By Al (Alemayehu) G. Mariam
Last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia met with the top leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (ETOC) and urged them, indeed preached to them, to reconcile with the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church in Exile in the Diaspora. PM Abiy said:
Differences may have arisen [between Church leaders] for various reasons, but they not differences that cannot be solved. The biggest problem facing Church leaders is if those faith leaders who are regarded as the society’s problems are unable to solve their own problems. Privately and in official capacity, we are ready to provide the necessary support [to help bring the two Churches together]. You should all push forward and become role models for the rest of us.
PM Abiy was referring to the politicization of the ETOC which began under the military regime (Derg) in the mid-1970s and its full conversion into a political tool by the regime of the late Meles Zenawi. The EOTC lost its status as the official state church when the military junta declared socialism in 1994. The reigning Patriarch of EOTC was imprisoned by the junta and subsequently executed. The junta appointed its own Patriarch who was rejected by the EOTC synod (Church body which determines doctrine, administration and organization) because his appointment violated canon law and procedure. Only the synod has the authority to remove the Patriarch, and because the junta removed him, his replacement Patriarch was regarded as illegitimate.
Following the overthrow of the junta by the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the junta selected Patriarch was forced into “retirement”. The TPLF arranged for a Patriarch of its own choosing to be installed. The “retired” Patriarch went into exile and announced he had been forced out by the TPLF. A number of bishops followed him into exile and formed a separate synod which gained substantial recognition and following in the Ethiopian Diaspora. There is little question that the Meles regime forced out the reigning Patriarch as the then prime minster later “regretted signing the order that removed the original patriarch creating the bifurcated the church.” (Walle Engedayehu offers a comprehensive discussion of the events leading to the schism and subsequent developments.)
In urging healing, reconciliation and reunification of the EOTC church, PM Abiy is merely amplifying on his message of unity and reconciliation between Diaspora Ethiopians and Ethiopians in the country.
I believe PM Abiy’s message to the Church Fathers is part of his core message of Ethiopianwinet and a manifestation of his many public declarations of our unity not only in our Ethiopianity but also divinity.
I believe PM Abiy is saying that a Church divided against itself cannot stand, just as a nation divided cannot stand.
I believe it is part of PM Abiy’s efforts to heal the divisions and conflict inflicted on the country by the regime that preceded him over the past 27 years.
I applaud PM Abiy for his efforts and support of faith leaders to come together and lead the nation on a path of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
The situation of the EOTC schism (division) as I understand it
It is my understanding from talking to some Church Fathers that the division in the Church was a deliberate and calculated act by the Meles regime to takeover the Church and make it a mass propaganda tool for political mobilization and support. It is said that the Church leadership was held at a financial gunpoint by the Meles regime and given an ultimatum: Get rid of the Patriarch who was in charge before the Meles regime or lose all financial capacity to run the Church. The Church leaders were faced with the prospect of a bankrupted Church or accepting the forced removal of the Patriarch.
After the Meles regime installed its own preferred Patriarch, the perception developed that a “woyane Patriarchate” is in power. It was commonly believed that the Meles regime had effectively neutralized the independent EOTC and made it a political arm in service of the regime. The Church leaders were perceived as partisan ethnic politicians in religious garb. They were teaching not the Gospel of Christ but the gospel of ethnic division and hate of the Meles regime.
Like the church under apartheid rule in South Africa, the EOTC became polarized between “the church of the oppressor” and “the church of the oppressed.” The EOTC in Exile believed itself to be the Church of the oppressed.
Over the past 27 years, a number of earnest attempts have been made to informally discuss reconciliation and unity between the home and Diaspora EOTC churches. As progress was being made, Meles’ henchmen would always find a way to get involved and destroy its efforts at reunification.
I am informed and believe that there are two obstacles to the reconciliation and reunification of the EOTC. First, the state must completely stay out of religion. The state must let the Church leadership solve its own issues and problems. Second, the Diaspora congregation must be convinced that the reconciliation is not some kind of political game by the regime. The EOTC leadership in Exile will not make any decisions without input and approval of its congregation.
