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Abiy Ahmed was lauded for unifying Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church, but the recent split in Oromia and its role in the Tigray war indicate the institution is increasingly divided.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) is deeply woven into the history, tradition, and identity of millions of Ethiopians. However, there are divisions within the Church, and regional variations in political ideologies and traditions have typically not been welcomed.
Since coming to power, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has taken advantage of divisions within the EOTC and instrumentalized its most radical wing, the Mahibere Kidusan, to consolidate his power, and also harnessed the Pentecostal churches to influence grassroots politics.
The Mahibere Kidusan is a religious association with visible political interests established in the early 1990s under the EOTC’s Sunday School Department with branches in regional dioceses, including in Tigray, whose most active and influential members are the ‘educated’ youth.
Its proponents seek to resurrect what they see as the Orthodox Church’s glorious past and to fully immerse it in the country’s politics. Among its five objectives is the desire to preserve the “dignity and fame” of the Church’s fathers.
The Mahibere Kidusan’s broader mission is to re-establish the Church’s pre-1974 role when there was no separation between church and state. In his analysis of its ideology, Andrew DeCort has rightly called this a form of Christian nationalism.
The EOTC’s Patriarch failed to disassociate this organization from Church teachings in 2011. Its branch in Tigray has been challenged since 2005 and—amid the Tigray war, which members of the Mahibere Kidusan openly supported—was banned from the region in 2022.
The involvement of Ethiopia’s religious institutions in supporting the Abiy regime and its wars in Tigray, Oromia, and elsewhere clearly demonstrates their political salience. While the causes of Ethiopia’s instability are complex and multi-faceted, the role played by its religious institutions cannot be overlooked.
Ethiopia is often lauded as a country in which religious diversity has been a strength rather than something that has sown divisions in society.
Eloi Ficquet, a distinguished scholar of Ethiopian history and cultures, rightly questions whether “too much focus on situations of peaceful coexistence may lead to an inflation of politically correct and empty statements.”
Eloi has extensively researched the Wollo Muslims of Ethiopia, an oft-cited example of coexistence among Muslims and Christians.
Ethiopia’s history is complex and has left its marks on religious coexistence. The EOTC was the foundation of the country’s spiritual and political life. As such, much of Ethiopian history has been written in the name of the Christian highland peoples.
The EOTC has been part of the imperial project since the mid-fifth century. The EOTC and nationalism were inseparable until the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, a link that persists today despite the official separation of church and state.
An example of the lack of religious tolerance, despite its existence in Ethiopia since the seventh century, Islam was sidelined for centuries, as members of the Muslim community have rightly argued.
It’s notable that many Oromos are Muslim, and religion is another dimension of their political, economic, and cultural subjugation by the highland Ethiopians since Menelik II’s bloody conquest of the southern regions in the late nineteenth century.
Ethiopia’s history is one of conquest and wars, often driven by religion, in a ritualized process that Christopher Clapham, a renowned scholar of Ethiopia, calls the “obsession” with a great tradition. Prophecies of the arrival of a “divinely anointed king” to save the Christians are not unusual.
Richard Reid, an eminent historian of the region, has summarized the EOTC’s role in Ethiopian history as such: “Ethiopia’s history—at least according to a particular interpretation—is defined by war. That violence has been defined by faith in the most fundamental ways.”
In recent years, inter-religious animosities have risen, and radical Orthodox Christian groups warn that Ethiopia is vulnerable to Islamic extremism.
Ethiopia is thus a good example of how religious tolerance does not necessarily entail the absence of religious tensions and even violent conflict.
There is a long history of divisions within the Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church.
One notable deadly split took place in the second half of the nineteenth century. The conflict was settled at the council of Boru Meda in 1878 where the declaration was made that “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are eternally inseparably together.” Hence, the Ge’ez term tewahedo, meaning unison, was included in the Church’s name.
The EOTC was also politically divided from 1991 to 2018.
After the Derg regime was overthrown in 1991, the EOTC’s then-patriarch, Abune Merkorios, left the country and facilitated an administrative split from the EOTC.
While the schism was more administrative than dogmatic, there are indications of political causes which are rarely discussed. The biography of Abune Merkorios shows that before he became a Patriarch in 1988, he had served as a member of the Shengo (parliament) of the military regime.
