Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said Friday it will issue identification cards to Rastafarians, granting rights to a community that has long complained of living in limbo in their “promised land”.
Rastafarians began immigrating to Ethiopia in the 1950s after Emperor Haile Selassie, whom they consider their messiah, set aside 500 acres (1,200 hectares) of land in the southern city of Shashamane for descendants of African slaves seeking to return “home”.
But the community shrank after Haile Selassie’s overthrow and eventual murder in the 1970s.
These days, the Rastafarian community in Shashamane numbers in the hundreds, but the religion’s adherents complain that they can’t own property, send their children to university or work because they’re not Ethiopian citizens.
Many have also turned their backs on their home countries by not renewing their passports, leaving them stateless.
Foreign ministry spokesman Meles Alem told AFP Rastafarians will now be eligible to receive ID cards that will allow them to reside and have most legal rights in the country.
However, while this card allows them residency they are still not considered citizens.
“There were questions for them to recognise their presence in the country, so that is what the government did,” Meles said.
Under the revised guidelines, the cards will also be available to foreigners who have contributed to the country’s development and to Israelis of Ethiopian descent, Meles said.
An Italian court has acquitted a man of cannabis possession because he is a Rastafarian and was using the drug to meditate.
The 30-year-old was arrested in May last year after police found eight grams of cannabis in his pocket and a further 50 grams at his home.
A prosecutor called for him to be sentenced to up to four months in prison, but his lawyer successfully argued he should be acquitted because cannabis is regarded as sacred in the Rastafari religion.
Explaining the judgement, the court in the southern coastal city of Bari said: “Rastafarians are followers of a religion whose believers use marijuana for meditation.” It added that the cannabis was only for his personal use.
Rastafari is a young religion that developed in the 1930s in Jamaica. Rastafarians believe Haile Selassie, a former Ethiopian Emperor, is the reincarnation of God or a destined emissary. They say he will return to Africa members of the black community who were transported away from the continent during the slave trade and colonisation.
A federal court ruling will allow Deon Glenn, an inmate at Trumbull Correctional Institution, to continue wearing dreadlocks as required by his religion.
As a practicing Rastafarian, Deon Glenn is required to let his hair grow and lock naturally, creating dreadlocks. Ohio prison policy prohibits that hairstyle, and any religious exemptions for dreadlocks.
Glenn sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and this week, he won his case.
Avidan Cover is Glenn’s lead attorney. He calls the ruling a statement that shows all religions should be taken seriously and respected.
“There are a host of accommodations set forward in Ohio policies for a number of religions,” said Cover. “It’s a lot less clear for a faith such as Rastafarianism. It’s not as well known, most adherents are a minority race.”
Cover says that while the ruling only applies to Glenn’s religious freedom, it might be helpful to other inmates in similar situations.
“I think the court opinion gives a good road map for state officials to change their policy without by the way compromising prison security,” said Cover.
The Ohio Department of Correction had argued that dreadlocks cannot be thoroughly searched without posing a risk to prison staff. In her written opinion, the judge noted the vast majority of other state prisons “manage the risk associated with dreadlocks short of a complete ban”.
Cover is representing a Youngstown inmate in a similar case still in court.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction declined to comment.
Making an effort to improve relations with the Rastafarian community, the government of Antigua and Barbuda issued an apology before the Organization of American States (OAS) for its decades of discrimination against the religious group. Sir Roland Sanders, the ambassador to the United States and the OAS, addressed the organization’s permanent council to inform the members that Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, apologized to the Rastafarian community and provided information about additional measures the government either has already taken or plans to take to enhance the rights of this minority group in the country.
The report from Sanders meets the requirements of the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, which states that all forms of discrimination and intolerance must be eliminated and respect for religious and cultural diversity in the Americas, including the Caribbean region, must be upheld. According to Sanders, implementing the requirement of the Charter to ruminate intolerance and discrimination leads to stronger democracy and participation of citizens in all of the OAS’s 34 active member states. He went on to say the government of Antigua and Barbuda was proud to demonstrate its commitment to the rights of all citizens. Prime Minister Browne agreed to a request from Sanders to be joined by Ambassador Franklyn Francis, a leader in the Rastafarian community, in an address to the Permanent Council on the nation’s actions. When Ambassador Francis, also known as King Frank I, spoke at the OAS meeting, it represented a historic step forward for the Rastafarians, said Sanders.
RASTAFARIAN communities in The Bahamas are calling for reparatory justice in the form of state recognition and inclusion as national discourse over marijuana law reform picks up steam.
Priests canvassed by The Tribune said they expected the government to follow the track of Jamaica and Antigua, whose leaders have issued formal apologies for the longstanding oppression inflicted on Rastafarian communities due to their sacramental use of the plant.
The government has reportedly held talks with the Bobo Ashanti – formally known as the Ethiopia Africa Black International Congress (EABIC) – for the past three months concerning sacramental rights; however, confidence over the inclusion and equity stake of Rastafarians was not widespread.
An overriding concern among faith leaders was that the community be placed at the forefront of national discussions on marijuana law reform and commerce as it has led agitation over liberalisation of the plant for decades.
