Editor’s note: The Author had first submitted a version of this essay to the Canopy Forum on November 1, 2022, in response to Abbink’s allegedly misleading piece published on October 26, 2022 on the same forum. The publication was, according to the author, unnecessarily delayed for a reason of conflict of interest by the editors. On January 24, 2023, the author withdrew his submission and resubmitted it to us. We’ve decided to publish the material after some editorial changes with the consent of the author.
The essay titled “Has religion been fueling the politics of conflict in Ethiopia? A cautionary tale” by John Abbink, published on October 26, 2022, deals with a relevant issue: the role of religion in the recent Tigray War. The argument posed in the essay — that religion could not have had a role in the Tigray War — emanates from the mistaken assumption that religion and conflict are not linked at all. More precisely, the question “why in a deeply religious country there is so much violence?” and the underlying premise — that religion cannot be the cause for violence — is an easy transition to what Abbink calls “instrumentalised ethnicity and elite power rivalry”. Abbink failed to realize that religion is a form of ‘governance’ and like any governance, must be scrutinized. Professor Abbink quotes the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) several times, but he fails to mention the other actors in the conflict. He has oversimplified the war to a game of elites (people who had a direct role in shaping the political culture of Ethiopia in the past 30 years) rooted in an “imposed federalism.”
Abbink sets a narrative that runs counter to the spirit of the federalism that has been practiced in Ethiopia since 1995 and is still being implemented. Au contraire, upon the demand of the people, a demand often accompanied by bloodshed, Ethiopia has guaranteed two more autonomous regions (The Sidama National Regional State and the South West Region) in the last two years. Article 8 of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia of 1994 gives the ultimate power to the country’s nations, nationalities, and peoples. As the highest form of exercising political rights, the newly formed regional states are autonomous. Hence, Abbink’s assumption and characterization of the Ethiopian federalism of the last three decades as having been imposed on Ethiopia is wrong. Ethnic federalism, which also considers the history, tradition, and settlement patterns of the people, need to be well understood. On the contrary, the political gap between federalism as stipulated in the constitution and those who called for a unitary form of government in the “great tradition” of Ethiopia led to the war and still has not been addressed.
Abbink says ‘‘politics, ideologies, and international relations’’ , not religion, are the main factors in war. I partially agree. Abbink blames the legacies of the authoritarian socialist regime (1974-1991) and “an imposed Ethnic-based federalism” from 1991 as the ideological bases of the current war. The remark on “ideology” as a cause of the war is understandable but vague and unsubstantiated — the current government uses the same ideology and legal basis established in 1991. There are no core ideological or political differences among what Abbink calls “elites” other than centralized political power, abuse of state resources and an obsessive quest for power and fame. In addition, Abbink holds the US and EU particularly responsible, but for the wrong reason–namely, that the international media narrative was “substandard and sloppy” in its reporting. But Abbink fails to question the Ethiopian government on the complete information blockade and shut down of the internet in Tigray for over two years. The government and its lobbyists had managed to shut down the Tigrayan appeal. Had it not been for a CNN report that raised the alarm of genocide, and an EU envoy’s warning and a shocking documentary out of Tigray, the world would not have learned much about the gruesome reality of the Tigray War, and this is just a glimpse of the reality.
In addition, ignoring the significant changes since the 1960s and their consequences for the people’s social, political, religious, and economic transformation is wrong. Elites are a byproduct of society — one cannot speak of the elite in isolation. In this essay, as one of the most dynamic institutions in Ethiopia, I will discuss the role of religion in fueling the Tigray War. The existing religious factions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), how the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed took advantage of the EOTC’s internal division, and the Pentecostal churches to influence grassroots politics will be discussed. In addition, I will discuss Prime Minister Abiy’s instrumentalisation of the EOTC’s most radical wing, the Mahibere-Kidusan, and its leading member to consolidate his power.
Not just Oromo and the West
In the first paragraph of his essay Professor Abbink writes about the ‘‘ideologically vague insurgency of certain rebels,” referred to as “Oromo Liberation Army,” amidst the Oromo people, who constitute approximately 35% of the Ethiopian population and who “reside in parts of western Ethiopia”. First, The Oromo Liberation Army, far from being a small rebel group, is one of the longest-running liberation fronts, and it has been fighting for self-determination since the 1970s. Second, the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country, are located not just in ‘‘parts of Western Ethiopia,’’ but also in eastern and southern Ethiopia, central Ethiopia (including Addis Ababa, which is also known as Finfinne by the Oromo people), and even northern Ethiopia (including the Amhara National Regional State). There are more Oromo people in other parts of Ethiopia than in western Ethiopia. In addition, Abbink uses the name Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), while the church calls itself Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC). Disputes over the name caused a deadly split within the church in the second half of the nineteenth century. The conflict was settled at the council of Boru Meda in 1878, where the declaration that “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are eternally inseparably together” was made, hence the Ge’ez term tewahedo, meaning “unison”.
