The irony of politics and Religion in Ethiopia
If there is any freedom the EPRDF led Ethiopian government brings to the country, there is none but religious freedom. That is not because it is democratic, as it likes to boast. Its motive is understandable to anyone who knows the history of the country. Religious freedom was a ploy to its insidious cause.
When this government came to power in 1991, it focused on ethnic politics and religious freedom. To figure out why, one needs to look into the history of the country specifically its religious history. Ethiopia is considered to be a land of orthodox Christians. Christianity took root in Ethiopia in the fourth century. Along with it came a claim from rulers tracing their ancestry to King Solomon of the Bible. Of course, this claim does not have any degree of truth. Those rulers used it to subjugate their subjects; however, it did play a role in strengthening the unity of the country. The main language to disseminate the faith was ‘geez’, but through time, Amharic substituted it. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church enjoyed imperial backing up until Emperor Haile Sellasie, the last emperor who was toppled in 1974.
Orthodox Christianity for Ethiopians before the advent of EPRDF was almost equivalent to what is Islam for Arab countries. Because of this fact, the Italians regarded it as a thorn on the side. They thought that the main obstacles not to realize their colonial ambition were the amhara domination and the Orthodox Church. Therefore, during their five years occupation of the country they toiled to undermine the two. In an effort to weaken, the Orthodox Church they were the ones who lay the foundation for the big Mosque situated in downtown Addis Ababa in front of Saint ‘Ragual’ church though it was finished after they had left.
Yet the poison they sow was implanted in the minds of the Eritrean leader Essaias Afeworki and the deceased Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi. The former believes that for Eritrea to be stabilized essentially Ethiopia must be weakened. For him to attain that, like the Italians the prerequisite was to undermine the amhara hegemony and the Orthodox Church. To speed up his dream he befriended the Ethiopian rebels, who devoted themselves to divide the nation along ethnic lines and degrade the role of Orthodox Church in Ethiopian society. Meles and his ethnically organized clique too, embrace this belief hoping they would rule for a century indisputably provided that they pursue this Italian technique.
When the Mengistu dictatorial regime came to power in 19 74 as it claimed to be a socialist, categorically it was an atheist. Because of that, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church utterly lost its influence. Nevertheless, it was in a better position as other faiths were not encouraged. Honestly speaking, before that except perhaps the catholic all the others even Islam were suppressed. Emperor Haile Selassie was said to have the motto “A country is to all and religion is to the individual”. Nevertheless, this was only a lip service. Those who witnessed his time curse him for being partial to the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Some historians tell us that, it was much later that even some Muslim holidays began to be commemorated during his era. On the other hand, the Mengistu regime saw religious suppression. It is said that there was an attempt to make the clergies socialist cadres. The late 1980s and the early 1990s, Ethiopia I knew in my childhood was a difficult place for other Christian sects especially protestants and Jehovah. The Orthodox Christians refer to these sects as anti- Virgin Mary. I remember these fellows being punched by everybody around for daring to pronounce the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand or preach the gospel on the street or in a public bus. Some parents preferred their children becoming a robber to converting their faith. Relatively, at this time Islam was at a better position. Yet still today Ethiopia is a country possibly in the World where one finds a Muslim restaurant or a Christian restaurant. Hence, when the TPLF led government controlled the country in the early 1990s as I said above not only it fanfares religious freedom, it bestows plots of land to Muslims to build their Mosques near a Christian church. Furthermore, for the first time in the country’s history Muslims are allowed to celebrate their Holiday in Mesquel square. It is in the present government that Friday is adopted to have earlier lunch break to allow Muslims to conduct their Friday prayer. Other Christian sects also become freer to establish their churches. By bits and bounds, the sentiment to attack Protestants and Jehovah seemed to peter out today in Ethiopia. They have churches in villages not only in Addis but also in provincial towns where it was very unthinkable professing other faith except orthodox Christianity let alone building a church.
Formerly almost all restaurants used to be Christian ones. It was very difficult for a Muslim to find a restaurant that caters Muslims. Today this problem seems to be curbed for Muslims. On the contrary, the good old days are gone for orthodox Christians. Its problem is not only other faiths’ freedom. As its predecessor had tried to make the clergies cadres to its own advantage, the present government coerced them to be divided ethnically. As soon as it came to power, it systematically removed the patriarch who was an amhara and replaced him by another patriarch who is a tigrean bringing him from exile. His appointment must have resented the congregation in general and the amhara clergies in particular. Most find it sacrilegious to appoint a new Patriarchate while his predecessor is alive. Here, a question rises as the removed patriarchate was appointed by the involvement of the previous regime. The rift exacerbated when the Patriarch made a reform. His problem was not only with the clergies but also the congregation lambasted him for siding with the government. The rift continued unabated. Though some effort was made to patch up the difference, it could not bear fruit. As a result, most of the amhara clergies who felt marginalized began leaving the country to end up being expatriated in Western countries.
It is surprising; today we are hearing the clergies in exile siding with Muslim protesters who are accusing of the government intervening in their faith. What is ironic is they both claim that before this regime there was no hostility between the two faiths. True, there was no strained relationship between the two main religions; however, their relationship was usually characterized by contempt against each other.
Today when I hear clergies residing in the US joined their Muslim brothers in a demonstration against the Ethiopian government to show their solidarity, it astonishes me indeed. Owing to the so-called independent media ESAT, we are hearing representatives of both groups accusing the government of breaking the old age bond between the two. Of course, history has it the Prophet Mohamed urging his flock to go to Ethiopia where they would encounter a cordial welcome, when they faced persecution in Mecca. Yet this never changed the attitude of both Christians and Muslims for each other. It is a recent reminiscence, in Addis when Orthodox Christians took out their sword against Muslims for attempting to build a mosque near Saint Marry church, to be exact, in the mid 90s. Government forces had to intervene to calm down the situation. The bellicose may be the government itself of course. It knew the religious intolerance; therefore, it calculated that when Muslims move to build a mosque near a church inevitably the Christians would try to stop them. Then brawl ensues. That in return gives the government the chance to be mediator. Whatever the government’s motive may have been in granting religious freedom to the nation , it won him popularity from Muslims until this recent resentment.
What cause the rift between the Ethiopian government and the Muslims needs to be scrutinized meticulously. Yet the claim that the orthodox clergies and Muslims in the Diaspora show solidarity is nothing beyond the saying the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Each has a veiled interest.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org