Category Archives: Religion and Conflict

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

by Habtom Yohannes | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

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.  

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On the Conflict in Tigray

by Romina Istratii | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

*Please note that this essay was authored two days before the reported re-taking of the regional capital Mekelle by the Tigray Defence Forces, which has led the federal government to declare a ceasefire.

Mountains of the Tigray region

On November 4, 2020, the federal government of Ethiopia began a military operation in the region of Tigray in northern Ethiopia. In the eight months of on-going conflict, involving the Tigray People’s Liberation Front/Tigray Defence Forces on the one side and the Ethiopian federal army supported by the Eritrean Defence Forces on the other, innumerable reports have emerged about indiscriminate artillery strikes on residential areas and civilians; the systematic raping of women and girls; the intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment of ethnic Tigrayans; and the looting and destruction of property, hospitals, and religious sites and treasures by federal and ally militant elements. Humanitarian agencies consistently report that a man-made famine is unfolding in Tigray due to restrictions to farming and the systematic looting of agricultural materials by federal and Eritrean soldiers. A June report by the crisis group ACAPS (“Tigray crisis – Impact of conflict on food security, agriculture and livelihoods”) noted that the region is now classified in IPC phase 4, which means that it is facing Emergency Outcomes, with 350,000 people being in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). Moreover, since the start of the conflict hundreds of thousands have fled their communities, with some villages/towns being entirely emptied, seeking refuge in the regional capital Mekelle or camps in surrounding regions and at the border with Sudan. In April 2021, CARE reported that the conflict had led to the displacement of “over 417,152 people predominantly women and children” (“Tigray Conflict Rapid Gender Analysis”).

The current situation is personally agonizing, as I previous conducted long-term anthropological research in Tigray, and I have been working since 2016 to understand local communities’ experiences of domestic violence and to help to address the problem from within the local religio-cultural framework of the predominantly Orthodox Täwahǝdo population of Tigray. In November 2020, I relocated to Ethiopia with the intention of travelling back to Tigray’s Aksum city to pilot an intervention working with clergy and secular stakeholders and providers in the surrounding villages. The war erupted just as we prepared to start the project, terminating all our communication with partner institutions in Mekelle and Aksum and making it impossible to know the conditions of our colleagues and the communities there (communication has been partially restored since).

Much has been written about the conflict, and due to the ethnic tensions and grievances that underpin it, there have been conflicting narratives around it. In this essay I am not concerned with reinforcing any of these narratives, but rather to share my personal understanding of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis as witnessed from my current location in Addis Ababa and communicated to me by colleagues in Tigray in order to stress the need for urgent and definitive responses. 

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