Simply stated, healing in the EOTC is intimately related to fixing the political system riven by ethnic division.
EOTC faithful in Exile want proof and assurances the regime will maintain a wall of separation between state and religion. They do not want the invisible hand of government meddling in Church affairs. I subscribe to the directive, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The Caesars of Ethiopia should mind their own business and leave the spiritual domain to the faith leaders and their congregation.
If these two conditions occur, I do not believe it will take much time at all for the two Churches to resolve their differences and deliver what PM Abiy wants: A strong, unified Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
What I personally find deeply distressing is the fact that the EOTC leadership in Ethiopia maintained its silence as the regime massacred, jailed and tortured millions of citizens. I find it tragically ironic that the silence of those who should have stood for the poor and oppressed gave voice to the likes of Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, Bekele Gerba, Abubaker Ahmed and so many others.
I would like the younger generation to know that we once had church leaders who would rather die than watch their people suffer.
Abuna Petros, a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi, and Great Soul in his own right was the supreme practitioner of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. He was executed for no other reason but preaching mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation with the fascist Italian army that had occupied and terrorized Ethiopia in the 1930s.
When the Italians demanded Abuna Petros to stop preaching resistance to their rule or risk their wrath, he had a simple answer for them: “The cry of my countrymen who died from the poison gas [you rained on them] and your terror machinery will never allow my conscience to accept your ultimatum. How can I face my God if I give a blind eye to such a crime?”
Before his execution in 1936, Abuna Petros exhorted his countrymen to resist the fascists by engaging in the tactic of non-cooperation, and counseled them “never to accept the bandit soldiers who come from far away and violently occupy a weak and peaceful country: our Ethiopia.” His last words were, “May God give the people of Ethiopia the strength to resist and never bow down to the Fascist army and its violence.”
But for the past 27 years, the EOTC leadership in Ethiopia turned a blind eye to the unspeakable crimes against humanity committed by the Meles regime. Today, the people of Ethiopia have the strength to resist and never bow down before an Agazi armyand its violence.
Today, the people of Ethiopia are tired of the hate ideology of the pre-PM Abiy regime. They yearn for love, unity, peace and reconciliation. It is the solemn duty of faith leaders to show the people the path of love, unity, peace and reconciliation.
Peaceful religious coexistence in Ethiopia
Religion is one of the great pillars of society and perhaps more so in Ethiopia than most other places. Ethiopia is home to Christianity and Islam.
The ancient Axumite Empire (3rd-6th century A.D.) is the political foundation of present day Ethiopia and the home of the legendary Queen Sheba. King Ezana of Axum made Christianity a state religion in the 4th Century. Today, tens of millions of Ethiopian Christians believe Axum is the “Second Jerusalem”, their holiest place because the Ark of the Covenant is believed to be housed at the cathedral of Tsion Maryam (Mary of Zion).
When the followers of the Prophet Muhammad were facing persecution, he instructed them “to leave Makkah and to seek sanctuary in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) which was then ruled by a Christian king, well-known for being a just and God-fearing man.” The Axumite king and the Habeshas (Ethiopians) welcomed the persecuted Muslims as early as 615 A.D. with great hospitality, gave them protection and assistance and refused to return them when requested to do so by their enemies.
My defense of religious liberty and tolerance and opposition to politicization of religion in Ethiopia
Ethiopians and Muslims have lived in peace for millennia. But over the past quarter of a century, religion has been weaponized by the pre-PM Abiy regime as a political strategy of divide and rule in much the same way that regime has used ethnicity. The current division in the ETOC is a reflection of the politicization of religion by those seeking to consolidate and cling to power.
H.I.M. Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last king, said, “Religion is a personal choice; country is a collective responsibility”.” He also understood and disapproved of the misuse and politicization of religion. “Due to human imperfection religion has become corrupt, political, divisive and a tool for power struggle.”
I have taken strong positions in favor of maximum religious liberty and against politicization of religion, state interference in the free exercise of religious beliefs and use of terrorism rhetoric and “laws” to demonize and persecute segments of the Ethiopian population.
