The Somaliland constitution requires, in addition to Somaliland’s president, the 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 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 state administrations do not contain this prohibition.
The federal Ministry of 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. The Puntland State government has no laws governing registration and no mechanism to register religious groups. Other FMS administrations have no mechanism to register religious organizations.
In Puntland State, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Puntland Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs. In Somaliland, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Somaliland Ministry of Religion. Neither Puntland State nor Somaliland law delineates consequences for operating without permission. The FMS administrations require formal places of worship and religious schools to obtain permission to operate from local authorities.
The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs is responsible for monitoring religious affairs and promoting religious tolerance between practitioners of Islam and minority religions. Specific responsibilities of the ministry include arranging affairs for Somali Hajj pilgrims and developing messaging to counter al-Shabaab ideology. The federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education has the mandate to regulate religious instruction throughout the country. The PFC and FMS authorities require Islamic instruction in all schools, public or private, except those operated by non-Muslims. Private schools have more flexibility in determining their curriculum. These schools must request approval of the federal Ministry of 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 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 large land areas throughout the southern and central parts 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.
The federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education continued to implement a new national curriculum framework, although parliament by year’s end had not passed the draft law establishing the new system. The initiative mandates Somali as the language of instruction for primary school, Islamic religious instruction at all levels, and Arabic-language Islamic religion courses at the secondary level. In August, according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Culture, the government began issuing countrywide approximately two million textbooks that reflect the new curriculum. Ministry officials declared that religious education was important in order to counter efforts by al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law. Muslim clerics helped create the new materials and trained teachers in Islamic ethics, according to ministry representatives.
The federal minister of endowments and religious affairs noted the ministry’s ambitious efforts to promote religious tolerance and messaging to counter al-Shabaab ideology but stated such efforts were underresourced.
The terrorist group al-Shabaab continued to wage guerilla war against the government and its foreign partners, striking military and civilian targets indiscriminately. According to a November UN report, the Somali army and AMISOM peacekeepers held most urban centers in the country, while al-Shabaab maintained “direct control or influence over vast swaths of the hinterland.” While the group’s territorial control was fluid, terrorist experts stated that during the year the group controlled more territory than at any time since 2010; according to U.S. military estimates, the group controlled 20 percent of the country’s territory. The group’s stated objective remained the ousting of the “western-backed” government and imposition of a strict version of Islamic law. Al-Shabaab continued to impose its own interpretation of Islamic practices and sharia on other Muslims and non-Muslims, including executions as a penalty for alleged apostasy in areas under its control, according to media and UN sources.
According to the BBC, by October the year was one of the deadliest on record for fatalities from al-Shabaab attacks, with numbers already more than 1,200. Al-Shabaab forces targeted and killed federal and local government officials and their allies, calling them non-Muslims or apostates. In July the group publicly executed 10 civilians in Hagar and Salagle, towns located in the Middle Juba Region of Jubaland State, for “spying” for foreign and national security forces, following trial by an al-Shabaab “court.” In May senior al-Shabaab official Abu Abdurahman Mahad Warsame warned citizens in a recorded message to stay away from enemy targets, specifying that in addition to “Christian invaders,” those targets included “…apostate spies and all those who work in the different sectors of the apostate regime.”
Al-Shabaab extorted high and unpredictable zakat (an Islamic obligation to donate to charity during Ramadan) and sadaqa (a normally voluntary charity contribution paid by Muslims) taxes in the regions it controlled, according to humanitarian groups. In January al-Shabaab reportedly kidnapped 100 civilians in the Bakool Region of South West State who refused to pay the group zakat.
Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country.
According to humanitarian groups, al-Shabaab continued threatening to execute anyone suspected of converting to Christianity. In the areas it controlled, al-Shabaab continued to ban cinemas, television, music, the internet, and watching sporting events. It prohibited the sale of khat (a popular stimulant plant), smoking, and other behavior it characterized as un-Islamic, such as shaving beards. It also enforced a requirement that women wear full veils.
According to humanitarian groups, al-Shabaab continued to harass secular and faith-based humanitarian aid organizations, threatening the lives of their personnel and accusing them of seeking to convert individuals to Christianity. According to media reports, in July al-Shabaab terrorists killed an aid worker from the humanitarian NGO Lifeline in Buulo Cadey, in the Gedo Region of Jubaland State.
In areas under its control, al-Shabaab continued to mandate schools teach a militant form of jihad emphasizing that students should wage war on those it deemed infidels, including in nearby countries, the federal government, and AMISOM. In the Afgoye District of Lower Shabelle, al-Shabaab reportedly maintained boarding schools to indoctrinate youth from distinct clans and forced those clans to provide funding for the institutes dedicated to their youth.
A small faction of ISIS fighters based in Puntland State continued to carry out terrorist attacks with the objective of establishing an ISIS caliphate in the country. The group’s estimated strength was approximately between 200 to 300 active combatants, but it had relative freedom of movement and recruited individuals from towns surrounding the Golis Mountains.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There reportedly continued to be strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islam traditions.
Conversion from Islam to another religion continued to be socially unacceptable, and individuals suspected of conversion and their families were reportedly subject to harassment from members of their local communities.
In June Morning Star News reported a woman in Burao, Somaliland, was reportedly beaten by her brothers, divorced by her husband, and separated from her two children after her husband found a Bible in a drawer in their home.
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. Religion News Service reported that hundreds of Christians in the country, typically foreigners from nearby countries but also some local converts, met secretly in houses for religious services. According to Catholic Bishop Giorgio Bertin, it would be hard to operate a church in the country because of the risks Christians faced there. He stated, “They are forced to pray and worship secretly because it’s risky being identified as a Christian.”
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 a majority of the country’s children. Integrated Quranic schools, in which both religious and secular curriculum were taught, still operated. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab-controlled areas, according to observers.