Public Life, Religion and Conflict

Ethnicity Tears the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church Apart Prime Minister Ahmed forced to talk to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church

Published on: February 10, 2023
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What initially seemed an internal conflict between the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EtOTC) and an Oromo breakaway synod of 28 bishops, has developed into an open clash between the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the EtOTC. The current struggle is actually a scramble over who has ownership of the nation: the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church or the Ethiopian nation-state? And who owns “the church”: the Amhara, the Tegaru, or the Oromo, or the three of them equally? And what is the language of the church: “Ge’ez, Amharinya, Tigrinya, or Afaan-Oromo? Are we going to have four Orthodox Tewahdo Churches in the Horn of Africa: 1) Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, 2)Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church, 3) Oromia Orthodox Tewahdo Church, and 4) Amhara-Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church?

Despite his open warnings to his cabinet members not to interfere in the current internal crisis within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church some ten days ago, a concerted campaign by the Ethiopian synod at home and abroad has forced the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to invite representatives of the synod to his office. Time will tell whether Ahmed will convince the synod to cancel the nationwide demonstration planned for next Sunday. The synod will put as a condition that the government recognize their synod as the only legitimate synod for the whole Ethiopian church. Accepting that condition openly will bring him in direct conflict with the breakaway synods in Oromia and Tigray. Abiy Ahmed is an active member of the Full-Gospel Pentecostal group with “prosperity church” inclinations. His father is an Oromo-Muslim and his mother an Amhara-Orthodox Tewahdo. Together with his wife, born to an Amhara-Tewahdo parents, they have three girls. His power base is Oromo. So also in this discussion the breakaway Oromo bishops will be invisibly present in the meeting with the Ethiopian Holy Synod. The Holy Synod seems also to have booked a legal success in blocking the breakaway synod from using any church properties of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church. However, passing a verdict is totally different from enforcing it in a country that is structured ethno-linguistically in eleven federal states with their own parliaments and special forces. 

Background

On January 31, the Prime Minister addressed his cabinet and the entire Ethiopian public after a deafening nine-day silence since the conflict between the breakaway bishops and the legitimate Holy Synod became public on Sunday, January 22 of this year. While denying any involvement in the current crisis within the EtOTC, Ahmed implicitly criticized the Ethiopian Holy Synod for not accepting his mediation efforts: “We have sent a delegation and advised the church to solve the problem through negotiation, but they have rejected our advice. We can only advise and not force them.” Thereafter, he warned the cabinet ministers -some of whom are members of the EtOTC- not to meddle in the issue: “No one of you is allowed to interfere in the current crisis. Nobody should call anyone based on ethnic affiliations. It is not allowed.” The following day, on February 1, the Ethiopian synod reacted furiously, and refuted the Prime Minister’s remarks point by point. It has called for worldwide protest; and has asked every faithful to wear black during the fasting period of the “Fast of Nineveh” between February 6 and 9. The protests in support of the Holy Synod have already started at home and abroad. The conflict has already claimed lives at St. Michael Church in Shashemene and other places.

This year Ethiopians at home and abroad celebrated Christmas and Epiphany in relative peace after two years of devastating war in Tigray. However, three days after Epiphany, on January 22nd, three archbishops, namely archbishops Abune Sawiros, Abune Ewostateos (Ph.D.), and Abune Zena Markos shocked the church and the nation by announcing the ordination of 26 monks into bishops, without any prior consent from the Holy Synod. The renegading bishops threatened to establish their own Hoy Synod of Oromia Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EOOTC) if the synod rejects the 26 bishops. On the same day, His Holiness Abuna Mathias I, “Sixth Patriarch and Catholicos of Ethiopia, Archbishop of Axum and Ichege of the See of Saint Taklehaimanot”; reacted in astonishment and appealed to all 75 bishops across the world to return to the headquarters of the synod in Addis Ababa for an emergency meeting. The Patriarch also appealed to the faithful to remain calm and pray for the church. He called upon the Ethiopian government to uphold the rule of law and protect the people and the church. So far, the national and local Oromia governments[1] have failed to do so, since there are reports of arrests and deaths of the faithful. Synod bishops are being replaced by the breakaway bishops. Churches and church offices have been taken over by force.