In December 2011, I countered the late Meles Zenawi’s outrageous broadside attack and fear mongering against Ethiopian Muslims when he authorized the broadcasting of a trash documentary (docutrash) called “Alekdama”. In that docutrash, the Meles regime sought to graft the crimes against humanity committed by international terrorists in the name of Islam on Ethiopian opposition groups and create rabid public hysteria against Muslims in Ethiopia to justify his bloody crackdown. It did not work.
In June 2012, I fought back against the late Meles Zenawi’s attempts to foment religious strife between Christians and Muslims under the bogus pretext of “homegrown Muslim terrorists” in Ethiopia in my commentary entitled, “Ethiopia: Unity in Divinity!”. I praised Muslim and Christian religious leaders for reaching out to each other to build bridges of unity in the struggle against EVIL.
I fully endorsed the interfaith message of solidarity of Christian and Muslim leaders in Toronto who joined hands to show their unity in defending the ancient monastery of Waldeba in northern Ethiopia from destruction by foreign investors.
The message of the faith leaders was heartwarming and proof of the long history of peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia. Le’ke Kahenat Mesale Engeda, a prominent exiled prelate of the EOTC in Toronto, reaffirmed Christian Muslim unity:
… Our brothers and sisters who are followers of Islam have always served to protect our country. Recorded history shows many Muslim fathers fought for and suffered in defense of our country. Muslims and Christians have lived in Ethiopia peacefully [throughout history]. When trouble rises to face the [Orthodox] Church, Muslims have risen up with us to face them. Today a Muslim leader from Toronto is standing with us. As you know, at this time in Ethiopia our Muslim brothers and sisters are facing extreme hardship… But we are all standing together…
Hajj Mohamed Seid, a prominent Ethiopian Muslim leader in exile in Toronto, urged strong commitment to Ethiopian unity and underscored, “If there is no country, there is no religion.”
… As you know Ethiopia is a country that has different religions. Ethiopia is a country where Muslims and followers of the Orthodox faith have lived and loved each other throughout recorded history. Even in our lifetimes — 50 to 60 years — we have not seen Ethiopia in so much suffering and tribulation. Religion is a private choice, but country is a collective responsibility. If there is no country, there is no religion. It is only when we have a country that we find everything. Today, Ethiopia, which has been strong in its religious faiths, has been broken up into pieces. They are trying to get Muslims and Christians to fight. They campaigned for that for a long time. But it did not work. They tried to get the Oromo to fight with the Amhara. But that did not work…. We know of only one type of Muslim in history — one who honors his word. [The saying is that] when a Muslim does not stand by his word and the rain does not fall, that spells doom for the country. They have brought a new religion and are creating chaos in Ethiopia…
…. Is there an Ethiopian generation left now? The students who enrolled in the universities are demoralized; their minds are afflicted chewing khat (a mild drug) and smoking cigarettes. They [the ruling regime] have destroyed a generation. Truly, I have never read of the history of a government or administration that commits such atrocities on its people [as the one currently in Ethiopia]. If each one of us is given a full day to tell about the suffering and tribulation of the people, it would not be enough.
In my February 2013 commentary, “Ethiopia: The Politics of Fear and Smear”, I countered another propaganda attack on Ethiopian Muslims by the Meles regime. The “Jihadawi Harakat” docutrash targeted Ethiopian Muslims for persecution and vilification. The message of the docutrash was that Ethiopian Muslims who asked the Meles regime for nothing more than respect for their basic human rights and non-government interference in their religious affairs are merely local chapters of blood thirsty terrorist groups such Boko Haram (Nigeria), Ansar al Din (Mali), Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Hamas.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body constituted by the U.S. Congress and the President of the United States to monitor religious freedom worldwide, affirmed the legitimate demands of Ethiopian Muslims:
Since July 2011, the Ethiopian government has sought to impose the al-Ahbash Islamic sect on the country’s Muslim community, a community that traditionally has practiced the Sufi form of Islam. The government also has manipulated the election of the new leaders of the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC). Previously viewed as an independent body, EIASC is now viewed as a government-controlled institution. The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of EIASC signify a troubling escalation in the government’s attempts to control Ethiopia’s Muslim community and provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia. Muslims throughout Ethiopia have been arrested during peaceful protests: On October 29, the Ethiopia government charged 29 protestors with terrorism and attempting to establish an Islamic state.