Last but not least, Professor Abbink cites an alleged leaked document from the TPLF. There are a number of problems with the citation of such a document of dubious origins. First, the authenticity of document needed to have been verified. Second, the document is said to be translated from Amharic into English. If we give the professor the benefit of the doubt, it would mean the document was written in Tigrigna (the official language in Tigray) and translated into Amharic and finally into English — but this ought to have been made clear in the interest of honesty. The TPLF has denied ever writing the said document. These and other questions about the document must be have been verified. Like most of the sources he cites, this source was produced by the Ethiopian government. For example, the statement that TPLF forced Tigrayans to fight contradicts why and how the Tigrayans fought back out of a catastrophic situation the world ignored. Sadly, he also cites Facebook pages and suspended Twitter account messages that have not been verified. He conveniently ascribes The Mai Kadra massacre to Tigrayan forces, when in fact what happened is completely different.
The EOTC as a catalyst of Tigray War
Abbink’s argument begins with the fallacious view that religion and conflict could not be related. Religion, as much as it is about peace and life, is about violence and death. The history of religion and war tells us that being ‘religious’ is a way of life with peace and conflict an integral part of it. The fact that Ethiopians are ‘religious’ does not necessarily mean they are immune to conflict. Many countries and cultures with a religious way of life are still examples of “violent” societies. Understanding local knowledge and how religion is perceived and used among the general public, the “elite”, and the state is crucial. One cannot understand the EOTC without understanding the highlander Ethiopians. Eloi Ficquet, a long-standing scholar of Ethiopian history and cultures, rightly questions the illusion that religious groups in Ethiopia coexist, asking 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 often-cited example of coexistence among Muslims and Christians.
With more than 80 ethnic groups, divisions are visible along ethnic, linguistic, and historical lines. With shared history, religion, and geographical proximity among certain ethnic groups, entangled history and identity exist. The EOTC was the foundation of Ethiopia’s spiritual and political life. Much of Ethiopian history has been explored in the name of the Christian highland. For example, despite its existence in Ethiopia since the seventh century, Islam had been sidelined for centuries. This is rightly argued for by the Muslim community, as well. In recent years, inter-religious animosities have risen, and radical Orthodox Christian groups have been warning that Ethiopia is vulnerable to Islamic extremism. The Orthodox Christian nationalists blame the TPLF and Tigray for introducing a federal structure and freedom of religion in 1995.
The EOTC has been part of the imperial project since the mid-fifth century. The EOTC and nationalism had been inseparable until the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution. Religious tolerance does not necessarily entail the absence of religious war, and Ethiopia is a good example, at least for significant parts of its history. A good summary of the role of the EOTC in Ethiopian history and its violent nature is captured by Reid, “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.” Historiographically, Ethiopian history is a history of conquest and wars, often religiously driven, a ritualised process that Clapham calls the “obsession” with a great tradition to this day. Biblical-like narratives and prophecies of the arrival of a “divinely anointed king” to save the “Christians” are not uncommon. In a televised interview on January 6, 2021, Daniel Kibret, the social affairs advisor to Prime Minister Abiy, responded to a question about whether Eritrea joined negatively. Daniel Kibret claimed Ethiopia had enough soldiers in Somalia, Sudan, and other national and regional states in the war supporting Ethiopia. If that was not enough, he said, “and God feels the bloodshed, Ethiopia has invisible soldiers“–meaning, the angels. Despite the involvement of the Eritrea army from day five of the beginning of the Tigray war, Ethiopia repeatedly denied it until the US confirmed it.
In recent years the EOTC has been politically divided. After the removal of the socialist government in 1991, the EOTC’s then-patriarch, Abune Merkoris, left the country and facilitated the split from EOTC administratively. In Ethiopia, he was succeeded by Abune Paulos, who led the Church until his death on August 16, 2012. Abune Mathias replaced Abune Paulos on February 28, 2013. On August 1, 2018, Abune Merkoris returned home as a “spiritual” head of the “unified church,” while administrative authority was reserved for Abune Mathias. Abune Merkoris died on March 3, 2022, leaving a deep division within the Church. The prime minister himself had arranged the “unity” of the holy synod, but with a sinister political agenda to divide the Church and use its massive followers to support the war in Tigray.
