Ethiopia: Orthodox Church split is political hot potato for Abiy

By The Africa Report

Posted on Friday, 10 February 2023 13:55
An Ethiopian Orthodox priest holds out the orthodox cross for a beleiver to kiss in the courtyard of the Elias church in the mountains surrounding Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa. AFP PHOTO/Roberto SCHMIDT (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP)

Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christian Church is locked in a bitter dispute with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, alleging state interference in church affairs and threatening to hold mass protests this weekend, with the institution facing an historic schism. 

The crisis erupted last month when three rebel archbishops ordained 26 new bishops from Oromia and Southern Ethiopia, claiming their cultures were marginalised by the mainstream Orthodox clergy. They have formed a breakaway group called the ‘Holy Synod of Oromia and Nations and Nationalities’.

Orthodox Church leaders responded by ex-communicating all but one of the new clergy. In a statement, they accused the breakaway bishops of “dismantling” the institutional structure of the church in an “illegal act of betrayal”.

Abiy intervenes

Abiy waded into the dispute last week when he called on the two factions to reconcile and appeared to sympathise with demands that religious sermons be delivered in local languages. “Both sides have legitimate truths and demands,” he said. “It is possible to resolve it without suppressing the people’s right to use their native language.”

That intervention sparked outrage, with accusations that Abiy, who is from Oromia, is colluding with the new bishops to undermine the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the largest national denomination representing roughly 40% of the 120 million population. This week, large numbers of church followers wore black as a sign of protest, while hashtags claiming the church was under attack trended on social media.

Abune Yousef, archbishop of the West Arsi diocese in Oromia, alleges that the government wants to “dismantle” the 1,700-year-old Ethiopian Orthodox Church in order to shore up its flagging political support amid civil conflict and a soaring cost of living crisis. “They don’t want this strong church,” he says. “They want to make it weak and create a new one that supports their politics.”

Dispute gets violent

The dispute turned deadly on Saturday 4 February, when demonstrators clashed with police in Shashamane, a town in Abune Yousef’s diocese. Police officers and the local security forces killed “more than 30” people when they opened fire on congregation members at Shashamane’s St Michael church, according to Abune Yousef, who accused the regional Oromia government of attempting to forcibly install the new clergy in the area.

Abiy needs to handle this carefully. The public reaction is fierce.

“I heard the gunshots, I heard the screaming of the people,” says Abune Yousef. He was in Shashamane at the time, but says he was prevented from travelling to the church by police officers. Elsewhere in Oromia, local security forces have been accused of breaking into church properties and harassing priests. In Addis Ababa, the capital, 19 police officers were beaten up by angry crowds who threw stones at them.

On Friday the Ethiopian Human Rights Council said government security members used “disproportionate  force” while dispersing the protesters in Shashamane and reported that “at least eight people were shot and beaten”. It added that the new bishops have “taken over” several dioceses in Oromia, “with the support officials”.

As tensions escalate, the church has called for nationwide protests this weekend. The government is attempting to block them in the courts. Western embassies have issued travel advice, warning of violence if the protests go ahead, while some hospitals in Addis Ababa are conducting trauma drills as a precaution, in case they receive gunshot casualties. NetBlocks, an internet watchdog, reported that access to social media apps, including Telegram and Facebook, was restricted this week.

Breakaway Synod garners support

However, in parts of Oromia and Southern Ethiopia, the breakaway Synod appears to have won a degree of popular support. Its leader, Abune Sawiros, was welcomed by “thousands of supporters” when he visited the Oromia town of Woliso this week, according to local media reports.

This is because the new Synod is giving voice to grievances that are widespread and longstanding, says a close observer of Oromo politics, who did not want to be named.

The Orthodox clergy had close ties with Emperor Haile Selassie, whose imperial regime was based on the culture of the Amhara highlands and who is still seen as an oppressor by many people in other parts of Ethiopia. Until he was toppled in 1974, Orthodox Christianity was the sole state religion.

Today ethnic Amharas are disproportionately represented in the Orthodox clergy, its opponents say, and sermons are often held in Amharic and the ancient biblical language of Ge’ez, rather than local ones such as Afaan Oromo. As a result, many young Christians have turned to Protestantism, a denomination that is seen as more accommodating to Ethiopia’s other cultures.

“The Amharic-speaking clergy are attempting to maintain their historical dominance,” says the close observer of Oromo politics. “20 years ago, where I grew up, there were only one or two Protestants. Now, many youngsters are becoming Protestant because of the freedom of the language and the better attitude of the priesthood towards indigenous people.”

Referencing the Orthodox church’s dwindling popularity outside of its traditional heartland in Ethiopia’s highlands, in his intervention this week Abiy said resolving the language dispute “would be beneficial for [the church] as well as our country”.

Ethiopia’s diverse cultures

Hailemichael Tadesse, a spokesperson for the new Synod, says the church’s alleged failure to accommodate Ethiopia’s diverse cultures means it has failed to uphold the sacred principle of universality. “The church should be able to speak to all nations and nationalities, but it is restricted to just a few languages,” he says.

However, he says reconciliation could be easily achieved. “If they negotiate and are ready to welcome all or some of the bishops who were appointed recently, this would increase representation and resolve the issue of language,” he says.

In 2019, a similar dispute gripped the church, but it was resolved behind closed doors. It is possible that Abiy has intervened in today’s ecclesiastical crisis to revive his flagging popularity in Oromia. The region is gripped by an ethno-nationalist insurgency and home to a large constituency of disillusioned young people who claim a sense of political and economic marginalisation within Ethiopia’s federal system.

Even so, this tactic may have backfired, considering the backlash among the faithful. “Abiy needs to handle this carefully,” says an analyst. “The public reaction is fierce.”

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