The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with its long history and colourful traditions, has become almost synonymous with the identity of Ethiopia itself. Now, a spate of church burnings has raised the religious and political temperature. What or who is behind this? James Jeffrey investigates.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s most religious countries, in which about 98% of the population claim a religious affiliation. Hence the shock over churches belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) – an organisation and faith that is integral to the idea of Ethiopian-ness – being burned to the ground, sometimes with their priests inside them.
It comes at a time when ethnic tensions are already sky high and have already resulted in much blood spilled. Ethnic-related strife has always been present in Ethiopia, but it has been bedevilling the country even more so, it appears, following the initially much-lauded reforms by Abiy Ahmed, after he became Prime Minister in early 2018.
During the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4m new internally displaced persons (IDPs) exceeded Syria’s. By the end of last year, after further ethnic-related clashes, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4m – and remains close to that figure.
“There is a feeling of siege among many followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church,” says Elias Gebreselassie, a journalist based in Addis Ababa. “The burning of churches could lead to a wider distrust within society and could be a time-bomb.
“Also, in eastern and southern Ethiopia, many people associate the Orthodox Church with northern Ethiopia or specifically, ethnic Amharas, so it could deepen political polarisation.”
Since July 2018, about 30 churches have been attacked, with more than half of them burned to the ground, according to the Amhara Professionals Union (APU), a US-based diaspora organisation that has attempted to keep track of events. Some of the attacks have also been corroborated by US-based Christian groups.
While the exact numbers involved are hard to verify, the significant tensions in Ethiopia mean it’s likely the number of attacks is higher than confirmed cases, says Nathan Johnson, Africa regional manager for International Christian Concern, a US-based NGO monitoring the human rights of Christians and religious minorities around the world.
“I don’t have a total number, as there may be some unreported cases or reports that we have not verified,” Johnson says. “However, there have been at least 15 churches that were attacked, three of which were completely burned down.”
Unique role of EOTC
About half of Ethiopia’s 100m population follow the EOTC, the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Christian churches. Muslims make up around 35% of the population – many claim this figure is higher – with Protestants, Catholics and adherents to indigenous tribal religions making up the rest.
But it is the EOTC that rules supreme in terms of cultural and psychological impact in the country.
“It is impossible to talk about Ethiopian history without the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church,” says Alemayhu Desta, a deacon at Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Dallas, Texas.
“The church had an invaluable role in protecting the territorial integrity of Ethiopia from foreign aggression. The church was also a target of foreign invaders because they knew that it is impossible to conquer Ethiopians without destroying the church. That is why the church means so much to Ethiopians. There is no aspect of Ethiopians’ lives where religion in one way or another doesn’t have a role.”
As a result, Ethiopian identify has become inextricably bound up in the EOTC, with the Ethiopian Orthodox faith evolving over the centuries into “a religion that embraces culture, politics, flag, identity and nationalism, all put in one package”, says religious studies professor and author Tibebe Eshete.
And yet despite this outsized influence of the EOTC, modern-day Ethiopia arguably offers a success story of Christians and Muslims living together in harmony. Intermarriage is common, while both sides recognise and celebrate each other’s religious holidays.
“Historically, Ethiopia is a state where diverse groups have excelled in living together in harmony,” says Ethiopian Orthodox priest Nehemiah T. Geth. “Ethiopia is one of the few countries where Christians and Muslims live together peacefully with mutual respect and proximity.
“They are a people who give precedence to their peaceful co-existence as human beings and as Ethiopians; they don’t harp on their religious differences. Sadly, religious differences are causing havoc around the world these days.”
But that doesn’t mean Ethiopia is immune to pressures and competition on a larger scale –attacks on Christians have occurred since the 1990s, according to members of the EOTC – hence rising concerns that the increase in church burnings since 2018 could indicate Muslim extremism is gaining a foothold in Ethiopia.
“Ethiopian followers of the three Abrahamic faiths have lived peacefully side-by-side for centuries,” says Tewodrose Tirfe of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based organisation representing the diaspora’s Amhara ethnic group.
“If the Church burnings continue and Christians retaliate, this will be a huge setback to the peace that has co-existed between the faiths and could potentially result in a new conflict leading to millions more Ethiopians being displaced. Ethiopia cannot afford a religious conflict at a time when its very survival is in question.”
