ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Ethiopia will issue national identity cards for the nearly 1,000 Rastafarians who long have been seen as stateless in the East African nation, the government announced Thursday.

The decision means they can enter without visas and live without residence permits. The move also affects Ethiopian Jews and foreign nationals who have made positive contributions to the country.

"These individuals have long been unable to enter and leave the country easily," Foreign Ministry spokesman Meles Alem told The Associated Press. "In the case of Rastafarians, we have three generations of people residing here that have blended well with our citizens. But sadly they were neither Caribbean nor Ethiopians so were somehow stateless. This national ID will address this problem."

Close to one thousand Rastafarians live in Ethiopia, especially in the capital, Addis Ababa, and a southern town called Shashamane. Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie, granted land for the Shashamane settlement for black people who helped fight off Fascist Italian forces in the 1930s.

Rastafarianism, which began after the emperor came to power, has followers who believe he is god.

"We are overjoyed," said Ras King, a prominent member of the Rastafarian community who first came to Ethiopia in 1982. "We are extremely happy because this has fulfilled our confidence in our forefathers' vision for a united Africa and black people from the West. As usual, Ethiopia has led the way and set the example for the rest of the continent in recognizing the Rastafarian movement."

Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, have a significant presence both in Ethiopia and in Israel.

The foreign ministry said the thousands of people who will be issued the new identity cards still cannot take part in elections or engage in the country's security and defense sectors.