The Ties that Bind

Harar, Ethiopia


The secret behind this peaceful coexistence is the unique behavior of the people in Harar who have lived together for so long and developed a culture of tolerance.

Mohammed Yimame, Harar Resident


Besides being a World Heritage site, Harar, Ethiopia has the distinction of being awarded UNESCO’s City of Peace Prize in 2003. Residents overall are proud of this designation and the city’s long history of coexistence across ethnic and religious divides. Like any model featured on the MoU site, the city does not represent perfection, but it is worth taking a closer look at what works in Harar—especially the many associational ties across Muslim and Christian lines. Coexistence in Harar is all the more suprising given nearby border clashes, sacred sites that are contested, and tense historical periods in Harar’s past that led to some bloody confrontations between Muslims and Christians. Today, almost half of the residents are Muslim and half Orthodox Christian.


Practical Applications

What seems notable about Harar are the frequent social ties across religious lines. It is relatively common for people of Christian and Muslim faiths, for example, to share food, festivals, friendships, business relationships, and living spaces. A study undertaken in Harar (in both 2007 and 2009)—which consisted of 90 formal interviews with individuals representing different gender, ethnicities, classes and religious affiliations—confirmed that “Harar’s resilience in the face of violent provocation is the result of everyday people in their everyday lives developing robust formal and informal ties between Muslims and Christians over the last century.” Although Harar has 82 mosques and 102 shrines, an ethic of religious tolerance is largely promoted by religious leaders and taught in school civics classes.


Developing Communities

But, what makes Harar different? The authors of the above study (Jan Bender Shetler and Dawit Yehualashet) assert that much of this “story of hope” can be attributed to the work done by a myriad civil society associations that cross religious lines. There are allegedly over 500 such associations in the city, including almost 200 youth organizations that have mixed memberships and focus on problems like HIV/AIDS or gang violence. Burial associations too have a very important role in knitting the community together. These are formal associations in which members contribute money and time to help each other with life crises or celebrations. They are also increasingly supporting a variety of social welfare initiatives, such as care of the elderly. The burial associations are generally either Christian (iddir) or Muslim (afocha), but some do have mixed memberships and events like funerals and weddings often take place across religious boundaries.


Shrine of Saint Abadir, Harar, Ethiopia


Civil society organizations in Harar are registered by the government and encouraged to seek outside aid. Youth groups, for example, have looked to local merchants and international entities for funding support and have been involved with creating programs related to “sports, recreation, libraries, tutoring, school support, the arts, income generation or job creation.” A joint iddir and afocha burial committee formed to fight the AIDS epidemic in 2004-2005, and subsequently took on other development tasks, like raising funds for disaster relief. Because the leaders of the burial associations are respected elders in neighborhoods, they serve as mediators for settling disputes in the community. Mixed membership credit associations have raised significant funds and played an important role in helping to financially empower women.



Divides in Harar are not so much across religious groups as they are between them. Oromo Muslims, for example, are predominately rural, poor, and without access to political power. This group faces tensions with Harari Muslims who are seen as having greater class privileges. There are also divisions between those who practice the Sufi form of Islam vs. the Wahabi form. On the Christian side of the equation, there are divisions between those who profess Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant faiths. (The latter two make up about 6.5% of the population.) The evangelical movement practiced by the Protestants is one factor causing strain in religious tolerance and increasing fundamentalist activity on both sides challenges Harar’s intercommunal associations to remain that way.        


Lessons Learned

The existence of so many intercommunal associations have made a difference to building relationships across religious divides in Harar, but these formal and informal networks need to be supported. The Harari Regional government, for example, has encouraged the formation of these associations and has been critical in balancing the power of each religious and ethnic group. Ethnic Harari, who are Muslim, have dominant power in the region but need the cooperation of other groups to maintain stability. Religious leaders in both communities have also played a critical role in mediating conflict. For example, a conflict surrounding a religious procession in 2001 resulted in several deaths and had the potential to spin out of control. Community elders and religious leaders, however, mobilized their own networks to keep tempers and rumors under control and so contain further potential violence.



Much of this case study was synthesized from an article published in The Journal of Religion, Conflict and Peace, Volume 4, Issue 1, Fall 2010. The full article, by Jan Bender Shetler and Dawit Yehualashet, is called “Building a ‘City of Peace’ through Intercommunal Association.”   The text for this case study was reviewed by Dr. Shetler.


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