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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 II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

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.

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