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The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church appears to have resolved a month-long schism that sparked deadly clashes after a rival synod was formed, but divisions remain that risk tearing the institution, and the country, apart.
One of the world’s oldest Christian churches, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), has faced a crisis in recent weeks over the formation of a new synod in Oromia.
The crisis started on 22 January when three archbishops ordained 26 episcopates in Waliso town, Oromia, without the Addis Abeba-based Holy Synod’s permission, forming what they called the Holy Synod of Oromia and Nations and Nationalities.
Abuna Sawiros, who headed the new synod, declared that such a move was necessary to ensure that spiritual fathers familiar with the culture and language of churches in Oromia and other regions are appointed. He claimed the EOTC’s tendency to “appoint spiritual fathers from one area [Amhara]…caused the followers of the church to leave.”
On 10 January, the Holy Synod denounced the ordainment as illegal and retaliated by excommunicating the three archbishops and 25 of the newly ordained episcopates, while one individual who repented before the Church’s decision was spared.
The new synod responded on 27 January by excommunicating twelve archbishops of the Holy Synod.
Soon thereafter, the new synod appointed its bishops throughout dioceses in Oromia and the Southern Nations region, followed by militant takeovers of these churches. Government forces, especially Oromia Special Forces, were reportedly involved in supporting these takeovers.
Clashes subsequently took place between supporters of the new synod and the traditional Holy Synod.
The state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has documented excessive use of force by government security forces during such clashes in Shashemene, the capital of West Arsi Zone in Oromia.
The incident took place after the police used unrestrained measures to disperse a gathering that was preventing the takeover of the St. Michael Church by bishops of the new synod. At least eight people were killed and many more injured.
According to the report, individuals working alongside the security forces were also involved in the killings and caused injuries to an unknown number of people. The report highlighted similar incidents observed in other cities.
After the two synods reached an agreement on 15 February, the Church has been re-unified and the crisis appears to have been resolved—at least for the time being.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described the matter as an internal affair, calling on both sides to resolve their differences through dialogue. He instructed cabinet members not to get involved and claimed that both sides “have truths”.
These comments sparked the wrath of the Holy Synod, whose leaders accused Abiy—who is Pentecostal and thus not a member of the EOTC—of openly siding with the splinter group by putting it on equal footing with the Church’s legitimate authority.
In reaction to the prime minister’s address, the Holy Synod called an urgent assembly, declaring three days of fasting and prayer. Its patriarch, Abuna Mathias, also called for a peaceful protest on 12 February, a move that was forbidden by the government.
The Holy Synod condemned federal authorities’ outlawing of this planned protest, calling this move a “declaration to destroy the church once and for all,” and urged its followers to still heed their call.
“The government’s act of denying us the peaceful protest is unacceptable as it is our legal right which is recognized both by international law and our constitution,” said the EOTC’s office of the Patriarchate.
Its general manager also, rather ominously, called on the EOTC’s followers to be prepared “for the coming suffering and martyrdom.”
However, on 11 February, following a discussion with the prime minister in which he pledged to address church demands, the Holy Synod postponed the protest.
Nevertheless, citing the government’s failure to enforce the law, the church formed a legal team, announcing it would take the case to the Federal High Court.
According to the church’s legal team, three former bishops and the 25 newly appointed bishops were banned by the court from entering any premises of the Orthodox Church countrywide.
The current split in the EOTC is driven by the long-standing ethnic rivalry and power struggle between the Oromo and Amhara, the two largest ethnic groups in the country.
Leaders of the new synod claim to be resisting the cultural and linguistic dominance of other groups within the EOTC, most notably Amharas, and accuse the church of discriminating against Oromos.
The attempt to form a rival synod is seen by some as a manifestation of a growing demand by the Oromo to take on a larger role in Ethiopia’s socio-political space, which had previously been dominated by Amharas and Tigrayans.
If Abuna Sawiros’ synod had its way, Oromia and large parts of southern Ethiopia would have come under their control, depriving the Addis Abeba synod of its main sources of finance.
This explains why the breakaway bishops claimed that 85 percent of the Holy Synod is from one ethnic group. They allege the Holy Synod has always been monopolized by Amharas.
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Although the current and previous patriarchs appointed under the former ruling coalition, the EPRDF, were Tigrayans—and the EPRDF was known to censor or script the EOTC’s public positions while in power—neither patriarch was popular within the institution.
Upon coming to power, Abiy was praised for unifying the Church following the return of Patriarch Merkorewos, who left the country after the EPRDF took power in 1991 and had appointed archbishops in exile who were Amharas openly hostile to the EPRDF and its multinational federal constitution.
Following this most recent schism, many believe Abiy’s tacit support for the breakaway clergy signals an attempt to weaken the EOTC while simultaneously regaining the trust of his long-lost Oromo support base.
Beyond Oromo-Amhara divisions within the church, many Tigrayans have denounced the EOTC—particularly the controversial Mahibere Kidusan faction within it, but also members of the breakaway faction in Oromia—after many archbishops openly supported the war in Tigray.1
Owing to the EOTC’s controversial position on the Tigray war, Mahibere Kidusan has been banned in Tigray and Mahibere Kidus Yared, composed of theology graduates of Frumentius Theological College of Mekelle, has taken over its role.
Abune Mathias, the EOTC’s patriarch who is Tigrayan, caused a controversy in May 2021 when he said genocide is taking place in Tigray, but has since remained silent—likely owing to pressure exerted on him. The secretary of the Holy Synod quickly made it clear that the patriarch’s opinion didn’t reflect its own position.
On 15 February, the two sides came to an understanding after exhaustive discussions in the presence of the prime minister and traditional elders.
Under the agreement, the 25 episcopates who were ordained by the schismatic synod are to renounce their titles and return to their former positions. However, those who qualify will be given the opportunity to be re-ordained at the upcoming meeting of the clergy in May.
Moreover, the three archbishops who led the Oromo Church in making demands—Abune Sawiros, Abune Ewstatewos, and Abune Zena Markos—will be reinstated to their former positions.
The Addis Abeba-based synod, in return, agreed that greater efforts should be expended in providing services and lessons in the local languages to meet the demands of the people, and that sufficient resources will be provided to facilitate this.
It also decided to establish additional colleges and seminaries to train local ministers who understand the native language. These commitments are designed to ensure more Oromos are ordained and can become high ranking members of the clergy.
For the time being, it appears the reconciliation between the Addis Abeba and exiled synods facilitated by Abiy has further consolidated the dominance of pro-unionist archbishops of Amhara descent within the Holy Synod.
Despite this resolution, the complicated relationship between the EOTC and the state is likely to keep causing tension and controversy. If not dealt with carefully, such fractures may heighten long-standing ethnic rivalries and further destabilize the country.
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