(By Fessahaye Mebrahtu[i], 25 March 2021) –
When Ethiopian Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, his political speeches were pleasing to the public; giving hope that he would bring stability in the process of building democracy in Ethiopia. One of his laudable initiatives was establishing mediation and reconciliation committee, which included religious leaders of various traditions. PM Abiy himself challenged Ethiopian religious leaders to play their moral duty by correcting and admonishing the excesses of or power abuse by political leaders. Signing peace accord with Eritrea, also appointing religious leaders and elders to reconcile relationship among Ethiopians gave him credit as peacemaker. These credits made PM Abiy Ahmed eligible for the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 2019. Finally, the Ethiopian government again gathered religious leaders when COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the whole world. These moral leaders came together again, to pray for healing and persuade the public to follow the advice of healthcare professionals and follow the government guidelines to prevent the infectious disease. These gestures were small dosages that put the religious leaders in comatose, when they should utter their moral voice to avert the brewing civil war or intervene when it was clear the atrocities were raging with unprecedented havoc.
To the contrary, some local bishops and clergy served as megaphones of the Prosperity Party, blessing Abiy Ahmed’s “law and order enforcement” campaign. These religious leaders are absent, especially when houses of worship are desecrated, their properties plundered and monks and nuns mass murdered. Ethiopian religious leadership, individually and collectively could not pass the political moral test in the Tigray region civil war. Such failure of moral leadership and prophetic voice in the darkest hours of the country, the Ethiopian religious leaders lost credibility, from which will be hard to recover. The religious leaders and elders, who came to Mekele to mediate, exposed their moral failure.
The political culture of the region, which had confined religious leaders to the space of worship, the flattery words of PM Abiy Ahmed were “music to the ears.” In hindsight, the crowd pleasing speeches of PM Abiy were without substance or decoys of “a wolf in sheep skin” as many have pointed out after the fact. The most consequential influence on PM Abiy Ahmed is Dictator Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea, who for decades envy on the progress of Ethiopia camouflaged in his grudge and hate against Woyane of Tigray. His plan to dismantle Ethiopia was a public secret, which is at the fingertip of any person with smartphone or computer to hear Isaias’ very own words of his sinister agenda. The Amhara elites’ common hate against Woyane made them bedfellows with Dictator Isaias Afeworki. This hate morphed into ethnic cleansing and genocide, unfolding before the very eyes of the whole world. Unfortunately, the religious leaders of the country are blind or oblivious to such atrocities. Leaving final judgment to history, as eyewitnesses, our disappointment is understatement.
We have to find historical context to the complicity and silence of the Ethiopian mora leadership. Historically, the Ethiopian Orthodox church had strong influence on the vast faithful. However, the moral influence rested on historical monasteries than the single Coptic Bishop, sent from the Coptic Church in Egypt, which was under heavy Islamic control to have developed prophetic voice, challenging the powers to be. (Calling Coptic to the Ethiopic Church comes from such affiliation, which continued until late 1950s). Departing from the previous tradition that only one Coptic Bishop allowed at a time, Emperor Yohannes IV was able to secure four Coptic Bishops in 1880s. The Coptic Church used as control mechanism over the Ethiopic Church, obviously the Egyptian Caliphs had a role as well. Emperor Haile-Selassie secured the first four indigenous bishops in 1929; paving the path to be an autocephalous in 1951 and Patriarchate in 1959. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s centralized hierarchy is of a very recent history. Therefore, the role of the various monasteries’ influence on the vast faithful was critical. However, the monasteries located in various regions, were also vulnerable to unduly influence and abuses by regional kings and warlords as well. Yet the independence of the monasteries played as moral compass of the society.
On the other hand, since the 4th century CE, Church and State in the Axumite Empire, which evolved in today’s Ethiopia were intertwined. By negotiating the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to be independent of the Coptic Church, Emperor Haile-Selassie gained control over the newly centralized autocephalous church. Such arrangement made the Ethiopian Orthodox Church subordinate to the state, losing its ecclesial independence. The irony is that a historic church that gained its autocephaly after centuries of false canon subjected to the Coptic Church, acquiesced its autonomy to the political powers. Under Emperor Haile-Selassie, the Orthodox Church weaponized against religious and political reformers. Like in the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, after the fall of Emperor Haile-Selassie, Dergue, the Ethiopian Military Marxist regime controlled the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; jailing, deposing bishops and patriarchs. EPRDF, the successor of Dergue (Ethiopia) and EPLF (Eritrea) followed the tradition of controlling the major religions. Expanding their religious control, both regimes brought the Islamic Muftis under their grip. For political expediency, divide and conquer methods were used to mussel the prophetic voice of these religious leaders. Human rights abuse and political power excess became rampart, with nor moral accountability. Today, in time of ardent need, the absence of such independent voice is loud and clear. The Ethiopian religious leaders are still in comatose. The destruction and desecration of historic Negash Mosque and the Monastery of Debre Damo could not pique the conscience of these religious leaders. Not even a beep. This not only shows state control of religious leaders, it also points to their moral bankruptcy that cannot recover short of religious reformation in a grand scale.
