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Simmering ethnic strife in Ethiopia has reached the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Nationalists of the biggest ethnic group, the Oromo, are threatening to split the church. Developments are bound to further undermine unity.
It started out as a legitimate grievance, Reverend Daniel Seifa Michael acknowledges: "There are issues that they have raised which are really of concern. Like the church has to be strong in the evangelical services in the Oromo communities. And the church has to provide Oromo language services," the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC's) foreign affairs department told DW. But he added that the solution cannot come from the outside and must be part of an internal administrative process.
The man behind the drive to create a separate Oromo Orthodox Church is the Reverend Qesis Belay. Over the weekend, he gave the EOC a deadline of 30 days to comply with his demands. He has the support of Oromian politicians like Milkessa Midhaga, head of the Oromia Land Use Bureau, who wrote on his Facebook page: "I had several meetings in government capacity with church and mosque officials in Oromia in Afaan Oromo. The Orthodox church officials had rarely understood the objective of the meetings, as a result minimal participation, due to language problems."
Religion as a political weapon
The linguistic problem has been turned into a political one, according to expert Mohammed Girma. "That question seems to have been hijacked by some people who have got some political interests," the researcher from the University of Pretoria told DW. Girma says it is worrying that the people behind this movement are supported by Oromo nationalists, activists and hardliners, some of whom are pushing for independence.
More than two-fifths of Ethiopians out of a total population of 100 million follow the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The EOC was very powerful for most of the country's history. But it was sidelined by the Marxist government after the demise of the monarchy in 1974 and never recovered the full extent of its political influence.
Now the EOC has to contend with the threat of being turned into a weapon in the ethnic conflicts, which intensified after Ahmed Abyi was nominated prime minister in April 2018 and started to liberalize and democratize the country. Before Abiy, the governing Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that seized power in 1991 and was dominated by the minority Tigrayans suppressed all dissent, including expressions of ethnic nationalism. Today, the dozens of ethnic groups with competing claims to land, resources and influence are able to openly voice their grievances. This has led to a radicalization in some quarters, was followed by strife and violence.
A prime minister between a rock and a hard place
"The prime minister himself became a subject of contention rather than solving the problem," analyst Girma says. Abiy is Oromo, and as such has seen his own person turned into a battlefield for competing interests. Oromo hardliners see him as part of the establishment. The Tigrayans feel he is pushing them out of the power they have enjoyed in the past. But Abiy is also viewed with suspicion by those who want to preserve the union, all of which forces him to tread carefully.
Last year, Abiy played a crucial role in conciliating factions within the EOC. The church split in 1991 over the naming of a new patriarch after EPDRF toppled the Derg military junta from power. The former patriarch went into exile in the United States, splitting the church. "The prime minister did an amazing job when he mediated between the church factions," Girma said. But now, Abiy "needs to come out and do something in relation to what is happening at the moment."
That's because there is a real risk that a rift in the church will turn into an open ethnic dispute. "The political entrepreneurs and activists and politicians have used every tool you can imagine to divide Ethiopia. Religion is the latest tool," the researcher says. And while he sees no real political will at present to solve the situation, he places he hopes on the citizens of his country: "They failed to mobilize society for a conflict at the scale that some of the politicians wanted. Ordinary people are looking for unity, harmony and peace," Girma concluded.