Being a Christian in the Horn of Africa

Federico Battera
University of Trieste

Somalia Secret Christians

Forms of oppression of Christians in the Horn of Africa can be classified according to the source of persecution. The regional particularity is that in at least two cases – Ethiopia and Eritrea – Christians (and some Muslim organizations) suffer persecution at the hand of other co-religionists who simply belong to other Churches. Moreover, oppression comes out from the society and or from militant/extremist group, mainly Islamic but in few cases also Christian. In some cases, it is the society which is intolerant against other forms of religion and/or conversion even in the case when at least officially state protects religious pluralism.

The Horn of Africa is a defined cultural area which lays at the crossroad between Asia (Middle East) and Africa, between Christendom and Islamic world. A place where Christianity took roots well before colonization, mainly in the western highlands (Ethiopia) and, Islam at the very start of its civilization in the eastern lowlands (mainly populated by Somali people)[1]. Relations between the two had been largely peaceful in the past with intermittent however tremendous clashes between powerful states which dominated the regional trade during the Middle Ages. The most outstanding one, the religious war between the Adal Sultanate led by the Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (called “Grañ”, by the Ethiopians), and the Ethiopian Christian empire.

The Horn of Africa today comprises four states: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. As cultural, historical and geographical affinities Ethiopia and Eritrea could be grouped together. The same holds true for Djibouti and Somalia. However, given the demographic weight of Ethiopia, such country will be treated separated from the others. Ethiopia stands out because historical continuity in statehood. In the Ethiopian highlands a state (the Kingdom of Axum) could be traced at least up to the 1st century of the Christian Era (CE). Such state became the foundation of Christendom in the region since the 4th century CE acquiring a dominant regional position. Since then, notwithstanding several crisis and revolutions (the most important is that of 1974 that put an end to the monarchical power), statehood remained the hallmark of Ethiopia. On the contrary, in the other countries statehood had been a post-colonial achievement. In Somalia had been ephemeral at best.

Forms of oppression of Christians in the region can be classified according to the source of persecution. The first emanate from the state and/or official/dominant Church/religion against other churches which are taking ground at the expenses of the dominant one or strive to survive in a hostile environment. Regulation by the state, such as the obligation to register before freely operate, are considered as weak form of oppression. In other cases, churches are banned and people belonging to such organization could be harassed, intimidated, arrested or killed because of their faiths. Such are the extreme version of oppression (i.e. persecution). The regional particularity is that in at least two cases – Ethiopia and Eritrea – the state is not dominated by Muslims but by Christians who belong to Churches which have been for long official or favored by the state. In these cases, Christians (and some Muslim organizations) suffer persecution at the hand of other co-religionists who simply belong to other Churches. The second form oppression comes out from the society and or from militant/extremist group, mainly Islamic but in few cases also Christian. It is the society which is intolerant against other forms of religion and/or conversion even in the case when at least officially state protects religious pluralism.


Ethiopia has been for long (from the 4th century to 1974) dominated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church (EOTC) that is still the largest Christian denomination. EOTC is an Oriental Orthodox Church which was part of the Coptic Orthodox Church until it gained full autonomy (autocephaly) in 1959. Under monarchical regimes it was considered part of the state. Although, the present constitution (1994) does protect all religions and no longer EOTC is the official one, Christians belonging to this denomination has dominated so far the current regime under the EPRDF [Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front]. Furthermore, issues related to EOTC and priorities defined by the EOTC are still considered state affairs. More impartiality towards religious groups are expected since the current Prime Minister (PM), Hailemariam Desalegn (in office since August 2012), belongs to the Apostolic Church of Ethiopia, a small denomination which is not part of the Protestant mainstream.

According to 2007 National Census, Christians make up 62.8% of the country’s population. Of these 43.5% are EOTC, 19.3% belong to other denominations, Muslims are 33.9%, practitioners of traditional faiths (animism) 2.6%, and other religions 0.6%. Notwithstanding such dominance by EOTC, Protestants have gained ground. Protestants belong to two main mainstreams. Those known as “Pentay” (Pentecostal), which included the Evangelical (Lutherans), and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tehadeso Church (Tehadeso). The latter has developed as a schism from the EOTC – most of the clerics came from EOTC – under protestant influence. Although they consider themselves as orthodox they are not recognized as such since they resemble more protestant in their teachings. They have gained ground especially in the Oromia region, which is the most dynamic from a religious point of view.

