The population of Somalia is estimated at around 11 million, with many more Somalis in neighbouring countries. Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya all have areas in which ethnic Somalis are a majority, many having been displaced because of the instability in Somalia in recent decades. Around 99% of Somalis are Sunni Muslim. The small Christian community within Somalia, not officially recognised, is believed to number less than 1,000, many of whom are ethnically Bantu.
Issues of governance and legislation are complex because of the fragmentation of Somalia. The south of Somalia is notionally under direct control of the federal government, though tribal and extremist influences remain strong. Somaliland declared independence in 1991 (though this is not internationally recognised) and has its own legal framework. Puntland also has its own legal framework. The Khatumo, Galmudug and Jubaland regions are all also effectively autonomous. The provisional federal constitution establishes Islam as the State religion and provides that all legislation must be consistent with Islamic principles. Freedom of religious practice is affirmed, though the propagation of non-Islamic religions is forbidden. The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland contain similar provisions, but also stipulate that a Muslim cannot convert to another religion. Under the Penal Code of 1963, which notionally applies to the whole country, blasphemy and the defamation of Islam are criminal offences. In principle, the federal government has powers to register religious groups, but in practice no Christian churches have official recognition.
Somalia acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 24th January 1990. The ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion (Article 18). It also upholds the rights of minorities and the principle of non-discrimination. Somalia’s accession to the ICCPR was made without reservation.
Somali Christians face very significant challenges. There is no officially recognised church in any part of Somalia. Pressures are principally from non-State actors, given the weak application of the rule of law in most areas of Somalia. In July 2017 the Somaliland authorities allowed the re-opening of a Catholic church in Hargeysa, which had been closed for three decades, for use by expatriates. However, the church was closed just eight days later on grounds that its reopening had caused significant divisions which were contrary to Somaliland’s interests. Somalis who choose to leave Islam are likely to face strong family and societal pressure, including violent responses from family members. Those considered apostates may also face severe sanctions under Islamic law, including the possible death penalty. The threat from extremist groups is particularly acute, especially in the South where the al-Shabaab militant group continues to wield considerable control in some areas, several Somali Christians have reportedly been murdered by al-Shabaab in recent years as the militants seek to implement a strict form of Islamic law. The threat from al-Shabaab applies within Somali communities in neighbouring countries as well – in particular, several atrocities have been carried out against Somali Christian targets in the Garissa area of northern Kenya as part of a wider al-Shabaab campaign.