Spiritual healing and reconciliation and the importance of faith leaders in the process
H.I.M. Haile Selassie was right in his observation that “Religion is a private choice, but country is a collective responsibility.” In fact, the centuries long peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians is based on this very principle.
In practicing this principle today, it is a civic duty and moral obligation of citizens to condemn and oppose religious and other forms of extremism by any group. It is also the moral obligation of faith leaders, civic society organizations and human rights advocates to stand up for the poor and oppressed.
Religious leaders in Ethiopia enjoy great trust and command the respect of the people. Where entrenched political interests promote religious antagonism, it is up to the religious leaders to preach and teach tolerance. Ethiopia’s problems do not originate from differences in theology. Ethiopia’s problems originate from those who want to weaponize and politicize religion and ethnicity.
Religious leaders exert extraordinary power over the faithful throughout the world. As spiritual guides, they command the attention and respect of all segments of society. They often play a critical role in civil peace and civil war. Religious wars throughout history have been a source of much suffering and misery.
Despite the failings of religious institutions and teachings, many faith leaders in our time have contributed to the struggle for equality and justice. For instance, Dr. Martin Luther King transformed America and the world with his message of love, peace and reconciliation. Bishop Desmond Tutu led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. When they speak out, their voices are heard and their messages resonate among the people.
Faith leaders have the inherent ability to bridge divides of race, class and nationality. They can shape personal social values raise awareness and influence attitudes, behaviors and practices. They are heard and respected by community members and political leaders.
I believe a nation needs moral purpose to succeed not only in ending conflict and attaining reconciliation, but also in task of economic development and nation building. In my view, the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa was achieved because faith leaders from diverse backgrounds worked together to prevent violence and bring about reconciliation. Faith leaders were able to create solidarity and community, places of worship, gave voice to the oppressed and provided humanitarian relief.
In my view, Lemma Megerssa spoke for Ethiopia in a manner of our Faith Fathers:
… In Ethiopia today, we need love. We need love. We cannot bring love through slogans, blowing horns or propaganda. Love comes when we feel for each other, when we care [and are concerned] for each other. When we care for each other, love is created; it is built. When we have love, we will have a strong Ethiopia. When there is love, there will be strong Ethipiawinet. And beyond any other time today, to bring love, to build love today, it is extremely necessary to care and be considerate to each other. This is obligatory. Otherwise, all we will do is prolong our problems and we will not get too far.
Recalling my call for interfaith councils as the key to national reconciliation
I wholeheartedly support PM Abiy’s call for healing and reconciliation between EOTC members in the country and in the Diaspora. I fully agree that the Church must lead the way on the path to reconciliation and peace.
I do not doubt that PM Abiy will call for an interfaith council int he foreseeable future in light of his exhortations for national reconciliation since he took office. But in line with his request for support from the Diaspora for ideas and contributions, I am going to share my views on the need for an interfaith council so that Ethiopia will have strong Christian, Muslim and other religious institutions serving its diverse population.
I believe Ethiopia needs spiritual healing before political, economic and social healing. Dr. King said we should wage our struggle for justice in the spirit of love. He talked about it in his 1954 sermon entitled, “God’s Love” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
I should like to supplement PM Abiy’s call for healing within the EOTC with my own call for interfaith councils in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora to heal the nation spiritually.
In the U.S., and quite possibly in other countries, communities of faith organize ‘interfaith councils’. These councils bring diverse faith communities to work together to foster greater understanding and respect among people of different faiths and to address basic needs in the community. Many such councils go beyond dialogue and reflection to cooperative work in social services and implementing projects to meet community needs. They stand together to protect religious freedom by opposing discrimination and condemning debasement of religious institutions and faiths. There is no reason why Ethiopians could not establish interfaith councils of their own.
