Christians leave a church in Ethiopia. Credit: James Jeffrey
After remaining under the international media’s radar for more than a year, attacks against churches in one of the world’s oldest Christian civilizations have prompted Pope Francis to speak out.
“I am saddened by the violence of which Christians of the Tewahedo Orthodox Church of Ethiopia are victims,” the pope said in his November 3 Angelus address. He was speaking of those caught up in ethnic clashes that had broken out across Ethiopia at the end of October and left about 80 dead. “I express my closeness to this beloved church and her patriarch, dear brother Abune Mathias, and I ask you to pray for all the victims of violence in that land.”
The burnings of churches belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC)—the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which reject the 451 A.D. Council of Chalcedon and believe that Christ has only one nature—have proven even more shocking in a country where about 98 percent of the population claim a religious affiliation.
Until recent years, Ethiopia had been both a Christian oasis in the volatile Horn of Africa and a bulwark against Islamic extremism. The country had come to represent a remarkable success story in religious tolerance compared to most of the world.
Celebrated for its 7th-century Christian king who provided sanctuary to persecuted Muslims, Ethiopia today is home to about 35 million Muslims (some argue the figure may be considerably higher). They live cheek-to-jowl with about 45 million Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and members of other Christian denominations, in relative harmony. Intermarriage is common, and both sides recognize and celebrate each other’s religious holidays.
Christians have suffered before in Ethiopia, enduring a spate of attacks by Muslim mobs in 2011. But that violence flared and subsided within about a week. The most recent attacks—during unrest sparked by an altercation between political activist Jawar Mohammed and the Ethiopian government—continue a worrying trend that since July 2018 has seen more than 30 churches attacked, more than half of them burned to the ground, sometimes with priests still inside, according to the Amhara Professional Union, a U.S.-based diaspora organization that has attempted to track events.
In August 2018, an estimated 10 churches were burned in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, resulting in 29 deaths, including eight priests. This March and April, another two were attacked in the Somali region’s capital, Jijiga, resulting in 12 deaths. Then in July, five churches were attacked in the southern Sidama zone with further burnings and deaths.
The ongoing ethnic-based tumult in Ethiopia and the accompanying witch’s brew of identity politics, territorial claims, and historical grievances make it hard to parse the motivations behind the church attacks and gauge whether religion was the main driver. Some argue that religious buildings are being targeted to incite tension and instability to further political plots.
At the same time, the attacks are occurring amid concerns over increased Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa, including in Ethiopia.
“Islamic extremism has been growing in Ethiopia and has been a concern for many analysts in the region,” says Tewodrose Tirfe, chairman of the Amhara Association of America, another U.S.-based diaspora group. “Money from the Gulf region has been pouring into the country, building mosques, [Islamic] schools, and introducing the Wahhabi form of Islam to Ethiopian Muslims since the early 2000s.”
Wahhabism is a strict, fundamentalist Islamic doctrine and religious movement, 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 over the past few years.
While Tewodrose says he doesn’t believe Saudi Arabia or the UAE are directly involved in fomenting religious tensions in Ethiopia, he does note that, over the centuries, Ethiopians of all ethnic groups have long respected diverse religious institutions. Hence the burning of churches is a “foreign” idea that must have been “exported to the country.”
Fears are thus mounting that any hint of religious conflict could make an already highly volatile situation even worse.
“Ethiopia cannot afford a religious conflict at a time when its very survival is [already in] question,” says Tewodrose. He notes that historically the Amhara, the country’s second-largest ethnic group, have been closely identified with the EOTC, and that most of those targeted in the church burnings were Amhara. “This will inflame ethnic tensions already present in the country,” he warns. “If the church burnings continue and Christians retaliate, this will be a huge setback to the peace that has co-existed between the two faiths and can potentially result in a new conflict leading to millions more Ethiopians being displaced.”
During the first half of 2018, due to ethnic clashes, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people (IDP) actually exceeded Syria’s. By the end of that year, after further ethnic strife, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million, and remains close to that figure today.
Ethiopia is one of the earliest cradles of Christianity. It was the second nation after Armenia to adopt Christianity as a state religion around the 4th century. As a result, the EOTC rules supreme both culturally and psychologically. The Ethiopian Orthodox faith is intrinsically interwoven with the idea of Ethiopian-ness, evolving over the centuries into “a religion that embraces culture, politics, flag, identity and nationalism, all put in one package,” as religious studies professor and author Tibebe Eshete puts it.
But the flurry of reforms in 2018 that drew so much praise for Ethiopia’s prime minister—and now Nobel Laureate—Abiy Ahmed have also had unintended consequences, to the point that even the idea of what it is to be Ethiopian could now be under threat.
Increasing numbers of ethnic parties have emerged in the political space that Abiy opened up, many with an openly bigoted message. These play on historic grievances between different ethnic groups and have reignited territorial border disputes.
The July burning of churches in Sidama occurred during ongoing unrest over a movement for the area to secede from the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) to become its own independent federal state.
The complexities and scale of what is happening across Ethiopia mean that it’s important to remember, says William Davison, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia, that during broader incidents of unrest, Orthodox Christian churches were not the only properties targeted, and nor were Orthodox Christians the only groups that suffered.
The corresponding difficulties in discerning between whether church attacks were driven more by religious differences, ethnic differences, or an admixture of both, perhaps explain why the attacks haven’t garnered much mainstream media attention. Though that appears to be changing, as the pope’s comments indicate.
This is not the first time the pope has spoken out over Ethiopian Christians. Pope Francis met with Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch Abune Mathias in February 2016 to express his condolences over the Ethiopian Christians executed by Islamic State militants in Libya in April 2015. Now, once again, the EOTC is in mourning.
“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 wider distrust within society and could be a time bomb.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the U.S., the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.