Last Updated 6 October 2020

The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia stipulates that the country is secular, and guarantees the freedom of religion, belief and opinion and the right to freedom of expression.1

About 43% of the population is Orthodox Christian, one third are Muslim, and approximately 22% of the population are Protestants.2 Some identify with traditional beliefs and other religions.

For several years, freedom of expression and the press were severely restricted suppression of opposition political voices happened frequently, and civil society was prohibited to work on political issues and human rights matters. The country has since April 2018 been undergoing a democratization process that started when the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister after his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn resigned. With the significant political changes taking place, a pattern of growing conflicts between ethnic communities has been prevalent and over 3 million people have been internally displaced the last two years.3

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is officially a secular state with no state religion.

The Constitution sets the principle of the separation of church and state and religious political parties are banned.4 The government gives its citizens the constitutional right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Article 27 of Ethiopia’s Constitution states that “[t]his right shall include freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. No one shall be subject to coercion by force or any other means, which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”5 The article also states that “[f]reedom to express or manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, peace, health, education, public morality or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others and to ensure the independence of the state from religion.

Government relations with religion

Christian and Muslim holidays are officially recognized by the government. Public institutions must also allow a two-hour break from work on Fridays allowing Muslim workers to attend Friday prayers.6 However, as one of the oldest organized Christian entities in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) enjoys a dominant role in the society.7

In 2018, Prime Minister Abiy pushed for the reunification of two feuding wings of the Orthodox church, which led to the return of the exiled patriarch bishop. Bishop Merkorios who had been in exile in the USA for 27 years was perceived to represent the diaspora and opposition in exile.8 In May 2019, Prime Minister Abiy tried to resolve conflicts within the Muslim community by inviting leaders of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council and the rival group Muslim Arbitration Committee to talks. During the meeting Prime Minister Abiy stated that a united Muslim community is an important foundation for national unity.9

Since taking office, Prime Minister Abiy has engaged religious figures in his efforts to promote reconciliation among ethnic groups in the country. Before the Ethiopian New year celebration on 11 September 2020, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, the Cardinal of the Catholic Church, President of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council and Secretary General of the Evangelical Churches all conveyed messages calling for unity and peace.10

The government requires religious institutions to register with the Ministry of Peace every five years. To register, applicants must have at least 50 constituents to register as a religious entity, and 15 for registration as a ministry or association. The EOTC is not registered with the Ministry of Peace, but obtains registration through a provision in the Civil Code from the imperial era. The registration is necessary to congregate legally and obtain land to build places of worship or burials. As of late 2018 there were 816 religious institutions and 1,640 fellowships and religious associations registered with the Ministry of Peace.11

The Constitution says that the State owns all land in Ethiopia and religious groups must apply to the regional and local government for allocation of land to build places of worship or burials. There are cases where inequitable distribution of the public land occurs and minorities are denied land. For instance, in the ancient city of Aksum, believed to be the home to the biblical queen of Sheba and Ark of the Covenant, there exist no mosques despite the Muslim population’s long campaign for one. Muslims in Aksum have had to use private houses as temporary mosques for generations and their ask for a mosque has been categorically rejected by Christian leaders.12

In May 2019, the National Bank of Ethiopia revised a directive that had limited the establishment of fully fledged Islamic banks that are Shariah compliant and offer interest-free loans.13

Education and children’s rights

Compulsory education lasts for 8 years in Ethiopia, where children are enrolled from age 7 to 14.14 While 99.9% of children are enrolled in primary school, only 54% complete grade 8. Only 25% of secondary school-aged girls attend secondary school. The majority of the ones who are not able to complete their education come from rural areas.15

Article 27 of the Constitution states that “[p]arents and legal guardians have the right to bring up their children ensuring their religious and moral education in conformity with their own convictions.”16 While religious instruction in schools is outlawed in both public and private schools, both public and private schools can, however, organize clubs based on religious affiliation. The law also permits the establishment of religious schools under the auspices of religious institutions where they can give religious instruction in their respective beliefs. The Ministry of Education oversees the secular teaching at the religious private schools.17 Religious education may also occur in Sunday schools and mosques, and other special religious education programs.

