Churches belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) are being burned to the ground throughout Ethiopia — one of the world’s most religious countries, where about 98% of Ethiopians claim a religious affiliation. Church members have also reportedly been killed while trying to protect their churches.
These incidents of arson and murder come at a time when tensions between the country’s ethnic groups — including Oromo, Amhara and Tigrayan — are already high. Since the end of 2015, Oromo people have protested against land encroachment by the government, while the Amhara people have protested over regional integrity threats by their Tigrayan neighbors.
The government and EOTC leaders met recently in a series of hurried meetings to discuss the uptick in threats to the EOTC in the face of huge protests planned in the capital, Addis Ababa, on Sept. 15, 2019, to speak out against the attacks. Authorities did not permit demonstrations in the capital but protesters turned out in massive numbers in Gondar, and other cities.
Since July 2018, about 30 churches have been attacked, mainly in eastern and southern Ethiopia, with more than half of them burned to the ground, according to the Amhara Professionals Union (APU), a United States-based diaspora organization that has attempted to track events.
In August 2018, an estimated 10 churches were burned in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, resulting in 29 deaths, including of 8 priests. This March and April, another two churches were attacked in the Somali region’s capital, Jijiga, resulting in 12 deaths. In July, five churches were attacked with three torched in the southern Sidama zone — killing three people.
“There have been at least 15 churches that were attacked, three of which were completely burned down,” says Nathan Johnson, Africa regional manager for International Christian Concern, a US-based nongovernmental organization that monitors human rights of Christians and religious minorities around the world. “I have only confirmed two cases in which priests have been killed in Ethiopia this year. It is likely that this number is higher, though, as there are major tensions in the country.”
The attacks, occurring across a wide geographic spread, have gone largely under-investigated and under-reported, leaving some church members to feel that the Ethiopian government has turned a blind eye to the uptick in church attacks over the last year.
The EOTC — with deep historical influence — has long had a strained relationship with Ethiopia’s secular rulers. Former administrations viewed the conservative EOTC as a detriment to progress as they shifted from traditional values to a market economy.
“The government’s constant narrative [has] depicted the church as an organ of repression for previous regimes,” says Alemayhu Desta, a deacon at Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Dallas, Texas. “Local and federal authorities, for the most part, ignored the pleas of the church leaders for protection. Even the recent pleas of the Holy Synod, the highest ecclesiastical authority of the church, to the government for immediate action to protect church property and the lives of Orthodox Christians was ignored.”
Layered conflict, new leadership
Ethiopia is undergoing a period of protracted tumult. During the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s number of internally displaced people grew to 1.4 million — clashes between Oromo and Somali in both Oromia and Somali regions — exceeding IDP numbers in Syria. By the end of last year, after further clashes between the Oromo and Gedeo in Oromia’s West Guji zone, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million and remains close to that figure.
Read the full story at PRI