In my July 2012 commentary “Unity in Divinity”, I argued that a threat to the religious liberty of Muslims is a threat to the religious freedom of Christians. I urged Ethiopian “Christian and Muslim religious leaders [to] play a critical role in preventing conflict and in building bridges of understanding, mutual respect and collaborative working relations…” I suggested the establishment of “interfaith councils” patterned after those in the U.S. “These [interfaith] councils bring diverse faith communities to work together to foster greater understanding and respect among people of different faiths and to address basic needs in the community. Many such councils go beyond dialogue and reflection to cooperative work in social services and implementing projects to meet community needs. They stand together to protect religious freedom by opposing discrimination and condemning debasement of religious institutions and faiths. There is no reason why Ethiopians could not establish interfaith councils of their own.”
In my March 2013 commentary, “The Moral Equivalent of an Anti-Apartheid Movement in Ethiopia?”, I argued that interfaith councils are necessary for national reconciliation and peace. Ethiopian Americans who believe in religious freedom in Ethiopia should take is to establish an interfaith council to work on broader issues of religious freedom in Ethiopia.
I reiterate my call for interfaith councils to bring together members of the two faith communities in the United States, and possibly elsewhere, for collective action. Religious freedom in Ethiopia is not an issue that concerns only Muslims. It is of equal concern and importance for Christian Ethiopians who have undergone similar egregious interference in the selection of their religious leadership just recently.
What is needed is sincere and open dialogue and interaction between Ethiopian Americans who are Christians and Muslims to advance the cause of religious liberty and equality for all in unity. Members of these two faith communities must come together in a historic meeting and develop a joint agenda to guarantee and safeguard their religious freedom, overcome any traces of sectarianism and reaffirm their long coexistence, diversity and harmony in a unified country based on the rule of law. They must jointly develop principles of cooperation and coordination. They must develop solidarity which can withstand narrow sectarian interests and the whims and personalities of those in leadership positions. They must relate with each other in the spirit of mutual respect, trust and co-operation and find ways to deepen and strengthen their relations.
Perhaps such dialogue may not come so easily in the absence of existing institutions. It may be necessary for leaders of both faiths to join together and establish a task force to study the issues and make recommendations for the broadest possible dialogue between Ethiopian American Muslims and Christians in America. Christian and Islamic spiritual authorities and laymen should be encouraged to work together not only to defend each other on matters of religious liberty but also to propose long term solutions to reduce the dangers of sectarianism, fanaticism, conflict and misunderstanding and institute a permanent dialogue between members of both faiths. There is no reason why an interfaith council cannot organize joint conferences, meetings, workshops, seminars, press conferences and informational campaigns in the media in both faith communities. The Ethiopia of tomorrow can be built on a strong foundation of dialogue of Muslims and Christians today. Dialogue is a precursor to national reconciliation.
An interfaith council could do many things to transition Ethiopia into reconciliation and make possible the establishment of fair and just society.
I can imagine an interfaith leadership playing a key role in protecting and promoting human rights in Ethiopia. Such a leadership can play an educational role promoting tolerance and equality among all Ethiopians by propagating a message of divinity in our humanity. Interfaith leaders could play a pivotal role in reducing ethnic tensions and increasing social harmony and social cohesion. They can prevent sectarian violence. They can build networks and strengthen community bonds. Above all, they can engage and support the youth which represent 75 percent of the Ethiopian population today.
Abiy, we are with you. The spirit of Mandela is with you. Ethiopia is with you. The Force of the Light Side is with you.
In my April 2015 Memorandum No. 1 to PM Abiy, I wrote:
Abiy has the distinct privilege and good fortune to become a true Ethiopian hero by following in Mandela’s footsteps. Better yet, an African hero. But walking in Mandela’s footsteps will not be easy. Walk he must. He has a long walk on the road to peace, democracy and freedom. The only question is, “Will he will walk those roads alone, with Ethiopia’s Cheetahs and the spirit of Mandela, the exiled Ethiopians in the Diaspora, the tired, the poor and the wretched huddled masses of Ethiopia yearning to breathe free or…?
On May 20, I answer my own question. Abiy, you are not alone. We — one hundred million Ethiopia-strong — are walking with you. The spirit of Mandela is walking with you. The Force of the Light Side is round about you.