Harmful practices

While both child marriages and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is outlawed in Ethiopia, both of the harmful practises are still common.18 According to UNICEF’s statistics from 2016, the median age of which Ethiopian females marry is 16.5 years and 40% of all women between the ages 20-24 were married before they turned 18.19 This number has declined from 60% in 2005. The prevalence of FGM among females between ages 15 and 49 has stagnated from 74% in 2005 to 65% in 2016.20

In August 2019, the government launched a national roadmap with the goal of ending both child marriages and FGM preferably by 2025 or at the latest by 2030 in accordance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.21

Family, community and society

Communal violence

Communal violence has been prevalent in Ethiopia recently, which has led to a high number of internally displaced persons (IDP). IOM estimates that 66% of the current 1.6 million IDPs are displaced due to conflict.22 The communal violence is rooted in ethnic and political differences and occurs in several regions in the ethnic-based federal state. In June 2020, Oromo political activist and musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was assassinated, sparking protests and riots, in which at least 239 people were killed.23

The communal violence has been fuelled further by political differences and has a religious dimension as well. More than 30 churches and mosques have been burned to the ground and destroyed the last couple of years by rioters.24 One of the latest examples are from December 2019 when four mosques were burned and Muslim-owned businesses were targeted in the northern Amhara region.25 While religion is not what triggers the conflicts, there is an intertwined relationship between religion and ethnicity in Ethiopia.26

Discrimination against minorities and women

Since 1991, Ethiopia has been ruled by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethnic-based parties representing the four largest ethnic groups in the country, where the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) played a dominant role.27  Ethiopia consists of more than 80 ethnic groups, where several groups have felt discriminated against since the EPRDF came to power through a coup in 1991. Moreover, many ethnic minorities have been notably underrepresented in national politics.28 The largest ethnic group, the Oromos – constituting about 34% of the population – have been vocal in their criticism of the government and the discrimination they have endured.29; Several ethnic nationalist groups have at times made secessionist claims. In November 2019, Prime Minister Abiy announced a merger of three of the parties into the Prosperity Party, in an effort to shift away from an ethnic-based coalition to a pan-Ethiopian party.30 The TPLF decided not to merge with the other parties.

Article 35 of the Constitution states the rights of women in Ethiopia. It is mentioned that women have equal rights with men in society as a whole and in marriage. Laws, customs and practices that oppress women are prohibited, and the right to maternity leave with full pay is also stipulated. The right to family planning and education is also stated in Article 35 (9). According to UNFPA, 36% of women who are married or in a union use modern contraceptives.31 Although 95% of family planning needs are provided for free,32 women and girls lack social access due to stigma following conservative cultural and religious norms.33

While Prime Minister Abiy has worked to make positive changes for women in political and high-level decision making processes, by for instance appointing a women to half of the cabinet positions, and appointing a female President and a female President of the Supreme Court, women still face severe discrimination. Gender-based violence and big gender gaps in many aspects of economic life including land ownership, level of pay and access to finance are prevalent.34

Ethiopia has strict anti-gay laws. Article 629 of the Ethiopian Criminal Code outlaws “homosexual acts or any other indecent acts”.35 The acts are punishable by up to fifteen years in prison.36 In June 2019, a US-based LGBT tour company cancelled their planned trip to Ethiopia’s several religious and historical sights after receiving online death threats.37;

There are no reports on the treatment of non-religious people in Ethiopia.