Ethiopia is indeed a federal state divided among ethnic regional states and Oromia stands as the heaviest state in terms of demography. Since Oromo people had been historically dominated by  Amhara or Tigray peoples, who belonged mainly to the EOTC, Oromo have gradually shifted from EOTC and traditional faiths towards either Islam or different forms of Protestantism. If we compare the 1994 with the 2007 National Census religious data for Oromia and dividing people in accordance to their religion, Christians have remained mostly the same (from 49.9% to 48.2%) and Muslim have progressed from 44.3% to 47.5%, but the strongest differences can be found among Christians. EOTC declined from 41.3% to 30.5% while Protestants rose from 8.6% to 17.7%. Such changes in religious affiliation had an impact at national level. EOTC adherents decreased from 50.6% to 43.5%, while Protestants rose from 10.1% to 18.6%. Muslims progressed only from 32.8% to 33.9%. It is such competition between the EOTC and various Protestants which has been the responsible for a growing EOTC conservatism. According to US Evangelical sources organization such Mahibere Kidusan, which members are part of the EOTC, these are responsible of hostilities against Protestants[2]. In fact, the EPRDF government notwithstanding its well-documented friendly relations with the EOTC leadership, have generally been hostile towards such development aiming to preserve the religious pluralism of Ethiopia, in particular former PM Meles Zenawi (who belonged to the EOTC). Protestants have also significantly progressed in Gambela (from 44.01% to 70.0%) and in the SNNPR state (from 34.8% to 55.5%) from which the new PM Desalegn comes from. Such states occupy the south-western corner of Ethiopia. They have been included into Ethiopia only during the last part of the XIXth century and their people belong to several ethnic groups which are very culturally distant from the northern Amhara and Tigray peoples. Once, in 1974 the dominance of EOTC has been officially removed, Protestantism has progressed notwithstanding persecutions by the officially atheist Derg regime (1974-91).

Even if formally the constitution protects religious pluralism[3], in practice groups other than the EOTC and the Muslim community must register with the Justice Ministry to gain legal standing. Some limitations are imposed such as the 10% limit on foreign funding which is an important impediment for some Pentay churches. Others form of discrimination regards land allocation which are for the most left to local authorities (LAs). More than National authorities, impediments to construct new Pentay churches have been raised by LAs in Oromia dominated Muslim areas. However, the same happened for Pentay as well as mosques in EOTC dominated areas. Government by striving to preserve good relations with both EOTC and the EIASC (Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council) and a religious equilibrium has therefore limited a fully free development of religious pluralism, but open persecution has to be excluded from the government side.

The case of society is different. Whilst, in general, societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation remains sporadic and mutual tolerance is respected, in some regions – in particular the Somali one – episodes of killings by extremists groups or terroristic organization as those based in Somalia have been recorded.


Eritrea is quite similar to Ethiopia in terms of geography – a predominantly Christian highlands and Muslim lowlands –history, and the Christian dominance in government from the same Orthodox Tawahedo mainstream. Although, Eritrea has gained independence only recently – de facto from 1991, de jure from 1993 – historically Eritrea could be treated as an appendix of Ethiopia. The same party in power, the PFDJ [People’s Front for Democracy and Justice] (former EPLF, [Eritrean People’s Liberation Front]), had much in common with that in power in Ethiopia (TPLF [Tigrayan People's Liberation Front]-EPRDF), according to its ideological profile (ex-Marxist, now nationalist); differences must be found in the degree of political openness, where the Ethiopian government notwithstanding its authoritarian profile is more tolerant with political differences. Government attitude towards religion is a consequence. Being new and having been weakened by recent conflict with Ethiopia (1998-2000), Eritrea government has fought to strictly control religious practice as well as political pluralism. Even national data about religious affiliation are a political matter and government declares that the country is equally split between Christians and Muslims. In fact, Christians are probably more (between 60 and 65%) since most of the population resides in the two regions of Debub and Maekel whose about 90% of the population is Christian and important Christian minorities (more than 30%) reside in the other regions apart from Semenawi Keih Bahri (only around 10% of Christians). Most of the Christian (about 90%) belongs to the EOTC (Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church) which is an offshoot of the Ethiopian OTC, created following the independence of Eritrea and recognized by the other Oriental Orthodox Churches. The Ethiopian Church as well as the, most important, Coptic one. Protestants (Pentay) are a tiny minority (maybe 1% of the entire population) with, in contrast with Ethiopia, very few historical roots, while Roman Catholics, who are very few in Ethiopia, account about 5% of the entire population, given the previous Italian colonial influences.

