Inter-Orthodox Relations, Orthodoxy and Modernity, Religion and Conflict

The Tigray Crisis and the Possibility of an Autocephalous Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church

Published on: July 30, 2021
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Tigray Orthodox Church
Debre Selam Kidist Selassie Church before and after the War

The ongoing war in Tigray, the cradle of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Christianity, might lead into yet another split of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EtOTC), this time into an Amhara-based Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church and a Tigray-based Orthodox Tewahdo Church, weakening further the second largest Orthodox Church after Russia and the largest church of the Oriental family. The first split of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church took place in 1994, when the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church (ErOTC) was granted autocephaly by the late Pope Shenouda III following Eritrean independence from Ethiopia on May 24, 1993 (Stéphan, Bonacci, & Persoon, 2014). If Tigray opts for secession from Ethiopia and establishes its own independent nation-state like the Eritreans, then Alexandria has no option but to grant Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church (TOTC) autocephaly. Both options, autocephaly or continuation as part of the Ethiopian Synod, entail immense challenges.

Ironically, the current Ethiopian crisis started to surface in April 2018, when Abiy Ahmed Ali became Prime Minister[1] of the second most populous African country after Nigeria. Immediately after Abiy Ahmed ascended to power, he released all political prisoners and granted amnesty to all disgruntled exiles to come back to Ethiopia, including opposition groups and their media outlets who were stationed in Europe and the United States. Some of these Ethiopian opposition groups had their army in neighboring Eritrea. After Abiy Ahmed and the Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki, signed a peace agreement in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, on July 9, 2018, eight rebel groups returned to Ethiopia. Furthermore, Ahmed went all the way to the United States to convince Patriarch Abune Merkorios (an Amhara) and his synod to return home after 27 years in exile and reconcile with the Ethiopian Synod under Patriarch Abune Mathias. All these earned Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize of 2019. However, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had dominated Ethiopia for the last 27 years, felt alienated by the velocity of transformations.  

The majority of the circa 70 million Tewahdos[2] belong to the Amhara (around 30 million) and the Tigrawot (nine million) ethnic groups. Some three million of the six million Eritreans are also adherents of the the same Orthodox Tewahdo Church. Despite political and ethnic differences, clergies from the Amhara, the Tigrawot, and Tigrinya ethnic groups have been living and serving together across monasteries and churches in Eritrea, Tigray, and other parts of Ethiopia and in Jerusalem. They all master the liturgical language Ge’ez even if they don’t master each other’s vernacular languages. In the diaspora across Europe and the USA, one observes the same unity among the faithful and the clergy of all three ethnic groups: the pillars of the Tewahdo. Besides the Tewahdo religion all three ethnic groups are tied together historically, culturally, and linguistically[3]. However, in times of political crisis and wars like what we have been witnessing since November of last year, ethnicity cracks the religious unity of the Tewahdo.

When the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) took power in 1991, terminating Amhara-dominated successive governments since 1865, it replaced the sitting patriarch Abune Merkorios (Amhara) by the late Princeton scholar Abune Paulos (Tigray), who was succeeded by Abune Matthias in 2013, also from Tigray. Abune Merkorios fled to the USA and established Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church in exile. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reconciled the two in August 2018, and since that time the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church is led by two patriarchs. When tension between Abiy Ahmed and his former dominant coalition partner, the TPLF, reached a boiling point, Abune Mathias went to the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, with 52 representatives of various religious groups to mediate. When this failed, the Ethiopian government accused the TPLF forces of a preemptive attack on Ethiopian forces stationed in Tigray. The Ethiopian federal forces supported by the Amhara special forces from Amarha (one of the ten ethnically curved federal states of Ethiopia and adjacent to Tigray), Eritrean forces, and drones from the United Arab Emirates unleashed a devastating war against Tigray. Initially, Abune Mathias supported the war termed as “operation law and order.”

