Three people have been killed Saturday in attacks on a church in southern Ethiopia, according to reports by a religious media outlet.
The violence erupted against a backdrop of tensions in the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church after rebel bishops created their own synod in Oromia, the country’s most populous region.
Abune Henok, Archbishop of Addis Ababa Diocese, described the incidents in the Oromia city of Shashamene as “shameful and heart-wrenching,” according to the Church-affiliated Tewahedo Media Center (TMC).
The TMC said two Orthodox Christian youths had been killed, and another four people injured, when Oromia special forces attacked the church in Shashamene, which lies about 250 kilometers (150 miles) south of Addis Ababa.
It later said there had been sniper fire on the church from nearby high-rise buildings that had killed a woman and injured others.
It was not possible to independently verify the reports.
Henok called on the authorities in Oromia, also the largest geographic region in Ethiopia, to stop the “persecution” of Orthodox Christians, according to the TMC.
A statement issued by the Holy Synod later urged clergy and the faithful to wear black in protest and called for peaceful demonstrations at churches at home and abroad on February 12.
The unity of the Ethiopian Church, one of the oldest in the world and which accounts for about 40 percent of the country’s 115 million population, is under threat after the move by the rebel clergy last month.
The Church, headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias for a decade, has declared the breakaway synod illegal and excommunicated the bishops involved.
It has also accused the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of interfering in its affairs and making comments that effectively recognized the “illegitimate group.”
Addressing cabinet members earlier in the week, Abiy — who is himself from the Oromo community — called for the rivals to engage in dialogue and said both sides had their “own truths.”
The breakaway bishops accuse the church of discrimination and linguistic and cultural hegemony, saying congregations in Oromia are not served in their native language, claims rejected by the patriarchate.
Orthodox leaders have long complained of religious persecution, including the burning of churches several years ago, and relations with the government have been tense in the past, including over the Tigray conflict.
The World Council of Churches issued a statement Friday voicing “deep concern” about the developments in the Ethiopian institution.
“We call upon all political leaders in Ethiopia to support the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in its efforts to achieve unity and peace among its members,” WCC general secretary Jerry Pillay said.