Ethnic schism: A delicate way out of a crisis for Ethiopia

Ethnic schism in Ethiopia: A way out?

By ECLJ1677597242700

In recent weeks, a violent split within the Orthodox Church has reverberated across Ethiopia. The dispute was about the creation of a new "Orthodox synod", which is the highest authority of the church in the country, for the Oromia region and other parts of southern Ethiopia. This newly established synod, which hinges on ethnic considerations, mainly accuses the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for not making sufficient use of the Afaan oromoo language (language of the Oromo ethnic group) in its liturgy.

By Ahmed Ligon

The context of the schism

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which traces its roots to the first century AD, has served as a cornerstone for both the social and spiritual underpinnings of the Ethiopian society. Representing the dominant religious tradition in the nation, it comprises roughly 44%[1] of the overall population.

The Oromo ethnic group is primarily located in the federally administered Oromia region, which constitutes the southwestern part of Ethiopia, but is also present in neighboring countries such as Kenya and Somalia. The Oromo ethnic group holds the largest population in Ethiopia, estimated at around 41 million people. Of this population, roughly 40% identify as Christians[2], with only one-third following the Orthodox denomination[3]. The remaining majority, accounting for about 55%, adhere to Islam, while a small minority still practice traditional tribal religions.

For over two centuries, the Oromo have largely been marginalized from the political life in Ethiopia, which has been dominated mainly by the Amharas and Tigrayans. This status quo appears to have changed in 2018 with the appointment of the current prime minister who is of the oromo ethnic group. Since then, an ethnic consciousness has emerged within the oromo community, along with a political tendency to transform Ethiopia into a country of oromo cultural predominance. This ambition has been evident in the rhetoric and policies of the appointed leaders, with the latest illustration being the push to introduce the oromo flag and anthem in primary and secondary schools in the capital, Addis Ababa. However, this ambition has not gone unchallenged. 

According to Professor Yonas Biru, former economic advisor to the prime minister, the main obstacle to achieving an oromo cultural predominance in Ethiopia is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church[4]. Radical Oromo groups view the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church as the main enemy of the Oromo people. This animosity dates back to a time when the Oromo practiced a tribal religion called "waaqeffannaa". The former was gradually replaced by Christianity as Ethiopia was evangelized, mainly by the Amharas. Since then, Christianity is seen as a threat to Oromo identity, much like the Amhara ethnic group. This hostility, which has been brewing since the appointment of the prime minister, resulted in a spate of church burnings between 2019 and 2020, with the most poignant example being the burning of St. Michael's Church in Wollega, Ethiopia on November 3rd, 2020.

After a brief period of relative peace between the Church and radical Oromo groups, tensions have now re-emerged in the form of a schism.

Violent attacks on the Church and its believers

The regional government, although not the initiator, has quietly supported this schism in order to promote the oromo ethno-nationalism which is gaining momentum in Ethiopia. This can be inferred from the series of events that have followed.

Turmoil began on January 22, 2023, when three archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church consecrated 26 monks as "bishops" without the approval of the Holy Synod and His Holiness Patriarch Abune Mathias I, thus establishing a new synod.

The overwhelming majority of the faithful within the church deemed the bishop appointments invalid, resulting in civil unrest and widespread protests. Many believers refused to allow the newly appointed bishops to enter their churches and lead religious services. In response, the Oromo regional forces intervened to support the new Synod, despite Article 11 of the national constitution which mandates a separation between church and state. Some bishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Oromo region were arrested, and many others were prevented from entering their diocesan churches. The involvement of regional authorities in the situation did not ease the tension, but instead escalated it into violent clashes between law enforcement officers and church attendees.

These confrontations led to the death of many worshippers, notably at the St. Michael Church in Shashemene, where the police fired live ammunition at the crowd on February 4, 2023[5].

The involvement of regional law enforcement agencies in the affairs of the church is distressing. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church reasserts itself with this schism as an obstacle to the innovative ambitions of the government. The intervention of the authorities, however, indicates an instrumentalization of the church by the regional government for the political purpose of "oromizing" Ethiopia.

Human rights abuses persisting on a larger scale

To commemorate the victims - many were wounded, and a dozen were dead -as well as to peacefully demonstrate the state of distress in which it finds itself, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had called on all believers to dress in black during the three days of the Nineveh Fast from February 5 to 8. This is a three-day fast observed by the country's Orthodox to commemorate the prophet, Jonah.

The church also issued an ultimatum to the government, threatening to hold a nationwide peaceful demonstration on February 12, 2023, if it did not stop supporting the illegitimately formed synod by then.

During the three-day fast in Nineveh, several egregious human rights violations took place. Worshipers who donned black attire were arrested, physically assaulted, and faced confrontations with law enforcement officials. Meanwhile, public officials were prohibited from wearing black clothing in their offices. National human rights bodies, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), urged the government to halt its unlawful actions and to abide by legal protocols.

The reluctance of the federal government in the face of the firmness of the people.

During the communal prayer on February 8, 2023, the final day of the Nineveh fast, a massive mobilization of the faithful took place. In response to this gathering, the communication services of the Ethiopian federal government released a statement denouncing the planned demonstration on February 12 as a threat to national security and promising to take punitive actions against those involved.

On Friday, February 10, after an urgent meeting between His Holiness Patriarch Abune Mathias I and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the government relented under the pressure and admitted the unity of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. On the same day, the newly formed synod was banned by the country's judicial authorities from entering the grounds of the Orthodox churches. The planned demonstration was ultimately called off and will not proceed. On February 15 the illegitimate synod was officially dissolved, and the delinquent bishops asked for forgiveness from the church, which welcomed their apology and promised to try to meet their demands to the best of its ability.

Nevertheless, many priests and believers remain unjustly detained because of their beliefs or their peaceful actions in defense of their faith. A committee of lawyers has been established by the church to defend these unduly detained priests and believers and to hold accountable those responsible for the imprisonment, murder, and abuse of peaceful civilians.

The recent events, despite showing promising progress, are likely to have a lasting deleterious impact and could potentially signal future efforts to "oromize" Ethiopia, echoing other ethnic conflicts across Africa.


[1] « Ethiopia – People and Society » The World Factbook, last updated on 14 February 2023, https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/ethiopia/#people-and-society (consulted on 20/02/2023).

[2] United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ethiopia and the Oromo People: Is it possible to determine whether an Ethiopian is an ethnic Oromo by the individual's last name? What religion or religions are practiced by ethnic Oromos in Ethiopia, 28 April 1998, ETH98001.ZNY, https://www.refworld.org/docid/3df0a18e4.html (consulted on 22/02/2023).

[3] B. Minahan, James, Encyclopedia of Stateless Nations: Ethnic and National Groups around the World, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2016.

[4] Yonas Biru, « Ethiopia in an Existential Crisis Without a Leader, But This, Too, Shall Pass » Borkena, February 5, 2023 (consulted on 21/02/2023).

[5] « Eight Killed in Ethiopia Church Attacks: Rights Body » The Defense Post, February 13, 2023, https://www.thedefensepost.com/2023/02/13/ethiopia-church-attacks/ (consulted on 23/02/2023).


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