However, in May of this year Abune Mathias smuggled a video message out of Ethiopia in which he unequivocally condemns the war against Tigray as genocide. He appealed to the international world to immediately intervene and save Tigray. Different monasteries and churches of Tigray have been damaged. Unaccounted numbers of religious leaders have either been killed or fled Tigray. In this interview, the Patriarch says that he had repeatedly tried to voice his objection to the “unprecedented barbarism” in Tigray but that he was censored and silenced. After the video went viral, the Ethiopian Orthodox Synod stated that the video of Abune Mathias doesn’t represent the church. The impact is still reverberating in Ethiopia and in the diaspora. Supporters of the war accused Abune Mathias of being an agent of the TPLF, while the people from Tigray welcomed the video as “better late than never.” In Philadelphia, an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church has changed its name into a Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church. In Europe, Tegaru clergies are organizing themselves to establish a separate Tigray Church.

An autocephalous Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church means the death of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church in many aspects. The official name of the Ethiopian patriarchate is “Patriarch and Catholicos of Ethiopia, Archbishop of Axum and Ichege of the See of Saint Taklehaimanot.” Axum is the name of the ancient empire where Christianity was introduced in the fourth century. The Ethiopian and Eritrean Tewahdos believe that the original Ark of the Covenant with the original Ten Commandments is being kept in St. Mary Zion Axum (Hancock, 1993), where Ethiopian kings have been ordained from the fourth century until the reign of the last emperor, Emperor Haile Selassie, came to an end in 1974. Ethiopia became officially a secular state, but the influence of the EtOTC in the society and government remains vibrant. A Tewahdo church in Ethiopia, Eritrea, or the diaspora is officially a church after it receives a replica of the Ark of the Covenant with the name of a saint as a patron, in Ge’ez called Tabot (Amsalu, 2015). Tigray is also the substratum of the nine saints from Syria who introduced monasticism into Tigray, the rest of Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

Does the Tewahdo Church possess the spiritual and institutional strength to transcend the ethno-political divisions of Ethiopia, Tigray, and Eritrea to recover as one family of believers who share more than the timely geographical and political upheavals of the area? Despite the immense tragedy in Tigray, the Amhara, Tegaru, and Eritrean clergies have studied, performed liturgical services, and served each other’s communities in unison. They have blessed weddings of mixed marriages of Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Tegaru; baptized children of mixed marriages; and conducted funerals across Ethiopia, Eritrea, Tigray, and the diaspora. The immense tragedy in Tigray demands a thorough soul search of all, and in particular of the Tewahdo church. 

Further Reading

Amsalu, T. (2015). The Ethiopian homily on the Ark of the Covenant : critical edition and annotated translation of Dersanä Ṣeyon: Leiden, Netherlands.

Boston, Massachusetts : Brill.

Hancock, G. (1993). Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant: Simon and Schuster.

Stéphan, A., Bonacci, G., & Persoon, J. (2014). The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. In Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twenty-First Century (pp. 532-554): Routledge.

[1] Born to an Oromo Muslim father and Amhara Orthodox Tewahdo mother Abiy Ahmed has been an active member of the Full-Gospel Pentecostal Church of Ethiopia. The center of Ethiopian religious and political power has been always in the hands of Tigrawot (people from the federal state of Tigray) and Amhara (people from the federal state of Amhara) members of the Orthodox Tewahdo Church; eight and thirty million respectively. The late Emperor Haile Selassie had an Amhara father and an Oromo mother.

[2] The Ethiopian church included into its name the word tewahedo, a Geʿez word meaning “unity” and expressing the church’s Miaphysite belief.

[3] The language of the Amhara is Amharic, the language of the Tigrawot or Tegaru people of Tigray is Tigrinya like the Tigrinya people of Eritrea. Eritrea has nine nationalities of which Tigrinya is the largest. All three are Semitic languages derived from Ge’ez.

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  • Habtom Yohannes

    Habtom Yohannes

    Dutch journalist and PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies of Radboud University Nijmegen

    Originally from the Eritrean capital Asmara, Habtom Yohannes is a Dutch journalist and PhD candidate at the faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies of Radboud University Nijmegen. As part of the European Research Council project “Rewriting Global Orthodoxy: Oriental Christianity in Eur...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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