The other religious traditions, like the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Ethiopia could have played the odd balls. They too have their internal minority complex and fragmentations by rites and denominations. Therefore, they cannot come to unified front, voicing their concern about the unfolding atrocities in Tigray, such as human right abuses, crimes against humanity, war crimes perpetrated in the name of law and order. In the Catholic Church of Addis Ababa, when individual priests targeted of their Tigrayan origin, the intervention of the Catholic Ordinary was not based on moral principles. The hearsay was individual pleas, “Abba NN is not involved in any politics.” A missed opportunity for the Ethiopian Catholic Ordinary to save itself from implication in the civil war by omission or commission. Additionally, the cry of the Eparch of Adigrat was loud enough as wake up call. A letter by Cardinal Berhaneyesus Surafiel, Archbishop of Addis Ababa, dated on 25/6/13 (Ge’ez Calendar) /March 5, 2021 underlines the Ethio-Sudan conflict as principal cause of displacements, but states as destabilization in the country without mentioning the raging Tigray conflict. The food shortage in the northern region implies natural disaster. This letter is damning, exposing the lack of moral leadership by the Ethiopian Archbishop, who deliberately twisted the shortage of food in Tigray, implying as natural cause.
Unlike the Eritrean Catholic Church, the Ethiopian Catholic Church cannot have a unified voice because it is fragmented between the Ge’ez (Ethiopic) and Latin Rite. Such division further magnifies their minority status, unable or ineffective raising social justice issues. The Ethiopian Catholic Cardinal is the Prelate, who should lead by example, even exerting hierarchical power to be a voice of the voiceless. However, they are content with passing on charitable goods from international Catholic organizations, like Catholic Relief Services (CRS). I am not familiar enough with the various Protestant Denominations in Ethiopia, but I am dismayed by some Pentecostal pastors and self-proclaimed prophets, giving blind support to PM Abiy as their own.
Finally, I would like to highlight the Eritrean Catholic Bishops’ consistent courage as prophetic voice of reason in such chaotic situation in Ethiopia. Internally, Eritrean Catholic Bishops never shied away from speaking truth to power in their pastoral letters: “Where is your brother? 2014” “Peace to those Far and Near: A Call for National Reconciliation and Peace, 2019,” etc. Isaias retaliated against the Catholic Church, confiscating schools, and healthcare institutions. Regardless of the consequence, Eritrean Catholic Bishops stayed on message, challenging the regime through their Pastoral Letters and homilies. It is also encouraging to hear from the grapevines that Eritrean Catholic priests ordered their faithful not to buy looted goods from Tigray. Eritrean Catholic Bishops were the first religious leaders, who wrote a letter against the war in Tigray, dated November 20, 2020, stating, “Once a war starts, no one knows when and where it ends. In war, there is no winner, all parties are losers. That is why the late Pope, St. John Paul II stated that war does not have any meaningful value, and is always unjust. In other words, war destroys the four pillars of peace: Truth, Justice, Love and Liberty.” In this Ethiopian civil conflict, we are witnessing, “truth the primary victim.” Even the religious leaders, who teach their faithful to tell truth and be truthful, are not practicing what they preach.
In Ethiopia, the government through its propaganda created public hysteria, making truth and objectivity primary causalities, flushing them down the toilet. The ominous cloud over Ethiopia is dangerous leading to further slippery slope of extremism by losing objectivity as the following: First, moral failure of religious leaders defines the individual, who should muster courage to speak truth to power. Second, defines the character of a society or nation, capitulating to government propaganda. Third, compromising the morality of individuals and communities, justifying and implementing dictatorial regime objectives: genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crime against humanity, etc. Largely, societies, where religion is synonymous with cultural identity, are prone to nationalist extremisms. In such environment, religious leaders become silent, complacent, rationalizing atrocities for the preservation of cultural, national and religious identities acceptable. Currently, the religious leaders have to avoid such trapping of extremism to save Ethiopian identity, as a unique nation with more than 3,000 years of contiguous uninterrupted history. Ethiopian religious leaders need to extract themselves out extremist tendencies, saving truth and objectivity, lest history judge you harshly.
[i] I am Eritrean Catholic of the Ge’ez Rite tradition, a theologian by trainings. However, my comments are about social justice and by no means biased by my religious affiliation.