The population of Somalia is estimated at about 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 is not officially recognized and a reliable number is difficult to estimate.
Somalia’s constitution describes Somalia is a federal republic with six member states. The relationship between the federal government in Mogadishu and the member states can be described as a difficult. Issues of governance and legislation are complex, as tribal and extremist influences remain strong. Despite counter efforts by the federal government (heavily supported by African Union and US), militant group al-Shabaab continues to have a strong presence in South and Central Somalia and remains a threat to security across the country. In Puntland, Islamic State cells have emerged. The situation in the northern state, Somaliland, is relatively peaceful and stable. Somaliland declared independence in 1991, although that is not recognized by the federal Government, nor internationally.
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 24 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.
There are a few church buildings dating back to the colonial area, however they lost their purpose as places of worship. 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 after just eight days, on grounds that its reopening had caused significant divisions which were contrary to Somaliland’s interests. A Somali is supposed be a Muslim. There is no scope to adhere another religion. Due Somalia’s strong clan and family culture, 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. Besides societal pressure, Christians have to fear al-Shabaab, particularly in the south, where al-Shabaab seeks to implement a strict form of Islamic law. The threat from al-Shabaab is felt within Somali communities in neighbouring countries as well – 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.