Many thought that the prime minister, an evangelical leader, had healed a schism in one of the oldest churches. A year later, the EOTC criticized Abiy for not protecting citizens. Similarly, three years later, a few fellow evangelicals had warned that Abiy was no longer fit for office. The EOTC has therefore been in a very vulnerable position. Abiy and his followers (the protestant church in particular) saw the EOTC as a core foundation of Ethiopia that needed to be dismantled for cultural and political purposes.
The EOTC ended up openly supporting the Tigray War. In the name of unity, the EOTC supported the government’s political agenda and foreign relations. 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. Nevertheless, he was openly criticized by members of the EOTC and bishops. Unsurprisingly, Professor Abbink criticizes the Patriarch and gives the office of the Patriarch an ethnic dimension when he maintains that “Abune Mathias accused the federal government of ‘genocide in Tigray’” and observes that “a Tigrayan himself, the patriarch was a political appointee.” However, on the same tape, 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”. He was not alone in declaring this.
The EOTC and its extremist deacon at the heart of the war
While working within his Pentecostal circle under the Ethiopian Evangelical Council, the prime minister appointed one of the most radical deacons from the Mahibere Kidusan as his social affairs advisor. This cynical decision heralded the prime minister’s plan to use EOTC and hate speech for a political agenda. Daniel Kibret, using a Qene (a form of poetry open to multiple interpretations), prepared a setting for ethnic cleansing. In his social media and mainstream media campaigns, Daniel uses religious icons and prophesies to disseminate hate speech and religious extremism. He has preached in churches and online, on social media platforms such as Twitter, about ways of eliminating ethnic Tigrayans. As the war moved closer to Addis Ababa and in synergy with his social affairs advisor, on November 5 2021, the prime minister declared a state of emergency and suspended all laws. On December 24, 2021, Daniel Kibret tweeted one of his deadliest messages:
Following this tweet, in an action already planned by the government, thousands of ethnic Tigrayans in Addis Ababa were arbitrarily arrested and sent to makeshift prisons in Addis Ababa and other parts of Ethiopia. Ethnic Tigrayans from every sector were targeted, and not even those working for the UN were spared. With the help of social media and public media, residents of Addis Ababa were told to arm themselves with whatever they had.
The Tigray War has engendered grave crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide. According to the Nation, the NGO World Without Genocide, the US Holocaust Museum, and TGHAT media, grave crimes against humanity and genocide has been committed. Despite overwhelming evidence, Professor Abbink downplays the possibilities of genocide in Tigray. CNN has recorded a wide range of crimes committed in Western Tigray, occupied by forces from the neighboring region of Amhara and Eritrea, for over two years. The EU envoy to Ethiopia did not mince words in noting in February 2021, with respect to the nationwide crimes, that if the Ethiopian leadership “really used this kind of language, … they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.’’ These words are actual for the six million Tigrayans cut off from the rest of the world for over two years.
As the government crackdown on Tigrayans continued , the EOTC released a statement supporting the war. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Tigray Diocese asked the church in Addis Ababa to protect civilians. It denounced the Eritrean army, Ethiopian army and a militia called Fano from the Amhara region. After the EOTC refused to speak against violence and killings in Tigray, the Tigrayan branch of the EOTC threatened to split itself from the church in Addis Ababa. The division within the church over the war culminated in the birth of the Tigray Orthodox Tewahedo Church (TOTC), which has a strong support among the Tigrayan diaspora, including in places such as Philadelphia in the United States. Similarly, the Tigray Islamic Affairs Regional Council blamed its Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council for not taking measures and has threatened to split. While not directly linked to the Tigray War, the Oromo Orthodox Tewahedo Christians of Ethiopia attempted to establish their regional episcopacy in 2019.
In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, despite a repeated call from Catholic bishops in Tigray, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew has been accused of supporting the war both in morale and material. The Cardinal of Ethiopia ignored the desperate call from bishops in Tigray who warned him of a “devastating genocidal war.” He was confronted on this by a fellow Christian when he visited Europe on May 22, 2022. Bishop Musie Ghebreghiorghis of southwestern Ethiopia once said of Prime Minister Abiy, “We consider him a prophet sent by the Lord.”. There are also reports of influential Islamic leaders in Ethiopia who supported the war.
The role of the evangelicals: the rise of political theology in Ethiopia?
