Yohannes Gedamu (Ph.D.)

Second most populous African country and a strategically located state in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia could face an unprecedented new challenge; and this time, it is due to government intervention in religious affairs.

Ethiopia’s fragile inter-ethnic relations caused by a divisive and globally anomalous federal arrangement and one that continues to be exploited by ethno-nationalist movements, have caused most of the country’s difficult challenges across the last three decades.

During these times, however, amongst the very few factors that kept the populous together, were the wisdom of Ethiopia’s religious leaders; especially, those representing two of the country’s largest, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EOTC) and the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council or Majlis.

Ethiopians, by in large, consider the leadership of the two highly revered religious institutions as forces of sanity and hope in a country ravaged by perpetual inter-ethnic violence. Amidst tragic times of war and instability that defined much of the country’s recent past, therefore, the contribution of Ethiopia’s religious leaders towards peaceful coexistence amongst the citizens cannot be underestimated.

Even further, the leadership of the Orthodox clergy and the Islamic council have always been lauded as forces of unity. And here is why. At the time the country’s inter-ethnic relations are at an all-time low, religious institutions in the country are recognized as symbols of national unity that do not represent any divisive ethnonationalist narratives. Moreover, religious leaders are known for only serving and catering towards spiritual demands of their communities of faith. As such, Ethiopians respect their spiritual leaders as the only ones that persistently attempt to address the deficient level of inter-ethnic trust caused by the divisiveness and opportunism of ethnic political elites.

Unfortunately, much like the challenges that the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council had to endure during the time the country was led by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church is now going in a similar but historically fateful challenge; and this time, it is under PM Abiy Ahmed’s watch.

What is even more shocking is that Mr. Abiy, who among others was credited for ending the disagreement amongst the Orthodox clergy when he brought back the church’s Holy Synod from a forced exile -due to the repressive tactics of the previous regime – is now being blamed for instigating the latest religious crisis in the EOTC, which is followed by majority Ethiopians.

The unraveling of religious crisis

On January 21st, three former bishops of EOTC, surprised Ethiopians of all religions and backgrounds, by declaring the establishment of a new Holy Synod or patriarchate that will be in service of Oromia regional state and what they referred as other nations and nationalities. The rebelling bishops also went on and uncanonically ordained 26 new mostly ethnic Oromo bishops. His Holiness Father Mathias, Patriarch of the EOTC, immediately condemned the illegal move; and when the church’s Holy Synod convened for its emergency special session, the decision to ex-communicate the splintering bishops was made.

Following the Holy-Synod’s decision, in ways that could foment religious violence in the country, authorities governing the Oromia regional state, the largest in territory and population size, started to inhibit religious functions of the church in the region by closing the administrative offices and by arbitrarily arresting and harassing religious fathers.

Pm Abiy’s bad judgement

Although Orthodox Churches across the world have made statements in support of the EOTC and His Holiness Father Mathias, the fact that Mr. Abiy was tone deaf silent since the news of splintering archbishops broke on January 22nd has surprised Ethiopians. Abiy’s silence of almost ten days and apparent disregard of such an important national matter had also already prompted many to suggest that he may be behind the religious coup already considered as an existential threat to the canonical laws and dogmas of the EOTC.

Then, Mr. Abiy spoke on the matter for the first time on Tuesday January 31st. In his speech delivered to members of his cabinet and televised later, the premier stunned the Ethiopian public by openly undermining the existential challenge the EOTC is going through as a silly matter and in the process,  threw an implicit support to a breakup group that launched the unprecedented attack against the church.

EOTC’s tough response

On the first of February,  EOTC’s Holy Synod under the leadership of the Patriarch, His Holiness Father Mathias, has responded to the premier’s remarks in harshest terms and vowed to call for massive domestic and international demonstrations unless its listed demands are met. Even ahead of such calls, the church had also called for three days long fasting and prayer that just concluded yesterday.

The list of demands by the EOTC started with a plea by the Holy Synod for the Abiy led government to stop its interference in religious matters and asked the government to end discriminating practices against the Orthodox church’s daily functions across the Oromia region and to end its direct support to the three archbishops who have already been condemned and ex-communicated by EOTC’s highest spiritual body, the Holy Synod.

His Holiness Father Mathias, Holy Patriarch of the church, has also warned the government to abide by its constitutional commitment to prevent any potential violence that could claim the lives of innocent Christians.

Ethiopia’s lost hope

Here, it is critical to look back at the first few years of Abiy’s tenure as Ethiopia’s premier. Almost five years ago, in April 2018, the change in political leadership within the now defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) brought Abiy Ahmed to power. The change brought so much hope for political, economic, and social reforms. And most Ethiopians embraced Abiy’s rhetoric of unity and peace and promises of economic prosperity. Indeed, Abiy Ahmed’s first year mostly delivered; especially his effort in ending the almost twenty years long war with Eritrea, earning him a Nobel Peace Prize for Peace in 2019.

Despite Abiy’s promises, the country remained on the path of instability with newly waves of inter-ethnic violence emerging almost everywhere. Already in Abiy’s first year in office, the number of internal displacement peoples in Ethiopia had also become the highest in the world, ahead of countries like Syria and Yemen.

PM Abiy and his administration blamed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and its ability to cause violence by using an expansive network that it had created when the group was a dominant political force, prior to 2018.

While it was somewhat a stretch to believe that TPLF would be responsible in causing the instability across the country, most Ethiopians still trusted Abiy’s interpretation and portrayal of the challenges the country faced. Moreover, when the most brutal war broke out in North-Ethiopia and the federal forces fought against TPLF led rebels in Tigray for two years, much of the country stood by the prime minister and his administration.

Unfortunately, even after the most welcome news in the cessation of hostilities between the federal government and TPLF led rebels was announced and the latter agreed to disarm, the violence in Oromia region continues to threaten innocent Amhara civilians and other non-Oromo citizens residing across the Oromia region. Now that TPLF cannot be blamed, Pm Abiy continues to preach patience but doing nothing to stop the persistent violence across the country.

Possibility of ethnoreligious violence

In today’s Ethiopia, ethnonationalist movements have continued to fuel inter-ethnic animosity and violence that continue to further weaken the country. A tolerant political culture and social capital that had long defined Ethiopians have become a thing of the past. Now that a possibility of religious violence is added to the list of problems that threaten the peace, the fragile state of Ethiopia is facing a major catastrophe that should not be taken lightly.