“We are the vanguard,” said Elder Peter Sheffield, of House of Nyabinghi. “We are the one with the stigma, who have been persecuted for herb, couldn’t get jobs, banned from society. Right now it is coming to a closure on this but it’s like they pushing us aside and saying they don’t recognise the Rasta. We smoked it straight through so it’s too complicated. It’s a way of life for us, it’s nothing to do with recreational or medicinal or how they glorifying it.
I’m almost 60 and they still have me as a criminal from 1985. I’m looking for even compensation from the government and all. It’s been too long they’ve hold us back, our families got held back because we are Rasta. Separation of families because we’re going to jail. We look at it as a personal thing, leave it alone and let us be. This is my sacrament, we use it in our tabernacle.”
Although Rastafarianism has no singular hierarchical structure, there are distinct sects commonly referred to as “mansions”. The two groups said to have the largest presence in the Bahamas are the House of Nyabinghi and the EABIC. Prominent study groups include the King of Kings Missionary Movement and the ASFAW, African Sisters for all Women.
The EABIC is headquartered in Jamaica but has branches throughout the diaspora, ambassador and head of the Bahamas branch, Priest Rithmond McKinney told The Tribune.
“(Cannabis) it’s part of our rituals, our celebrations and our service,” Priest McKinney said, “so it was something always been a part of Rastafarianism from conception. We have always used it as a sacrament. From I become a Rastafarian over 30 years ago it was big stigma on us. Something they used to castrate us, oppress us, all negative things toward us they used marijuana. They called it dope, then called us drug dealers. We been oppressed over the years because we know this is a natural plant, this is our sacrament and we use it as part of our service and we continued using it. We never stopped although we went through all the oppression.
“We as a church,” Priest McKinney continued, “we are in talks with the government now concerning our sacramental rights, making them more aware of sacramental rights. We want sacramental/medicinal use so we will be able to make our products for use external or internal, and to be able to achieve revenue also from our products.
“We are a church, this is a community, we believe it’s our sacrament. Our community feels good in ourself, the conversation is on the table, and we are agitating for our sacramental/medicinal rights. Not necessarily we want decriminalisation or legalisation for recreational use – that should be natural. We want our sacramental rights.”
The EABIC’s Bahamas branch compound on Fire Trail Road is commonly referred to as the “Rasta camp”; however, the House of Nyabinghi is located on Polemus Street off Nassau Street.
Priest McKinney said the Fire Trail compound was registered to the EABIC, and represented a formal acknowledgement of the group by the state. He explained while successive Progressive Liberal Party and Free National Movement administrations have recognised the church, stigma surrounding marijuana has heavily influenced the government’s approach.
Priest McKinney said the compound should be afforded the same respect and protection as any other embassy or diplomatic community.
The Rastafarian population in the Bahamas was said to be around 10,000, according to House of Rastafari chairman and EABIC priest, Philip Blyden. House of Rastafari is an inter-mansion umbrella committee established to arbitrate with the public on issues where there is a consensus among groups in the Bahamas.
Priest Blyden, 60, recalled making a presentation on marijuana legalisation before a Select Senate Committee headed by PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell in 1993.
“Our culture, well-being, and spirituality has been interrupted by first, the colonial powers. Slavery is the biggest interruption of our civilisation. Rastafari members were then hunted by the neo-colonial authorities and our service sacrilegiously interrupted, and sometimes our camps burned down, and our women are sometimes being violated by officers and it’s a number of things.
“We are being eclipsed by those snakes and vultures that are coming up now and everybody’s seeking to benefit from our pain and suffering,” he added. “We suffered under the criminalisation of marijuana more than any other social group in the Bahamas and if it is to be legalised, I think that there should be a pardon issued to the group on behalf of the government of the Bahamas – simply because it’s the government who would be seeking to benefit.”
Priest Blyden noted there has also been a paradigm shift within the Rastafarian community with groups moving from isolationist to more engagement with the wider public.
He said despite the use of Rastafarian culture like Ital food and health practices becoming more mainstream, the groups have not been recognised as pioneers and thought leaders for social change.
“We are still being pushed back and our message is being suppressed and eclipsed by all of this sensationalisation of medical marijuana and CARICOM reports, reparations, and yet we are the leaders in all of these fields,” Priest Blyden said.
CARCOM’s report released last week suggested expunging criminal records to remedy past injustices as it called for its declassification as a dangerous drug.
The commission recommended marijuana is decriminalised for personal use in private premises and medical purposes before being fully legalised.
Priest Jevon Thompson, EABIC, explained the absence of a standardised policy for the community has left its membership to battle legal challenges over their sacrament on an individual level with varied success. Priest Thompson said he has successfully defended his rights in court but the community was currently engaged in raising funds to assist with legal costs of an incarcerated member.
Priest Thompson expressed optimism that liberalisation will affect a lessening of the discriminatory practices but only if Rastafarians are included in the debate.
“The public needs to have an understanding of the debate,” he said, “what we have come to understand is what we were taught about marijuana was wrong. We were taught lies and propaganda, the public has to recognise that wasn’t the truth.
“Learn the truth, accept the truth,” Priest Thompson added, “and I think it will take some of the stigma from us. We would be more recognised because we are like shrouded in mystery.”
Yesterday, Priest McKinney invited the public to the Bobo Ashanti’s celebration to mark the birthday of Emperor Haile Selassie I at the Fire Trail compound on July 23.