A gloomy Christmas for Orthodox Tigrayans in Addis Ababa

A year after the Tigray War, many young Christians in the region are trying to rebuild their future in the Ethiopian capital. But the war has shaken their trust in their Church.  

Christmas Tigray

A crowd dressed in white lines the streets of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa on Orthodox Christmas Eve, known here as Gena. Some believers return to their homes, while others spend the night at the church, lulled by the chants of the priests that continue until dawn. Along the peripheral roads, the last sheep are sold for the next day’s meal, breaking the 43-day fast from eating meat products.

But Diana Fiseha is not in a festive mood. This is the fourth Christmas the 21-year-old has celebrated without her parents due to the war in the northern Tigray region. Despite the signing of a peace treaty in November 2022, her hometown, Humera, remains occupied by Eritrean troops who allied with the Ethiopian federal army during the conflict.

With an estimated death toll of over 600,000, it is the deadliest conflict of the century globally. Even though the vast majority of Tigrayans in Ethiopia and Addis Ababa belong to the Tewahedo Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, true reconciliation remains elusive.

Tigrayans continue to face discrimination

“We still believe in God and that a miracle will happen. But looking around us, we see no reason to hope,” says Fiseha.

Her friend Aki Akberet agrees. She has just returned from exile in Sudan, where another war broke out in mid-April. Like these two young women, many Tigrayans have relocated to the capital of Africa’s second most populous country.

“The war has devastated the economy in Tigray. I have a better chance of finding a job here,” Akberet explains.

In the north, famine looms as drought and abandoned explosives hinder agricultural work. Meanwhile, in Addis Ababa, a quarter of young people are unemployed. To make matters worse, the hostilities interrupted the education of both survivors, further limiting their professional opportunities.

Bisrat Fitsum, on the other hand, was called back last summer to complete the semester he missed to obtain his civil engineering degree at Axum University. He then headed to Addis Ababa with the hope of securing a job. But the silence of the guns has not put an end to discrimination.

“If the police hear us speaking Tigrinya, we risk getting into trouble,” he says.

Several of his neighbors have recently been apprehended, sometimes mistaken for Eritreans who speak the same language and are under scrutiny by the government due to deteriorating bilateral relations.

Bishops turn a blind eye to massacres

At the height of the conflict, racism even crept into the ranks of the Church. Many bishops blessed and financially supported the military forces attacking Tigrayan villages, turning a blind eye to the massacres and rapes committed against civilians.

“We were harassed, detained, and killed because of our ethnicity. Over 1,000 Tigrayan priests and deacons were suspended from their duties. We were no longer allowed to commune,” says Lisanewerk Desta, a high-ranking Tigrayan dignitary in the Church who has just regained his position after being jailed and tortured six times.

The Tigrayan branch of the Tewahedo Orthodox Church of Ethiopia eventually split in February 2022 and elected its own bishops in July 2023.

“If the leaders of the central Church admit their mistakes, perhaps reconciliation can be considered,” Desta hopes.

Nevertheless, these two years of fighting have forced many believers to reconsider their relationship with the institution.

“I have no doubt about my faith. It gave me the strength to fight for my people,” assures Girmay Adane, a former soldier of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. “But the bishops of Addis Ababa committed cursed acts by fueling a war that spared no priests, laity, women, or children.”

With a bullet lodged in his abdomen, the 30-year-old spent Christmas Eve alone in a hospital bed in the capital, undergoing costly treatments.

First appeared in La Croix International. 

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