Written for the Muslim Link newspaper
In a major development in the struggle of the Ethiopian Muslims, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released a statement that it is “deeply concerned about the increasing deterioration of religious freedoms for Muslims in Ethiopia.”
UCSRIF makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress of the United States.
The statement recognizes that since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash sect on the country's Muslim community. Stipulating that the government has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC), a former independent body, the USCIRF now views it 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,” states USCRIF.
Sheikh Najib Muḥammad, 59, is the imām of First Hijrah masjid in Washington D.C. He says that after the late August death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, “the new prime minister is proving his leadership worth by getting tough on Muslims.” In order to prove to the U.S. his dedication to weed out extremism in the Horn of Africa, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has been cracking down on Muslims protesting the usurpation of their religious freedom.
On October 29, 2012 the Ethiopian 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 UCSIRF statement is a positive step. The last court hearing was filled with Western journalists; now the western media will extol them,” says Muḥammad.
This August, Ethiopian Muslims protested in Washington, D.C. in front of the Department of State. Sheikh imām Khaled Omar of Washington's First Hijrah Foundation called on the US government to put pressure on Ethiopian authorities to address the three key issues raised by Ethiopian Muslims.
“We have demanded that U.S. government stop supporting the regime, and not be misled by the guise of the war on terror and pressure the Ethiopian government to grant freedom of religion according to Ethiopian constitution ,” says Muḥammad.
Father Philippos of the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (in exile from Ethiopia) attended the rally representing Ethiopian Christians. He supported the issues raised by the Muslims and said that the beatings and imprisonment to which they have been subjected to must be condemned, according to a report filed by the Amharic Voice of America.
According to the UCSRIF report: “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 imām who refused to propagate al-Ahbash.”
This Washington Times July headline “Muslim protests raise fears of radical Islam” is a narrative that contributes to the complexity of the issue. American Ethiopian Muslims say that this use of war on terror is a gross misrepresentation of what is happening on the ground in Ethiopia. According to the UCSRIF, “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.”
At a recent State Department press briefing a question was raised about religious freedom in Ethiopia. U.S. Department of State Spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated,” I hadn't seen that particular statement, but you know that we've been extremely straightforward about our ongoing humanitarian – sorry, human rights questions with regard to the way Ethiopia develops. When the Secretary was there, she raised these issues, and we have been clear from this podium. So in the context of new leadership, we are renewing our hope that Ethiopia will continue to improve human rights standards for all inside the country.” American Ethiopian Muslims wait and pray.
Ethiopia's constitution bans government meddling in religious practices.
Ethiopian Muslims refute their status as a 'minority', and quote their numbers as 50-60% of the population. They say the government intentionally misrepresents their numbers in order to keep the balance of power in its favor.
Two members of al-Ahbash were also mentioned in connection to the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF's principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.