Tirfe notes that money from the Gulf region has been pouring into the country to build mosques, Islamic schools, and pushing the Wahhabi form of Islam to Ethiopian Muslims since the early 2000s. Wahhabism is a more strict and conservative Islamic doctrine and religious movement, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries have shown an increased interest in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region in the past few years.
“The burning of Churches in Ethiopia is foreign, and I can only think this extreme view has been exported to the country,” Tewodrose says.
“It is horrific and unbelievable to think monks and priests were burnt alive in such a holy place as a church. I believe, ultimately, that Saudi Arabia’s and UAE’s interest in Ethiopia is political, not religious, but there’s no doubt external extreme views of Islam are having an impact in the country.”
Religious conflict – or not?
“Obviously, reports of Muslim attacks on Christians are disturbing but the targeting of Orthodox churches may not necessarily reflect a dangerous rise in religious sectarianism,” says William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia.
“Instead, it may emanate from long-standing grievances and political narratives about supposedly privileged Amharic-speaking highland ‘settlers’ who are perceived to be the descendants of beneficiaries of an imperial system that, for example, strongly promoted the Amharic language, suppressed local identities, had Orthodox Christianity as the state religion, and where tenant farmers were largely at the mercy of landlords.”
The burning of churches in Sidama this July occurred during ongoing unrest over the area seceding from the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) to become its own independent federal state.
“Ethnic Sidamas are overwhelmingly Protestant or Apostolic, and the burning of Orthodox churches in Sidama seems partly to be an [act of] anti-non-Sidama violence, not just purely a religious attack,” Elias says.
“While many Christians and some liberal Muslims feel Islam in Ethiopia is becoming more conservative and even has the potential to be extreme, the church burnings can’t exclusively be pinned on Muslim areas.”
While it’s difficult to discern between whether church attacks have been driven more by religious or ethnic differences, or by an admixture of both, the consequences of the attacks have been unequivocal.
“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his administration have not addressed the targeting of church burnings, nor presented a plan to safeguard churches and Christians in the areas where they are being attacked,” Tewodrose says. “He should not stay silent because the longer he’s silent and does not take action, the longer Ethiopians and the perpetrators will view it as not being a priority for Abiy Ahmed’s administration”.
Privilege of prayer
At the same time, even in the face of the attacks, Ethiopia’s EOTC still enjoys a privileged position that many other churches in Africa would gladly welcome.
“Because Christianity is so entwined in Ethiopian culture, it faces less direct persecution than in many other countries in Africa,” Johnson says. “Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea have all made it impossible to open new churches or openly practise Christianity. As a result, they have small Christian populations. Also, they constantly harass, arrest and even kill Christian leaders and laypeople.
“Nigeria, on the other hand, has a very large Christian population, but still struggles with Islamic extremism from multiple sources. Many churches have been destroyed over the last 10 years by Boko Haram in the northeast and by Fulani militants throughout Nigeria’s Middle Belt region.”
While many countries across the globe have been rent asunder by religious differences, leading to social conflict, and worse, Ethiopia has managed to accommodate significant religious groups existing in relative harmony.
But the rub is whether this previously commendable track record can be maintained in the current climate, when so much is changing and at such a pace.
Tibebe explains how throughout history, attempts to reform the EOTC have been viewed as tantamount to endangering Ethiopian identify itself, and hence have been resisted. The result, many have argued, is a church out of step and increasingly ill equipped to compete in a modern, rapidly urbanising and better educated society.
“Now there is a new generation among churchgoers who know the Bible and won’t allow it to be misquoted,” says 27-year-old Getachew Alehean, a tour guide in Lalibela. Increasingly, younger Orthodox Christians are beginning to ask more questions about the EOTC’s behaviour and authority. Like many churches around the world, the EOTC is collectively wealthy, but unlike other churches, it does relatively little community outreach beyond the church doors.
There is even a growing movement among the Oromo people, who were at the centre of sustained protests leading to the emergence of Abiy and his reforms, for an entirely separate administrative body of the EOTC dedicated to the Oromo.
“Talking religion and politics in the context of the current Ethiopia has been a delicate terrain lately as the issue seems to have become more sensitive, given how different political groups appropriate the religious space as an alternative political venue,” Geth says.
“Religion has become one of the major variables in articulating political claims and contestations in post-1991 Ethiopia, undermining the harmony of the diverse group of people who have lived over the centuries,” he concludes.