After independence, democratic premises were far more encouraging in Eritrea than in Ethiopia. However, the political system has evolved towards one of the closest and paranoic regime in the world. Any activity, including religion, is strictly controlled. The same Eritrean OTC suffered the arrest in 2006 of Patriarch Abune Antonios for protesting government interference in church affairs. Whilst the constitution provides for religious freedom, in fact restrictions such as registration by religious groups and their conformity to “local culture” are strictly required[4]. Such is a major impediment for Pentay churches which are the first perceived as foreign agents. Risks for believers who violated such requirements is detention (without due trial). Numbers of believers detained for such crime is put around 1,500, which is an important number for a small country such as Eritrea. It must be stressed that also the Islamic community suffers similar constraints, since one of the opposition groups – the ELF [Eritrean Liberation Front] – is perceived to be dominated by Muslims. Those measures have, however, not impeded the government to support the extremist Somali Shabaab movement, as it was used as a proxy against Ethiopia. In conclusion, much of the persecutions came from the government side. They regard more groups which are suspected to be linked with foreign agents. On the contrary, society is far more tolerant and relations between the two mainstreams – EOTC and non-extremist Muslims – is quite good. However, conversions are highly regarded as inappropriate and bad tolerated.


Djibouti is overwhelmingly Muslim. Much of its population is either ethnic Somali or Afar or from Arab origin. Sunni Muslim account for about 95%. The remaining are for the most Christians of European origin (mostly Catholics) or of Ethiopian origin. Conversions from Islam are discouraged by societal customs (both Afar and Somali are organized along clan lines). When they occur they are highly seen as inappropriate and can lead to social exclusion or occasionally death. However Djibouti is also a very developed country strictly linked to its former colonial power (France) which held great influence. Therefore, government attitude is quite neutral on religious matter. Whilst Christian charitable NGOs are generally discouraged to public proselytizing, the public school system is secular and religion of any kind is not taught in public school. While government requires religious groups to register by submitting an application to the Interior Ministry (and Foreign Ministry for foreign groups) with the goal of eliminating political activity also mosques are hold under control. A small number of non-Muslims held civil service positions[5]. As elsewhere, in the Horn of Africa, the Islamic community is however under pressure from new Wahhabi or Salafi networks. A trend which worries government as well as Christian minorities.


Somalia has been no longer a state from 1991 up to 2012, when a new President and Prime Minister have been finally elected and internationally recognized. Still now the Federal government strive to control the much part of the South which escape from its control and is ruled under a strict Salafi doctrine by the Shabaab movement. Furthermore, two important northerner regions have been de facto independent or autonomous since 1991. Respectively, Somaliland and Puntland – the latter considered itself an autonomous entity part of the Federal Republic of Somalia, while the former has fought for independence with no tangible results – have gained some political stability by the end of the 90s/beginning of the 00s.

Christianity has been historically extraneous from the Somali region (the Somali region part of Ethiopia included). Until colonization Christianity was impeded to proselytize and the few churches are completely ruined after the civil war which followed the collapse of the Barre regime. Ethnic Somali organized themselves in clan lines with a deep rooted Islamic identity. Somalis are therefore overwhelmingly Muslims and the few scattered Christians, most of them grew up in orphanage under missionaries or were former slaves, are today impeded to practice their religion and live their religion underground or were forced to return to Islam or to emigrate. Social intolerance has worsened during the civil war and the collapse of the secular state. Especially in the south and under the rule of the Shabaab movement, the few Christians have been persecuted and Western NGOs impeded to operate or they have been harassed. Even Christian cemeteries have been destroyed. Such intolerance has been extended to moderate Muslims (either secular or sufi) and Somali government representatives, who were considered apostate. The Shabaab movement have strived to enforce a strict version of the sharia law in the south with its corollary of hudud punishments, such as hand amputations and stoning to death and which include the killing of people deemed to have converted to Christianity. A lot of reports confirm such form of harsh punishment[6] and Somalia figures today as the second country for persecution of Christians in the world according to the World Watch List. The fact that episodes of extreme violence against religious pluralism have been sporadic is mainly due to the fact that this country is less religiously diversified than the other nations in the area however it will again question the ability of Somalia to develop as a tolerant country. Both society and rulers share the same intolerant view.