Shariah courts

Muslims can settle cases relating to “personal status” and family law in Shariah courts, provided that all parties have given their consent.38 The courts must have official recognition from the Parliament and state councils.39

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

After many years of severe restrictions on freedom of expression under the rule of EPRDF, the current government has promised to safeguard this right.40 However, In 2020, the government passed a new vague hate speech law, which provides heavy fines and prison sentences.41 The government had argued that the intention was to limit hateful expressions on social media that further exacerbated ethnic and political conflicts.42 During his country visit to Ethiopia in December 2019, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye, stated that the draft would threaten freedom of expression and further exacerbate ethnic and political tensions.

The internet is also at times blocked by the government, often without an official reason communicated to the public.43 In July 2020, the internet was blocked following the unrest that was sparked by the assassination of musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa. The shutdown also affected the dissemination of important information about COVID-19.44

“Blasphemy” laws

The Constitution states that freedom to express or manifest one’s religion or belief can only be subject to limitations prescribed by law to protect public safety, peace, health, education, public morality, fundamental rights of others and “to ensure the independence of the state from religion.”45 Similarly, the right to hold opinions without interference is also guaranteed. However, Article 816 in the Criminal Code46 exceeds this goal, stating that anyone who publicly, by:

“…gestures or words scoffs at religion or expresses himself in a manner which is blasphemous, scandalous or grossly offensive to the feelings or convictions of others or towards the Divine Being or the religious symbols, rites or religious personages, is punishable with fine or arrest not exceeding one month.”

Article 492 in the Criminal Code further states:

“Whoever publicly prevents the solemnization of, or disturbs or scoffs at, an authorized religious ceremony or office; or profanes a place, image or object used for religious ceremonies, is punishable with fine not exceeding one thousand Birr [approximately US$27], or with simple imprisonment not exceeding two years.”

Freedom of the press

The Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and access to information of public interest and prohibits any form of censorship. However, press freedom has been highly limited under the rule of the EPRDF. The government has since Abiy came to power in 2018 worked to improve the conditions for press freedom and several journalists and bloggers were released immediately. More than 200 news outlets, blogs and TV stations that were blocked by the government for years can now operate freely.47 Currently, there are about 22 privately owned broadcasters and more than 20 privately owned magazines. In April 2019, a year after Abiy came to power, Reporters without Borders reported that there was not a single journalist in prison in Ethiopia.48

The government has promised to revise several of the draconian rules used to limit freedom of expression and stifle dissent, like the 2009 Anti-terrorism Proclamation used to detain journalists and the 2008 Mass Media Law that made defamation illegal, however, these laws have still not been amended.49

Religious TV channels are also available for viewers, mostly broadcasting religious teachings in local languages, recent updates about the institutions and religious documentaries.

Treatment of the opposition

In 2018, thousands of political prisoners were released from detention and the government admitted to the use of torture in prisons.50 Moreover, several groups that had been deemed terrorist groups in 2011 were removed from the terror list allowing the group leaders to return back to Ethiopia after years in exile.51

Human rights advocacy

In 2009, the government passed the Charities and Societies Proclamation Law which put restrictions on the activities of foreign and domestic NGOs that received more than 10% of their funds from overseas. They were prohibited from working on political and human rights issues and several of the NGOs were forced to leave the country. However, in February 2019, the current government passed a new civil society law that removed many of the restrictions imposed by the previous, draconian law.52 The new law retained some restrictive provisions, but Ethiopia nevertheless has seen a notable increase in activity by rights groups after it was enacted.


Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the government imposed a State of Emergency in April 2020.53 The national election that was supposed to take place in 2020 has also been postponed to 2021 due to the outbreak of COVID-19.54

As the society is highly religious, a national prayer month was also declared by religious leaders on 6 April 2020.55 Although churches and mosques were unable to provide regular services, the government relaxed broadcasting rules and allowed religious programs to be aired on national television.


1, 5, 16, 39, 45
3, 18, 28, 30, 40, 43, 49, 52
4, 6, 9, 11, 13, 17, 24
20, 21
35, 46
41, 47

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