Renegade bishops

After three days of deliberations, on Thursday, January 26, the Holy Synod of the EtOTC excommunicated all 28 bishops except one, the monk Aba Tsega Zeab Adugna, who recanted and asked for forgiveness before the emergency meeting convened. The synod accused the three bishops, and 25 monks ordained bishops, of betraying the church by violating the foundations of the Tewahdo faith, the religious canons and the ecclesiastical laws. The illegal anointment of the 25 monks as bishops was prepared and conducted entirely in secrecy. The ceremony took place some 100 kilometers from the headquarters of the Holy Synod in Addis Ababa, in “Haro Beale World Church,” located in Woliso Town, Sodo Dache district, south-west of Shoa zone, in the largest and most populous federal state of the country: Oromia. According to some observers, the Holy Synod was informed weeks ago about the plot of the three bishops to ordain 26 bishops and establish their own synod.  There are also reports that the Ethiopian government had facilitated the failed “religious coup d’état” during its preparations and thereafter. The renegading bishops were so occupied with the preparations that they were absent during the festivals of Epiphany. The synod reiterated that the door of the church is always open for those who show remorse and ask for forgiveness, including for the rebellious bishops.

Instead of showing remorse, the breakaway bishops organized a press-conference where they counter-excommunicated 12 archbishops, who were present during the emergence meeting, including some bishops from Oromia who supported the position of the Holy Synod. The rebellious group established a de facto “Holy Synod of Orthodox Tewahdo of Oromia” and started to dispatch the ordained bishops to different dioceses mainly in Oromia. They are taking over dioceses, sometimes by force and with “the help of either government forces and/or the special forces of the federal state of Oromia,” according to various reports. On January 28, Abuna Estifanos was arrested by security forces of the Oromia federal state after he travelled to Jimma town for the consecration of St. Marry Church. He was sent back to Addis Ababa. But even in Addis Ababa their safety is not guaranteed. There are reports that “Megabe Haddis” (scholar of New Testament) Aba Tsega Zeab Adugna was abducted from the gates of the headquarters of the synod at Five-Kilo in Addis Ababa, after he recanted and asked for forgiveness. The church has been complaining about lack of protection from the government.

Oromia synod

According to the Prime Minister, the breakaway bishops and their followers in Oromia have valid demands, like: 1) holding services in their own mother languages, 2) ordaining more bishops from Oromia, and other nations and nationalities, 3) opening theological colleges in Oromia.  “Nobody can ignore these genuine demands by blaming the Ethiopian government for the internal problems of the church.” He listed the good things his government has done for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church since he came to power in 2018[2]. “Both sides have the truth on their side, and both sides have genuine questions. Besides both are our fathers,” reiterated the Prime Minister: “religious institutions must purify themselves from politics, corruption, discrimination and racism.” In these wordings, Abiy Ahmed seems to echo the accusations of the defiant Oromo-bishops, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church synod has been occupied for more than 70 percent by bishops from certain regions; i.e., Amhara and to a lesser extent Tigray.[3] The Holy Synod reject the claims of the breakaway bishops as supported by the Prime Minister. An independent and through investigation is needed to ascertain the facts based on history and context.

Who owns the EtOTC owns history and owns the nation?

Ethiopia officially has a secular state since an aligned force of communism inspired students and military toppled the last Tewahdo-emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The military killed first the emperor and later the second Ethiopian patriarch, Abune Theophilos. However successive Ethiopian governments—four since the emperor—have not yet succeeded to taking the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church out of the nation. So far, every government has tried to influence the church and control the nation by electing its own patriarch. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have been trying to control the Church since he hijacked the reconciliation process between the home synod under Patriarch Mathias and the exiled synod under the late Patriarch Merkorios. According to my interlocutors, the Prime Minister asked the committee that has been working for years to reconcile the two synods to wait for him before announcing the reunification of two synods after 27 years of schism. In exchange, he promised the church, among others, to return some assets that were confiscated by the military junta, the Derg/Dergue. During that unification event, Abiy Ahmed said: “We want the unity of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church because the church is the nation.” The reaction of the church authorities was jubilant. One of the patriarchs reacted: “Thanks be to God, at last the church has got her own son back in Arat-Kilo (the area where the headquarters of the Ethiopian Government, including the office of the Prime Minister are located).” Both seem to have miscalculated on each other.

