Ethiopia: Military Assault on a Bastion of Orthodoxy

Ethiopia: New Attack on a Monastery

By ECLJ1689933600000

570 victims - that's the estimated toll of the latest military assault by the Ethiopian government on the ancient and historic Monastery of Debre-Elias. In Ethiopia, these ancient Monasteries and churches constitute pillars of the country's religious and cultural heritage. Historically central to the community, they have served as spiritual refuges and educational centers, while preserving important artistic and historical treasures. This severe attack on one of the oldest Monasteries forms part of a broader trend of governmental hostility towards the country's Orthodox Church.

The Debre-Elias Monastery, A Significant Religious Landmark

Established in 1474, the "Bihere Bitsuan Melka Selassie Andinet" Monastery, commonly known as Debre-Elias Monastery due to its geographic location, holds significant religious importance. Located southeast of the Gojjam province in northern Ethiopia, it has historically been a center of excellence for the training of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church clergy. Among its distinguished alumni we find the Church's second Patriarch, Abune Theophilos, as well as many current bishops. It has also produced renowned laypersons, such as Dr. Haddis Alemayehu, the first Ethiopian novelist, and Yoftahae Nigussie, the pioneer of the early theater movement in Ethiopia. Established for nearly six centuries, this Monastery has been the starting point for numerous clerics and intellectuals, as well as a place of prayer and devotion for many believers.

A Deadly Military Intervention at the Monastery

On the 25th of May 2023, the serenity of this place was disrupted by a military operation launched by the Ethiopian National Defense Force. The sanctuary and its residents were hammered by an onslaught of artillery fire and bombardment. In response to this offensive the local armed factions in the area, commonly known as Fano, mustered a resistance. This led to a highly destructive confrontation that lasted until May 30.

Eyewitnesses interviewed by Deutsche Welle[1], a German international media platform, reported a heavy human and material toll. Of the 600 monastery residents, approximately 570 were killed or injured. The Monastery was deserted, with surviving residents forced to flee. Other reports in private media[2] revealed that children were also affected, with 32 fatalities. The Monastery buildings were rendered uninhabitable due to the damages caused by heavy artillery fire.

Behind the Military Operation

The motivations for this military offensive remain highly speculative. The peace and security office of the Debre Elias district (Debre Elias Woreda peace and security office) stated in an official communication[3] that these measures were a "preventative” targeting armed individuals suspected of using the Monastery as a base. According to the allegations from this bureau, the Monastery had transformed into a refuge for armed individuals who allegedly plotted to overthrow the government. This coup d'état was supposedly orchestrated by Eskinder Nega, an Oxfam Novib/PEN prize winning journalist.  

However, a conflicting report was presented by the district's chief administrator in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation[4]. He claimed a new sect was developing within the Monastery, contrary to the Orthodox faith, and the attack was the result of a dispute between this alleged sect and the military. He further added that the attack was also due to criminals hiding in the Monastery after committing crimes, emphasizing that a monastery should not be a refuge for former criminals.

These ambiguous and conflicting government statements are alarming, as such a large-scale military operation against a religious institution requires solid justifications, and not simply vague and contradicting allegations.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in response, has refuted the Peace and Security Office's claims in a video published on its YouTube channel[5]. It emphasized the sacred role of Monasteries as places of worship and peace, insisting that no armed group was operating within the attacked monastery. It maintained that any alleged militant activity was confined to the exterior of the monastery. The Church's public relations department formally announced that they would be conducting a thorough investigation into the attack. However, it remains unclear when the investigation findings will be published, if ever.

Normalization of Assaults on Places of Worship

Unfortunately, this attack is not an isolated incident. The Ethiopian law enforcement agencies have repeatedly carried out armed interventions in places of worship. In February, the regional Oromo forces opened fire on believers opposing a state-supported schism. The Church is also targeted by a terrorist organization known as the "Oromo Liberation Army" (OLA), which is suspected of enjoying privileged relations with the current Ethiopian government due to the latter's passivity in the face of the group's atrocities.

In the same week of the monastery assault, the terrorist group launched an attack on the Dera Amanuel Church in the Arsi zone, killing four individuals, including two priests[6]. In their usual modus operandi, they also kidnapped two individuals, including a 12-year-old girl, demanding a ransom for their release. The previous month, the Felege-Selam Medhanealem Monastery in Sodere was looted, its accountant kidnapped and taken to an unknown location[7]. The OLA, due to its notable involvement in the region, is suspected of orchestrating these actions. Attacks of this nature are becoming increasingly frequent across the country, and the government's passive response has led some to speculate that it could be the instigator.

The future of the Christian community in Ethiopia is, therefore, a cause for deep concern.


[1] Alemnew Mekonen, Shewaye Legesse, Mantegaftot Sileshi, "በደብረ ኤልያስ ወረዳ የተፈጠረው ግጭትና የደረሰው ጉዳት" Deutsche Welle, 31 mai 2023, https://www.dw.com/am/በደብረ-ኤልያስ-ወረዳ-የተፈጠረው-ግጭትና-የደረሰው-ጉዳት/a-65784815?maca=amh-standard_feed-amh-11646-xml 

[2] መጋቤ ሐዲስ ኢንጅነር ዘአማኑኤል ; « በደብረ ኤልያስ ወረዳ በብሔረ ብፁአን አፄ መልክዐ ስላሴ አንድነት ገዳም የተደረገው እጅግ ዘግናኝ ሀይማኖታዊ ጭፍጨፍና ግፍ በገዳሙ አባት አንደበት እውነቱ። » ; Youtube le 16 juin 2023 

[3] Ethiopian Peace Observatory (EPO); Weekly Report 07/06/2023; https://epo.acleddata.com/2023/06/07/epo-weekly-27-may-2-june-2023/

[4] « በደብረ ኤልያስ ግጭት ውስጥ ‘የዓለም ብርሃን’ የተሰኘ የእምነት እንቅስቃሴ ተሳታፊ ነበር ተባለ » ; BBC አማርኛ ; https://www.bbc.com/amharic/articles/cp4k2w0k0qlo

[5] EOTC TV ; « EOTC TV | ወቅታዊ ጉዳይ | ብሔረ ብፁዓን አፄ መልክአ ሥላሴ አንድነት ገዳም » ; Youtube le 6 juin 2023; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pv8JDpd3SE&t=1317s&ab_channel=EOTCTV

[6] ወቅታዊ መልዕክት ለምዕመናን ; የኢትዮጵያ ኦርቶዶክስ ተዋሕዶ ቤተ ክርስቲያን መንበረ ፓትርያርክ ጠቅላይ ጽ/ቤት ; https://eotceth.org/a/ወቅታዊ-መልዕክት-ለምዕመናን/

[7] Ethiopian Peace Observatory (EPO); Weekly Report 26/04/2023, https://epo.acleddata.com/2023/04/26/epo-weekly-15-21-april-2023/

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