Ethiopian Orthodox Church Struggles to Heal Amid Political and Ethnic Divisions

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, an institution that has long united the diverse ethnic groups in the war-torn country, is facing its own internal divisions caused by language, politics, resources, and war, the Washington Post reports. These schisms reflect Ethiopia’s broader instability and have significant implications for the country and its international worshippers.

In February, at least 30 people were killed and hundreds injured when rebel bishops from the southern Oromia region attempted to install new clergy, ordaining them as bishops in defiance of Abune Matthias, the church’s patriarch. The bishops accused the church of neglecting their region, leading to ex-communications on both sides. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed intervened to mediate the conflict.

Churches in the northern Tigray region have been looted, bombed, and burned down amid the civil war between the central government and Tigrayan rebels. The patriarch himself was held under virtual house arrest after denouncing crimes against civilians. Tigrayan bishops claim the church supported the war and remained silent about crimes against civilians.

The General Synod struck a deal with the Oromo bishops, rescinding their ex-communication, and announced plans to send a delegation to Tigray to repair the schism. The church’s role in Ethiopian society extends beyond spiritual matters, as clergy facilitate peace talks and document war crimes, and are expected to be involved in transitional justice efforts to address atrocities committed during the civil war.

However, the church’s ability to help heal Ethiopia depends on its capacity to heal its own divisions. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has hundreds of thousands of worshippers abroad, including in the US, Australia, and Europe.

The divisions within the church began in 2018, months after Abiy took power and brought home 24 bishops who had been forced into exile. Oromo bishops felt the return of the exiles, many of whom were from the Amhara ethnic group, upset the synod’s balance of power. The Oromo bishops’ rebellion was fueled by competition for power and resources among Ethiopia’s regions.

As the church works to address its divisions, it remains uncertain whether it can effectively help heal Ethiopia and maintain unity among its diverse worshippers.

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