This extremist climate has indeed influenced the new government authorities which emerged throughout the country[7]. Charters and constitutions adopted after the collapse of the state for the most forbid religious activity other than Islam. Even the more “tolerant” Federal provisional constitution adopted in August 2012, which formally did not mention apostasy and protect the freedom of religion, states that Islam is the religion of the state, no religion other than Islam can be propagated and that no law which is not compliant with the “general principles and objectives of sharia” can be enacted (Art. 2)[8]. Islamic religion is furthermore required as an eligible criteria for the position of the President of the Republic (Art. 88). Such measures with even more strict requirements have been found in Somaliland or Puntland constitutions[9]. The Somaliland constitution of 2001 extends the eligibility criteria to anyone who want to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives. The Puntland constitution mentions ambiguously that Islam shall be the only religion and that apostasy is a crime (much of the same tone the Somaliland constitution at Art. 33).


Historically, the Horn of Africa highlands had been refuge for Christianity in a growingly environment marked by Islam. Ethiopia developed, therefore, as a well established Christian State surrounded by Islamic chiefdoms. However, by the XIXth century, once the Ethiopian state expanded from north to south and east, also Islam made inroads in the southern part of present Ethiopia. Currently religion pluralism is an entrenched reality of Ethiopia and Eritrea only. Eastern lowlands, which are currently occupied by Djibouti and Somalia, had been for long time part of the Islamic realm and Christians had been impeded to expand there. Such balance had not been radically reversed by colonization. The only thing that changed is that during colonization (colonialism endured in Djibouti up to 1977) Christians were allowed to reside also in Somalia and Djibouti. However, proselytism was barely tolerated by the society and avoided by colonial authorities.

The secular state developed only after colonization and the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia. Only Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti could be considered today as secular states while in Somalia secularism has been severely reversed by the civil war. However, some common traits can be noticed for all states in the region. All the states in the region worry politicization of religion. Being all with variations authoritarian regimes, generally religion has been put under control by government authorities. When, and this is the case of Eritrea, such worries are paranoid, all religious groups which are perceived as divisive or controlled by foreign agents have rigidly been repressed by state authorities. Repression of this kind is not found in more “liberal” countries such as Ethiopia and Djibouti. However, in Ethiopia since history dictated governments to develop tight linkages with former official Church, pressures to keep in control with more dynamic Pentecostal churches has forced authorities to hamper their activities. This notwithstanding, Protestantism has also developed in Ethiopia as a way to escape from northerner dominion and control. Being currently Southern people the majority, such impediments have been ineffectual, but they have raised tensions among the different denominations.

Generally, in plural countries like Ethiopia and in a less extended degree also Eritrea and Djibouti, big urban centers are harbors for mutual respect among different religions groups. Problems arise in rural areas where society is far more conservative and less tolerant towards religion. Such problems of coexistence are particularly strong on the fringe between Christianity and Islam – in particular in Eastern Oromia (Ethiopia) – but also in northern Ethiopian states where Protestantism in various form is less tolerated by affiliated to the EOTC than in Addis Ababa. Such lack of tolerance has spread in the Somali areas (Somalia and the Eastern Ethiopia) as a result of: the collapse of the Somali state, the prolonged instability of Eastern Ethiopia, and the spread of wahhabism and salafism as a result of the political void and of the societal crisis and civil war[10]. Accordingly, violence against perceived alien groups, such as Christians, has grown in importance.


[1] Edward Ullendorf, The Ethiopians. An Introduction to Country and People, London, Oxford University Press, 1960. John S. Trimngham, Islam in Ethiopia. London, Oxford University Press, 1952.

[7] While most of the episodes of persecution regards areas under Shabaab rule, minor form of persecutions such as arbitrary imprisonment of converted Christians have been also found in the northern states such as Somaliland.

[10] Both Wahhabism and Salafism entered Somalia in the last years of  the 70s under Barre regime and influence from Saudi Arabia. Although persecuted, they were able to establish roots in a weakened state. They were both of Saudi origin, however Salafism was from the start considered more autonomous from the Saudi agenda. See A. Aqli, Historical Development of Islamic Movements in the Horn of Africa [Unpubl.] First Conference of The European Association of Somali Studies, SOAS, University of London, 23-25 Sept.1993.