There has been a steady shift in religious demography in the past fifty years and more so in the last three decades. According to the social scientist Fantini, by the 1960s, the Protestant congregation in Ethiopia was less than 1% of the population and had grown to nearly 18.6 % by 2007, making it one of the fastest-growing churches in the world. The assumption that such a religious demographic shift would not bring fundamental socio-cultural and economic changes and questions has been proven wrong. The evangelicals are on the rise and have an ideological and practical link to the war. For example, one of the newly established regions, the Sidama National Regional State, an evangelical heartland, has seized the opportunity and contributed its special force to join the war. The “prosperity gospel” philosophy to which Prime Minister Abiy subscribes, has a direct role in shaping the views of nearly four million believers in Ethiopia. Abiy himself spoke at a parliament that he had come to power to fulfill his mother’s prophecy that he would become the seventh king of Ethiopia.
In 2018, many Ethiopians believed that the Prime Minister was a prophet. Following Abiy’s “prophetic” speech, an 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.” Spiritually driven, medieval-like political and military campaigns are on the rise — especially among the Amhara Nationalists. Abiy “feels that he is doing God’s work and that this is what he needs to be doing at this time,” writes Micael Grenholm, quoting Jörg Haustein, a scholar of Ethiopian Pentecostalism at Cambridge. The prime minister’s power is deeply rooted in his “Prosperity Party Gospel” spirit, and he received 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; whether it will succeed remains to be seen.
There is no surprise that Ethiopian Christians took sides in the Tigray War. The role of the EOTC, with its radical group Mahibere-Kidusan and the rise of Pentecostals and the Prosperity Party, has been both a causative and fueling contributor to the Tigray War. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has used the existing divides within the EOTC and the new evangelical movements to consolidated his power. Political ideologies and ethnic federalism alone cannot explain the Tigray War. Professor Abbink, by arguing that “doctrinal strictness and fanatic commitments are traditionally avoided”, failed to substantiate why it could. By blaming ethnic politics as the primary cause of the war, Abbink left out several threads, of which religion is one. In a critically written piece entitled “Get the evangelical God out of the prime minister’s office”, Yonas Biru, an Ethiopian scholar based in the US, warns, “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 and how the suffering of millions is interpreted religiously — the afterlife of eternal peace. An essay published in Evangelical Focus and dated July 18, 2022, titled, “The war in Tigray – An evangelical ‘President’ fights for the unity of Ethiopia,” misleads its readers in political and religious terms. Ethiopia has a prime minister fighting for supreme authority, not unity.
A curious observer would question Professor Abbink about his silence on Eritrea, the region’s biggest destabilizer. In the professor’s words, “Ethiopia has seen mass killings of a specific ethnolinguistic group, the Amhara”, being targeted. However, the killing started in 2018 in Burayu, and it was not of ethnic Amhara but of the Sidama/Gamo (an ethnic minority from the south). Abbink leaves out the ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray and other parts of Tigray, which resulted in the death of nearly 600,000 Tigrayan civilians. The atrocities committed in Western Ethiopia among the Oromo and Qemant people in Amhara and the Amhara in Oromia are worrying. On June 2019, the Prime Minister publicly admitted the burning of churches and mosques in Ethiopian history and that it will continue. During the Tigray War, the Waldba 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. The professor fails to question the government and Prime Minister Abiy, who seems to be flying solo, according to French scholar René Lefort. In 2020, just a few months before the Tigray War, no one could have understood Abiy Ahmed, but René Lefort warned that the prime minister “is ready to climb to the ‘Big Man’ rank by force if necessary.” Unfortunately, Abbink instead praises Abiy and the government for inflicting unimaginable pain on the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia, of which a few are the last of their kind.
Twenty years of research in Ethiopia has yet to provide Abbink with an understanding of the Ethiopian social and cultural complexities. Unfortunately, his focus on ‘party politics’ has limited him to what he calls ‘elite’, the tip of the iceberg- ignoring the complex web of social and cultural realities underneath. This results from an overly simplistic and reductive understanding of Ethiopian history and culture and the challenge of understanding social transformation or degeneration as a complex whole. As the country progresses / degenerates, one must expect more shock, like the one just experienced by the EOTC. It is high time to question what Ethiopianists have learned about Ethiopian history and cultures. Given the current turmoil and the continued challenges within the EOTC, it is apparent that the church appears to be a victim, and it is. However, the church is guilty of the Tigray genocide. Victimhood cannot be a cover for a crime or a sin. Justice must be sought before repentance if the church wishes to heal.