Ethiopia finds itself in the midst of another dispute, this time involving religion, just months after ending a deadly conflict in North Ethiopia and while dealing with another bloody internal strife in Oromia Region.
On January 26, 2023, three archbishops announced the appointment of nearly twenty bishops for the Oromia and southern Ethiopia regions, led by His Holiness Abune Sawiros. The formation of a new synod, according to Sawiros, is required to prevent the church from being swallowed by other religions, which was the justification for the action.
“The crises happening now in the church were created in the past sixty years. Church leaders have been appointed to Oromia and the southern regions from only one ethnic group. These church leaders are foreign to the language and culture of worshipers in Oromia,” Sawiros said.
He asserts that, as a result, a sizeable portion of Oromia’s devotees have been converting to other religions that practice in Afan Oromo. “We need orthodox leaders, preachers, and bishops who serve our people in their language. This question has been ignored in the past and caused the Orthodox Church to lose worshipers. Over 85 percent of the existing synod is comprised of one ethnic group. We hereby announce the formation of a new synod that is comprised of all ethnic groups in the country.”
Analysts worry that the call from the archbishops for equal power representation in the church is turning into a political issue, despite the claims of the breakaway religious leaders that the issue is primarily religious.
Because the move was undertaken without the acknowledgement of the existing synod, the new synod technically constituted a parallel synod with equal power to the current synod. Abune Mathias I, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EOTC), immediately declared the bishops and the Abune Sawiros-led team illegal.
The patriarch referred to the group as “radicals.”
Conflict has erupted in a number of towns throughout the region as the bishops chosen by the two patriarchs attempt to seize control of the churches in some parts of Oromia. Additionally, worshipers are split between the current synod and the breakaway groups. At least eight individuals have been killed in some localities, such as Shashemene, as a result of the security authorities’ efforts to stop worshipers from fighting one another. Government used excessive force, according to Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) comments on the matter, however, were what compelled the EOTC to take the case to the Federal High Court.
“When worshipers from a regional state request that church services be delivered in their local language, I cannot stop the request,” he said. “This issue was raised two years ago, and we recommended solving it through discussion. It has now happened again. When the Tigray established its own synod, nobody said anything. But when Oromia tries to do the same thing, everybody is arguing.
Abiy asserts that no member of his cabinet is permitted to engage in this activity and that the Prosperity Party (PP) has made significant efforts to bring the church together. “No other Ethiopian ruler except the kings has done more for the church than my government. I unified the EOTC that disintegrated during the EPRDF.”
However, the EOTC initiated the legal proceeding, alleging, among other things, that the government had violated the constitution, interfered in church affairs, and provided the breakaway organization with state-backed protection.
The Ethiopian Constitution specifies in Article 11 that “the state shall not interfere in religious matters, and religion shall not interfere in state affairs,” while Article 27 of the constitution also provides that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”
According to philosophy, while religions control the spirit, governments control the physical body. Therefore, since they both deal with the same subject, politics and religion cannot be wholly separated.
“Though modern constitutions pledge secularism, naturally a clearly defined line cannot be drawn that can separate politics and religion. Both governments and religion share the same sociocultural base. A person serves both government and religion,” said a legal expert in constitutional law.
Another key border politics and religion share in Ethiopia, is the country itself, according to the expert. “The Orthodox Church, in particular, is seen as a part of Ethiopia’s state formation and as woven into the nation’s fabric. Until Derg, no king could rule Ethiopia without the blessing of the church. For the church and its believers, the church is Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is the church. This perception cannot be deleted, whether it is constitutionally secularized or not. However, in times of ethnically polarized politics, it is not surprising that regional states request separate Holy Synods along the federal structure.”
Many worry that the current tension may leave even more scars in Ethiopia, despite the fact that conflicts with the government and within the church are not unusual.
The way out
The pursuit of peace and stability is a core goal shared by politics and religion. Without internal calm and sanity, a country cannot be politically coherent.
“In essence, neither politics nor religion can emerge from this situation as the victor. Finding the fine line or the middle ground is far more important,” a political expert said.
The Prime Minister has already stated the government’s position that orthodoxy should be inclusive of the country’s various ethnic languages in order to align with the country’s federal system and political directions. The government has been preparing to introduce up to five additional official working languages, which have been limited to Amharic.
Hence, negotiations and reaching a consensus are essential for the two orthodox groups. However, many agree that coming to a round table is impossible unless the PM intervenes.
“After the PM’s speech, EOTC concluded the government is providing coverage for the breakaway group led by Abun Sawiros. That is why the EOTC is mobilizing worshippers across the country. This will escalate the issue. But if the PM shows that the government is truly neutral, it will be simple for the two groups to communicate,” an insider close to the Church said.
Leaders of the breakaway synod led by Sawiros also mentioned several historical quotes that indicated the church has not been inclusive of the Oromos. Of course, all the religious and political crises happening in Ethiopia today are intertwined and deeply rooted in the history of the country, which requires serious national dialogue and an altar of consensus.
The breakaway team made false accusations, stating that Sawiros’s team could do much within the EOTC to change the language issues related to Afan Oromo, according to insiders in the church. These insiders argue those bishops in Abune Mathews’ team could continue their struggle within the church without the breakaway.
A religious leader in the EOTC, who spoke to The Reporter anonymously, said that the ruling party is just using the language case as a pretext to intervene in the EOTC and that its nature is to control everything, including religion.
“The government elevated its own leaders to positions of authority in Muslim and protestant religious institutions. So far, the EOTC is the only religion that has been resisting such moves by the government, which is now threatening the Church with a parallel entity because it cannot overtake the EOTC itself.” He argues the breakaway team cannot go far if the state backing is removed.
Observers say that the breakaway team has also raised its own legitimate issues, which are related to equal representation in the EOTC and language issues. But for many, this is not the time to entertain any internal strife, which they warn is creating a fertile ground for foreign forces looking for any loophole to assert their interests.