Yonas Biru, PhD
I refer to Ethiopia’s political system as a tribal federation rather than ethnic federation because it is primitive and degenerative, not to mention its savagery. A tribal mindset lacks an ethical grid and a human moral campus. At its worst, it invades and poisons religious institutions. It is this phenomenon that has triggered the Tigrayan Orthodox faction to invoke the religious equivalent of Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution to secede from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EOTC).
The faction has formed the Tigray Orthodox Church (TOC) accusing the EOC of two transgressions. First, it alleges the EOTC did not condemn the war that destroyed Tigray. Second, it accuses some EOTC clergymen of actively supporting the Ethiopian National Defense Forces.
Showing Christian magnanimity and brotherly gesture, the EOTC Patriarch and several bishops went to Mekele to apologize to members of the Tigrayan Orthodox leadership. The Tigrayan faction chose not to show up. Even worse they locked the church in a saddening display of absolute rejection. This was unbecoming of any religious group. Even if one assumes the EOTC was deserving of the blame that the Tigrayan faction has mounted, Christians are supposed to be guided by the principle that “to err is human and to forgive is divine.” Let us leave this aside for a moment and set a factual background for our discussion, focusing on several phenomena before and after the war.
Before the war, Tigrayan forces were itching for war, telling the world “ጦርነት ለኛ የባህል ጨዋታችን ነው“ (war is our cultural playground). Elders and religious leaders from around Ethiopia went to Mekele many times to appeal to the TPLF to no avail.
At one point the Ethiopian Council of Federation was in a meeting to decide how to handle TPLF’s defiant dance and drum of war. With a tone of arrogant mockery, Daniel Berhane, one of the founding members of Digital Weyane, tweeted: “አይጦቹ ተሰብሰበው ደመቷ አንገት ላይ ማን ቃጭል እንደሚያስር እየተነጋገሩ ነው” (the mouses are in a meeting to decide who is going to bell the cat).
Another Tigrayan political leader went on TV to declare: “ጦርነት አንፈልግም። ጦርነት ከተጀመረ ግን፣ ጠሚ አብይ እንደ ኮሎኔል መንጊስቱ አምለጠው የመጥፋት እድል አይኖራቸውም። ወይ ይማረካሉ፣ ወይ ይገደላሉ” (We do not want war. But if war begins, the Prime Minister will be captured or killed.
Another one confidently announced: “አማራ ውጊያ አያስፈለገዉም፡ በፊሽካ ነው የሚወጣው። ፊሽካ ተነፍቶ ነው የትግሬን መሬት ለቀህ ውጣ የምንለው” https://www.facebook.com/tariku.adane/posts/3751287608308886
Tigrayan religious leaders did nothing to rein in such a culture of belligerence and war provocation. Let us go back even further in time and ask what have Tigryan religious leaders done during the TPLF’s 27-year terror and atrocities.
As a reminder, the Human Rights Watch characterized Ethiopia under the TPLF as “one of the most inhospitable places in the world, bearing the hallmark of crimes against humanity.” The human rights agency further documented the TPLF-led government “committed numerous human rights violations against Anuak communities in the Gambella region of southwestern Ethiopia that may amount to crimes against humanity.” Tigrayan religious leaders were silent and cold like the people down under (ጉድጏድ እንደገባ ሬሳ ድምጻቸው ተዘግቶ ገላቸው ቀዝቅዞ ነበር).
Now let us see what happened at the beginning of the 2020 war and during the raging war crimes and atrocities on both sides. Let us make four things clear. First, the EOTC Patriarch has made statements condemning atrocities in Tigray and elsewhere, but as an institution the EOTC has not done enough to condemn the war and atrocities committed against civilians on both sides of the warring parties. History will judge the Church harshly.
Second, indeed some elements of the EOTC have taken individual stands to publicly side with the government, going as far as declaring their readiness to fight alongside government forces.
Third, Tigrayan religious leaders were quiet when TPLF slaughtered the Ethiopian National Defense Forces in their sleep in 2020. They were quiet again in 2021 and 2022 when TPLF and Tigrayan Defense Force (TDF) committed atrocities in Amhara and Afar regions during the war.
It is worth noting that The Amnesty International’s 2021 report has documented TPLF’s atrocities in Amhara and Afar regions, stating “potentially amounts to crimes against humanity and defy morality or any iota of humanity.” On February 16, 2022, it issued another report of “repeated incidents of widespread rape, and summary killings. Those who were shot at the back of their heads could not be recognized. Their faces were partially blown off.” We did not hear a squeak from Tigrayan religious leaders.
Fourth, some members of the Tigrayan clergymen have taken individual stands to side with Tigrayan Defense Force – https://twitter.com/i/status/1678510608684052480. Before and during the war, TPLF was planting spies within the EOTC. Some of the Tigrayan clergymen have military titles on top of their religious ones. To this day, TPLF supporters take pride in this. Here is one evidence – https://twitter.com/i/status/1678545969837735942.
Even worse, the fact that TPLF was recruiting children as young as 12 for the war front ad Tigrayan clergymen were umbrella holders to TPLF leaders seem to have been erased from the memory of the tribalist Tigrayan clergymen.
The EOTC as an institution (including the Tigrayan faction) needs to reflect on its deeds ad misdeeds to learn from its failings and seek forgiveness from the people of Ethiopia. The Tigrayan Orthodox faction has no moral ground to accuse and condemn the EOTC. Its own actions and inactions are no different from the action and inaction of the EOTC. Its effort to hold the moral high ground is both futile and sinful. The tears it shades are tears of a tribal political faction not of a religious One.