Over a year after the ascent of a new prime minister in Ethiopia bred hope for reform, bursting ethnic tensions are sending the country into a spiral of violence that is leaving churches and worshipers subject to property damage and murder.
Thirty churches, mostly Ethiopian Orthodox, have been attacked, 18 have been burned to the ground, and almost 100 worshipers have been killed since July 2018, Tewodros Tirfe, chairman of the Amhara Association of America, an organization that advocates on behalf of Ethiopia’s Amhara people, told the Washington Examiner. Christians and non-Christians alike have been caught up in the crossfire of heightened ethnic and political violence. Earlier this month, Ethiopian Orthodox church leaders and government officials met, while Christians protested the violence directed at them.
The protests and meetings have yet to produce a concrete plan of action from the government, although they are a major problem for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has struggled to control violence among the country’s roughly 80 ethnic groups, despite inspiring optimism across the world when he assumed office last April.
Vice President Mike Pence praised Abiy last July, lauding his “historic reform efforts,” noting his work “improving respect for human rights, reforming the business environment, and making peace with Eritrea.” Abiy oversaw the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and a CNN report from December labeled him the prime minister “who captured Africa’s imagination.”
Yet while Abiy ushered in a period of greater freedom, his reforms also opened the door to Ethiopians demanding new rights and addressing grievances through violence.
“What happened when Abiy came to power is just this cathartic relief of frustrations from all kinds of different types of communities — religious, ethnic, political — people were finally able to speak,” said Felix Horne, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Horne added that the state does not appear to be taking seriously issues of law and order. In some cases, the central government will leave ethnic disputes over land to local authorities, despite the fact these lower-level authorities tend to be tied to a certain side in the disputes.
Ethiopia’s political structure and geography reinforces these ethnic divisions, as state boundaries roughly coincide with ethnic boundaries. Ethiopia is also surrounded by countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan, which are dealing with terrorism and other forms of political violence. As Ethiopia has witnessed a breakdown of internal security, Horne noted the country’s border has also grown more porous, allowing small arms to enter the country and make ethnic conflict deadlier. About three million people are internally displaced from conflict, more than anywhere else in the world.
“People are relying on their ethnicities, and they will kill you or they will murder you for the reason that you do not belong to their tribes,” Father Nehemiah Getu, a Maryland-based Ethiopian Orthodox priest, told the Washington Examiner.
Ethiopian churches have not been spared the consequences of this violence, and ethnic resentments likely play a role. Through the late 20th century, the Ethiopian Orthodox church was closely connected to the state and the Amharas, who were the dominant ethnic group, and many members of other ethnic groups perceive the church as a tool of repression.
“As much as landlords or emperors or local administrators were seen as part of the oppressive power structure, the Orthodox church was also seen as part of it,” said William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit group working to prevent wars. “It is those perceptions that contribute to the historic grievances of some Oromo groups and other ethnic communities that consider themselves to have been marginalized.”
“Those dynamics — current political disputes that have historical roots — help to explain the attacks on churches,” said Davison.
And while longstanding ethnic resentments tied to perceptions of the church and Amhara people as oppressors may partially account for hostility toward churches, the immediate causes behind attacks has differed from one incident to the next.
“Conflict has been occurring for different reasons and has involved different groups, so you can’t characterize it in one simple way,” said Davison, who added that reported attacks on churches “occurred during incidents when other types of property were damaged as well.”
Last August, worshipers and priests in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia were killed after the regional governor, who was on the brink of being removed from power by the central government, ordered mobs of supporters to attack non-Somalis. Many of the non-Somalis in the region are Christian, said Horne, so the mobs attacked churches and other institutions important to Christians.
In July, Davison said, Doya St. Michael Church and others in the Sidama district were reportedly damaged in the midst of a different type of political conflict. The Sidama want their own regional state but have run into opposition from non-Sidama groups, which stirred violence that affected churches over the summer.
Regardless of the motivations behind the attacks, Tirfe wants the government to take action to secure churches.
“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should not stay silent, because the longer he’s silent and does not take action, Ethiopians and the perpetrators will view it as this is not a priority for Abiy Ahmed’s administration,” said Tirfe. “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has already stated they will take matters into their own hands to safeguard their faith if the government cannot.”