Ethiopia: No state interference in religion

A couple of times in recent weeks in Addis Ababa, notably on July 13th and July 20th, there were incidents at mosques, sparking clashes with police around the Anwar Mosque and elsewhere. One incident deliberately intended to attract publicity took place while Heads of State were in Addis Ababa for the AU Summit. After warrants issued by the court, a number of arrests were made. Last week the Federal Police Commissioner gave some details of the resulting police investigations and about some of those arrested during a subsequent incident at the Anwar Mosque. Those detained were masked assailants who had been trying to prevent people leave the mosque after the noon prayers. They were throwing stones, damaging property and trying to incite violence. They were arrested as they themselves left the compound of the mosque.

The police did not enter the mosque nor did they fire tear gas. Specific care was taken to avoid casualties. Preliminary questioning of the detainees has indicated their actions were politically rather than religiously motivated and that some of those detained have links with externally funded organizations. Federal Police Commissioner-General, Workneh Gebeyehu, blamed a self-appointed committee for instigating the unrest. He noted that even earlier some of those involved “were urging others to follow in their footsteps”, adding that the ongoing police investigation already “shows the whole movement is associated with extremism.”

The Deputy Police Commissioner of Addis Ababa subsequently provided additional details about those involved: a group which had “been calling unpermitted meetings in mosques [and] engaged in inciting youth to violence. They had been agitating the youth saying they should not surrender to fear and that the youth should be ready to spill their blood till their demands are met”. The police and elders had pleaded with the group to listen, but the group refused and then called a demonstration, without permission, at the Anwar mosque with the intention of disrupting the AU Summit. During this they violently drove off the security guards and other members of the Mosque, and occupied the Mosque for two days, breaking into the Mosque’s audio equipment room and using the equipment to try and incite further violence.

The highly exaggerated media reports of the incidents indicated that some of the reporting might have political motives. Irrespective of what actually happened or the reality of the arguments at issue, opposition organizations abroad immediately laid claim to a long narrative of “Muslim persecution in Ethiopia”, interpreting these incidents in terms of an imaginary, if horrifying, picture of Ethiopia engulfed in growing conflict with extremism on the one hand and a violent outbreak of Muslim activism against state-led persecution and a fight for freedom of religion on the other.

None of this bears any relation to the truth which is that the incidents during the last month originated with the activities of a self-appointed body claiming to speak on behalf of the entire Muslim community of Ethiopia against the activities of the country’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, ‘the Mejlis’, the governing body of the Muslim community. The original complaints against the Mejlis were that new elections for the Mejlis were “overdue”, and to this were added allegations that the Council had been trying to forcibly impose their own views on the Muslim community.

To help resolve a standoff between the two parties, the government, although insistent that the election of the Mejlis was purely a matter for the Islamic community, indicated it was prepared to moderate discussions in the interests of peace and security. It firmly underlined that the Constitution forbade any government interference in religious affairs. It could not, and would not express any view about the doctrines of one sect or another. Any allegations to the contrary are absolutely untrue. The government, in fact, has a positive duty to ensure the freedom of religion in the country and make certain that others do not affect this.

Despite the agreement by the Mejlis to hold elections for membership of the Council, the self-appointed committee immediately came up with fresh demands, including a requirement that the process should take place in mosques and not be handled by the local kebele offices which would normally deal with any electoral processes. It clearly believed elections held in mosques would give it a greater chance of winning more seats in the Mejlis and enable them to raise the issue of the supposed “heretical” views. The Mejlis has now announced that the elections will be held throughout the country over a two week period starting on August 26th. Polling stations will be set up in local offices as on previous occasions. The President of the Council, Hadji Mohammed Yusuf pointed out that polling stations had to be established outside mosques in order to allow women to participate. In any case mosques, he said, should be reserved only for prayers.

The reaction to the Council’s decision to hold an election makes clear the political ambitions of its opponents. Not content with inventing new demands and raising alleged issues of “heresy”, opponents of the Mejlis have tried to organize demonstrations and turn peaceful Friday prayers into clashes with the police. The police have refused to allow themselves to be provoked despite the attempts to use violence.

One point that comes out very clearly from this whole episode is that the Government takes the constitutional guarantees of equality of religion, principles of secularism and non-interference in religious matters, very seriously. It does not and will not interfere with religious issues or matters of doctrine. Issues of peace and security are, of course, something else and the government is obviously obligated to respond to the activities of radical extreme elements in burning shrines and churches, destroying tombs and other efforts to politicize religious activity. It has done so. As Commissioner Workneh said, the influence of foreign extremist elements must clearly be a matter of concern, and these disturbances were “not about religion, [and] people, particularly peace-loving Muslims, should understand this."

Source: A Week in the Horn – Aug. 3, 2012 issue.


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