Originally from Gondar, Abune Merkorios supported the Derg and resisted the EPRDF ruling coalition. Orthodox Christian nationalists blame the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Tigray for introducing a federal structure and freedom of religion in 1995.
In Ethiopia, Abune Merkorios was succeeded by Abune Paulos, who led the Church until his death on 16 August 2012. He was only replaced on 28 February 2013 by Abune Mathias, who is Tigrayan and thus struggled to maintain support within the institution.
Abiy received widespread praise when, on 1 August 2018, Abune Merkorios returned home as a “spiritual head” of the “unified church”, while administrative authority was reserved for Abune Mathias.
At the time, many thought Prime Minister Abiy, as an evangelical leader, had healed a schism in one of the world’s oldest churches.
In reality, critics argue, Abiy and his followers—the protestant church in particular—saw the EOTC as a core foundation of power in Ethiopia that needed to be dismantled for cultural and political purposes.
A year after this unification, EOTC officials criticized Abiy for not protecting Orthodox Christians. Similarly, in 2020, the EOTC decried the killings of Orthodox Christians in Oromia’s West Arsi Zone. According to the Church, government structures were “exploited” to implement the massacres.
When Abune Merkorios died on 3 March 2022, deep division within the EOTC worsened and came to a head in recent weeks.
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The Oromo Orthodox Tewahedo Christians of Ethiopia first attempted to establish their regional episcopacy in 2019. On 22 January 2022, three archbishops and 26 episcopates unilaterally broke away from the Holy Synod and established a rival synod in Oromia.
The breakaway leaders accused the Holy Synod of being culturally dominated by the Amhara ethnic group and discriminating against Oromos.
On 15 February 2023, the Church reached a deal with the breakaway Oromo synod, again in the presence of Prime Minister Abiy. As part of the deal, the Holy Synod reinstated the three clerics and agreed to allocate resources to ensure there are more Afaan Oromo speaking priests and high-ranking members of the clergy.
Some believe the prime minister arranged the “unity” of the Holy Synod in 2018 with a sinister political agenda to divide the Church and use its massive following to support the war in Tigray.
In the name of unity, the EOTC ended up openly supporting the government’s political agenda and the Tigray war.
However, there were reports that Abune Mathias was under house arrest and restricted from speaking. When he had the chance, the Patriarch did speak through a message recorded by a visitor’s mobile phone, and said that genocide was being committed in Tigray.
On the recording, Abune Mathias says, “Many barbarisms have been conducted these days all over Ethiopia … but what is happening in Tigray is of the highest brutality and cruelty.”
His statements were openly criticized by members of the EOTC and bishops. It also appears that Abune Mathias has since been silenced by political and religious leaders.
While working within his Pentecostal circle under the Ethiopian Evangelical Council, the Prime Minister appointed Daniel Kibret, one of the most radical deacons from the Mahibere Kidusan, as his social affairs advisor.
This decision heralded Abiy’s plan to use the EOTC and hate speech for his political agenda. In his media campaigns, Daniel uses religious icons and prophesies to disseminate hate speech and religious extremism, including discussion about ways to eliminate Tigrayans.
Using a Qene, a form of poetry with a double meaning, Daniel prepared the setting for ethnic cleansing. As the war moved closer to Addis Abeba, and in synergy with his social affairs advisor, Abiy declared a state of emergency on 5 November 2021.
On 24 December 2021, Daniel tweeted one of his deadliest messages, calling for the federal government to prepare for more war. Following this tweet, thousands of Tigrayans were arbitrarily arrested and sent to makeshift prisons in Addis Abeba and other parts of Ethiopia.
Tigrayans from every sector were targeted, and not even those working for the UN were spared. Residents of Addis Abeba were told to arm themselves with whatever they had.
As the government crackdown on Tigrayans continued, the EOTC released a statement supporting the war.
The EOTC’s Tigray Diocese asked the church in Addis Abeba to protect civilians, denounced the brutalities committed in Tigray by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies, as well as the Amhara Fano militias, and threatened to split from the Holy Synod in Addis Abeba.
Divisions within the church over the war culminated in the birth of the Tigray Orthodox Tewahedo Church (TOTC), which has strong support among the Tigrayan diaspora.
