The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is deeply concerned about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia. Since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to force a change in the sect of Islam practiced nationwide and has punished clergy and laity who have resisted. Muslims throughout Ethiopia have been arrested during peaceful protests: On October 29, the Ethiopia government charged 29 protestors with terrorism and attempting to establish an Islamic state.
“These charges are only the latest and most concerning attempt by the Ethiopian government to crush opposition to its efforts to control the practice of religion by imposing on Ethiopian Muslims a specific interpretation of Islam,” said USCIRF Commissioner Azizah al-Hibri.
“The individuals charged were among tens of thousands peacefully protesting the government’s violations of international standards and their constitutional right to religious freedom. The Ethiopian government should cease interfering in the internal affairs of its Muslim community and immediately and unconditionally release those wrongfully imprisoned.”
Since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash Islamic sect on the country’s Muslim community, a community that traditionally has practiced the Sufi form of Islam.
The government also has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). Previously viewed as an independent body, EIASC is now viewed as a government-controlled institution.
The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia.
“The U.S. government should raise with the new leadership in Addis Ababa the importance of abiding by Ethiopia’s own constitution and international standards on freedom of religion of belief. USCIRF has found that repressing religious communities in the name of countering extremism leads to more extremism, greater instability, and possibly violence,” said USCIRF Chair Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett. “Given Ethiopia’s strategic importance in the Horn of Africa and that Muslims account for more than one-third of all Ethiopians, it is vital that the Ethiopian government end its religious freedom abuses and allow Muslims to practice peacefully their faith as they see fit. Otherwise, the government’s current policies and practices will lead to greater destabilization of an already volatile region.”
Ethiopian Muslims traditionally are Sufis. Article 27 of the Ethiopian constitution guarantees religious freedom and “the independence of the state from religion.”
However, due to a concern about the rise of Wahhabism in Ethiopia, the government in July 2011 brought al-Ahbash imams from Lebanon to train Ethiopian imams and Islamic school educators on that sect’s beliefs to teach their students and worshippers.
The government dismissed from their positions those who refused to be trained in or teach al-Ahbash and closed mosques and schools. Beginning in December 2011, protests have been held almost every Friday outside of mosques after prayers.
While these demonstrations have taken place nationwide, they are centered at the Awalia Mosque and Islamic school in Addis Ababa.
As the protests continued, an Arbitration Committee of 17 Islamic leaders was created this past spring to negotiate with the government about: 1) respecting the Ethiopian constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom; 2) ending government imposition of al-Ahbash on Ethiopian Muslims, while allowing al-Ahbash to operate equally with other religious communities; 3) re-opening and returning schools and mosques to their original imams and administrators; and 4) holding new elections for the EIASC, and having these elections take place in mosques, rather than in neighborhood government community centers, to ensure that the community’s selections would be honored.
By July, the negotiations had failed and the protests increased in both size and frequency. In response, the Ethiopian government started to crack down on and intimidate the demonstrators, surrounding them with armed guards and conducting house-to-house searches. Between July 13 and 21, the government arrested all 17 members of the Arbitration Committee and at least 70 protestors. (While the government has confirmed 70 people were arrested, demonstrators place the number in the hundreds).
Human rights organizations reported that the police used excessive force against individuals during the arrests and while in detention. While many were released after being held for a short time, nine of the Arbitration Committee members remain in jail.
The charges the government leveled on October 29 were the first issued against any of the arrested protestors, including the nine Arbitration Committee members who were not released with their colleagues in July.
The individuals charged were first detained and held in Maikelwai federal police detention center, which frequently houses political prisoners and is known for abusing prisoners, including torturing them during interrogations. The individuals detained also were charged under the nation’s anti-terror law which has been used to target dissent, rather than to stop terrorism.
Protestors now hold up yellow or white placards to signal that they are peaceful and to condemn the arrests and charges.
While the demonstrations largely have been peaceful, there have been a few violent incidents: On October 21, 2011 four Muslims were killed as they stormed a jail attempting to free protestors and in April 2012 five people were killed protesting the dismissal of an imam who refused to propagate al-Ahbash.
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