In Ethiopia, religious extremism fans the flames of ethnic division

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Wednesday, 18 September 2019 13:50

Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christians claim they are victims of a "planned and orchestrated attack". REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Ethiopian Christians took to the streets after morning mass on Sunday to protest multiple attacks on Ethiopian Orthodox churches in the country.

The protests were mainly centered in the Amhara region and parts of Addis Ababa, and follow a year-long spate of attacks on both Orthodox and Protestant churches in the country. Protestors are demanding an end to what they view as “a planned and orchestrated attack on the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church”, according to a report on

  • Thousands protested despite church organisations announcing on Friday that the action was postponed in favour of dialogue.
  • Diaspora communities are also planning a similar protest on 19 September in four North American cities.

Like many such issues in Ethiopia, the attacks on houses of worship have taken an increasingly ethno-nationalist form. The growing religious violence has raised fears of politically-instigated extremism pitting the largely Christian population (60%) and Muslim populations (35%) against each other.

  • Since July 2018, over 30 churches have been destroyed, most of them in Jijiga, the capital of the Somali region.
  • In August 2018, BBC Amharic reported that seven priests had been killed and seven churches burnt in Jijiga, according to a report by BBC Amharic.
  • Two attacks in March and April 2019 in Jijiga left 12 people dead, while five churches were attacked in Sidama in July, resulting in three deaths.

Political interests and fake news

On 9 February, 10 churches belonging to eight different Christian denominations were destroyed in Southern Ethiopia after fake reports that mosques had been attacked in Durame, a town in south-east Ethiopia.

  • The next day, two mosques were attacked in Amhara after unconfirmed reports indicated that scrap paper from a Muslim wedding’s decorations included desecrated images of St. Mary. A third mosque was burnt a few days later.
  • “The act is a deliberate move by those who want to use religion to wreak havoc in the country,” the Amhara Media Agency quoted Islamic Council secretary general Sheikh Mohammed Hassan after the attacks.

Although such attacks have happened in Ethiopia before, notably in 2011, the fast escalation at a time of increasingly divisive politics is a major concern. While the ruling EPRDF alliance has worked to reduce the power of religious groups in the country, religion and ethno-nationalism tend to intersect in many ways.

  • One of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first acts of reconciliation on being elected was to bring the main Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a splinter group based in the United States back together.
  • The mid-September 2019 protests came after the church’s highest body, the Holy Synod, held an emergency meeting to discuss a new splinter group in the Oromo region. The group, headed by Kesis Belay Mekonnen, is demanding the church be re-structured like the government, with autonomous ethnic regions and a federal structure.
  • A central reason for that demand is that the church’s liturgical language, Ge’ez, is considered outdated, while the alternative, Amharic, is divisive because of its roots.

In a meeting with the Prime Minister before the September protests, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church told him that his government had failed the church.

Buffer against Islamic extremism

While Muslims have raised similar concerns, they are wary of increased government interference due to the EPRDF’s history. Throughout 2012, for example, Muslims in Ethiopia protested state control of the Supreme Islamic Council. They took issue with the state’s promotion of Al-Ahbash, a pacifist Muslim sect buttressed in Ethiopia.

  • In early 2013, the country’s then only publicly funded TV station aired a documentary, titled Jihadawi Harekat [Arabic for jihadi movement] attempting to link the protest’s leadership with Boko Haram, Ansar Din, and Al-Shabaab.
  • “By and large, the EPRDF tends to favour what it calls hager beqel islimina (home-grown Islam) or nebaru islimina (indigenous Islam), euphemisms to refer to the ‘tolerant’ and ‘apolitical’ Sufi over the ‘militant’ Wahhabi/Salafi with a ‘political agenda’” Dereje Feyissa, a scholar at Addis Ababa University, wrote in a paper in 2011.

The move by Meles Zenawi’s government was meant to buffer the country from radical Islamic elements present and active in neighbouring countries, notably Somalia. While Ethiopia has experienced far fewer terrorist attacks than Kenya – one of its military partners in the war against the militants of Al-Shabaab – there is evidence that its population is now a primary target for recruitment by international terrorist groups.

  • In April, attorney general Berhanu Tsegaye said that security forces had arrested several people with links to international terrorist networks, specifically naming Al-Shabaab.
  • In August, Islamic State militants in Somalia said they would release recruitment material in Amharic, and released a video that included chants in Amharic.
  • The next month, the government announced that it had arrested an unspecified number of Islamic State members in the country.

According to journalist Zecharias Zelalem, attempts to recruit via social media in Amharic had been ongoing for five years:

The presence of international terror groups in Ethiopia raises the stakes, as increased religious intolerance will boost recruitment, as well as worsen the security crisis. The ongoing attacks and counter-attacks point to a growing radicalism on both sides of the religious divide, with tacit support from politicians.

Bottom line:

For Abiy Ahmed, the growing intolerance is one of many interconnected issues, as it cannot be solved without solving the economic as well as social issues that Africa’s second most populous country is facing. But leaving it unresolved in a country where religion is an important social and political heritage is not an option.



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