Despite the separation of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church (ErOTC) following the independence of Eritrea, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church is still the constant factor and carrier of Ethiopian history. It still owns the Ethiopian nation even after the state declared itself secular in 1974 and ethnic-secular in 1991. Is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church going to successfully survive the current state, reorganize itself to establish a strong and effective institution in service of the whole Ethiopian population and the growing diaspora Ethiopian Tewahdos? The Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church (TOTC) has not yet established an official independent synod with its own patriarch. The recent peace deal has stalled that aspiration. Forced by the current situation, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church Synod that supported the war against Tigray, wrote a conciliatory letter to the Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church in the Tigray capital Mekelle. The reactions have been lukewarm, to say the least. A priest from Tigray reacted: “The same synod except the Ethiopian Patriarch Mathias who is ethnic Tigraway, was blessing the war that consummated more than 600.000 lives. At that time the Ethiopian synod didn’t call for a worldwide demonstration in black clothes against the war in Tigray that killed clergies and destroyed churches, and monasteries. The Ethiopian Synod have received an impressive international support in the current crisis. The World Council of Churches expressed support to its founding member, all the sister Oriental Churches supported the synod in its current struggle, and even the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church sided with the Ethiopian synod. Time will tell whether all expressions of solidarity will stop the creation of an independent Oromo (Ethiopian) Orthodox Tewahdo Church, and the creation of a separate Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church.  

Further Readings:

* Jalata, & Jalata, Asafa. (1998). Oromo nationalism and the Ethiopian discourse : the search for freedom and democracy. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press.

*  Kaplan, S. (2009). Dominance and Diversity: Kingship, Ethnicity, and Christianity in Orthodox Ethiopia. Church History and Religious Culture, 89(1), 291–305. https://doi.org/10.1163/187124109X407943


[1] In 1994 the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF)-led Ethiopian government introduced a constitution that redefined the nation on ethnic grounds. Ethiopia has now one central government and 10 ethnic-based local governments. Oromia is the largest of these federal states. Stretching from East to West, Oromia encompasses 34% of the Ethiopia and is home to around 40 million mainly Oromo’s of the total Ethiopian population 120 million Worldbank Ethiopia. Despite the intent to create a more prosperous, just and representative state for all its people, the project of ethnic federalism has led into a recurring conflict for the domination of the state and nation by mainly three ethnic groups: 1) the Amhara, 2) the Tegaru from Tigray and as late comers the 3) the Oromos.

[2] “I have returned two buildings that were confiscated by the communist regime and were never returned by the previous government. I have reconciled the exiled synod under the late patriarch Menkorios and the ome synod under Patriarch Mathias. My government gave the church 1.045.000 square meter land in and around the capital Addis Ababa; three times more than my government has granted to all other major religious institutions -including Islam, Evangelical and Catholic denominations- together.” According to the PM all the non-Tewahdo religious institutions received 350.000 square meter land.

[3] Amhara and Tegaru, including the Tigrinya speaking Orthodox Tewahdo Christians in Eritrea have been the center of the Ethiopian state and the Orthodox Tewahdo Church as the second oldest and largest institution of the country. The languages of these ethnic groups is Semitic unlike the Afaan Oromo (language of the Oromo), which Afro-Asiatic language. Amhara, Tigrinya (Tigray and Eritrea) and Tigré (Eritrea) all descended from the Tewahdo liturgical Ge’ez and they all use the Ge’ez alphabet, while Afaan-Oromo uses the Latin Alphabet, developed since the 1970s. 

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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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