The TOTC has been slowly distancing itself from the Holy Synod and establishing its own Church, the See of Selama Kessate Beharan Archdiocese. As these developments show, the historical Shewa-Tigray animosity remains visible within the EOTC’s administration.
Where are no clear dogmatic differences and this split appears to be political, a letter sent from the Tigray Orthodox Church Council of Bishops to the Holy Synod in Addis Abeba indicated that—in addition to its silence during the war and cooperation with the Ethiopian government and its allies—“wrong teaching and traditions” will be corrected.
The TOTC declined a call by the Holy Synod to normalize relations and blamed it for endorsing a “war of genocide” that was declared on the people of Tigray. It alleges the EOTC was asked to condemn inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech from its monks, priests, and deacons but refused to do so.
Despite the warming of relations between political leaders in Addis Abeba and Mekelle after signing the 2 November 2022 Pretoria agreement, the religious schism has persisted.
As for the Catholic Church, Musie Ghebreghorghis, a Catholic bishop of southwestern Ethiopia, once said of Prime Minister Abiy, “We consider him a prophet sent by the Lord.”
Despite repeated calls from Catholic bishops in Tigray, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew was suspected of supporting the war both in moral and material terms. As evidence, the Cardinal of Ethiopia ignored the desperate call from bishops in Tigray who warned him of a “devastating genocidal war”.
There are also reports of influential Islamic leaders in Ethiopia who supported the war. The Tigray Islamic Affairs Regional Council criticized the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council for supporting the war and threatened to split from it.
Evangelical Christianity is on the rise in Ethiopia and has an ideological and practical link to the Tigray war.
There has been a steady shift in religious demography in the past fifty years and more so in the last three decades. According to social scientist Emanuele Fantini, the Protestant Church in Ethiopia was less than 1 percent of the population in the 1960s and had grown to nearly 19 percent by 2007, making it one of the fastest-growing churches in the world.
The “Prosperity Gospel” philosophy which Prime Minister Abiy subscribes to has a direct role in shaping the views of nearly four million evangelicals in Ethiopia. Abiy himself said before parliament that he had come to power to fulfill his mother’s prophecy that he would become the seventh king of Ethiopia, and feels he is doing God’s work.
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In 2018, many Ethiopians believed that Abiy was a prophet. One Ethiopian scholar wrote, “Wild appreciation for Abiy is not a delusional obsession. It is a rational appreciation of his rescue of the country and supreme leadership skills.”
Since then, spiritually driven political and military campaigns are on the rise—especially among Amhara Nationalists. Abiy’s power is deeply rooted in this “Prosperity Party Gospel” spirit, and he continues to receive spiritual guidance from the Ethiopian Evangelical Council that he established in 2019.
In a recent interview, an advisor to the prime minister openly disclosed the presence of the “spirit” of Pentecost in the palace. What we are witnessing in Abiy’s Ethiopia is a political theology in the making.
Yonas Biru, an Ethiopian scholar based in the US, has warned that, “One of the most dangerous developments that have occurred since PM Abiy came to power is the evangelical seduction of the nation’s political governance.”
He establishes a direct link between the war and the infiltration of religion into the government.
Amid the war, however, at least one fellow evangelical denounced the war and warned that Abiy is no longer fit for office.
Prime Minister Abiy used existing cracks within the EOTC and the influence of new evangelical movements to consolidate his power.
After he received praise for supposedly unifying a divided Church in 2018, the EOTC is now more divided than ever, most notably in Tigray and Oromia.
The role of the EOTC, with its radical Mahibere Kidusan group—along with the rise of Pentecostals and the Prosperity Party—has been both a causative factor and fueling contributor to the Tigray war, and has produced a split within the Church in Tigray.
Beyond the role of Ethiopia’s institutions in fomenting divisions, the Tigray war has also seen priests systematically targeted and religious artefacts destroyed. According to a leaked official church letter, at least 78 priests were massacred in one zone in Tigray.
In addition, the Waldeba Monastery, the oldest in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the al-Nejashi Mosque, one of the first mosques in Africa, were attacked, with the former destroyed and its monastic community brutally massacred.
Thus, while conflict in Ethiopia is typically framed according to its political and ethnic dimensions, religion and religious institutions have also played a central role.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: “Ethiopian Orthodox clergy at Holy Trinity Cathedral (3)“; Addis Ababa; 10 October 2013; Prof. Mortel; Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
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