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Ethiopian Muslims Under Siege

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Dawit Giorgis
24th May 2013 – FDD Policy Brief
Ethiopian_muslims-260x190Ethiopian Muslims participated today in a massive nationwide demonstration against measures taken by the government in Addis Ababa to limit religious freedom. The protests took place everywhere across the country except the capital, where demonstrations are banned because it will host next week’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the African Union.
Today’s protests are neither new nor surprising. Tens of thousands of Ethiopian Muslims have demonstrated across the country, each Friday over the last year, protesting the new government measures that have threatened their freedoms. Their demands are not to establish a shari’a-compliant polity.  Rather, they seek a secular state according to the laws enshrined in the constitution.
Since this government came to power in 1990, it has sought to control its people by dividing them along ethnic and religious lines. More recently, it has singled out Muslims, alleging they are influenced by radical elements seeking to subvert the regime. In the name of security, the government has adopted various measures to stifle their freedoms by forcing them to submit to the religious leaders appointed by the government, as it did with the dominant Orthodox Church.  Hundreds of Muslims have been arrested, imprisoned, or even tortured. In some cases, houses have been ransacked, and Qurans have been confiscated. The charges include terrorism and attempting to establish Sharia law.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in November 2012 expressed that it was “deeply concerned about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia.” USCIRF Commissioner Azizah al-Hibri warned of ongoing “attempt(s) 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.”

Human Rights Watch further reports that authorities, responding to the demonstrations each week, have arrested large numbers of protestors, many of whom remain in detention. Several reports suggest the use of excessive force by Ethiopian police. Journalists have largely been barred from reporting on these events; many have been arrested for their coverage of the unrest.
Fortunately, the Ethiopian government has been unsuccessful dividing the people. The strong historic relationship shared by the country’s Christians and Muslims has made it difficult for the government to generate animosity, or even mutual suspicion. But if the grievances of Muslims are not addressed, outside actors may seek to exploit this fertile ground. The threat of radicalization — even terrorism — could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Prolonged civil strife could plunge this country’s population of 80 million into unprecedented instability.
Dawit Giorgis, a former senior Ethiopian government official, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  
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