Church Burnings Across Ethiopia:
A Signal of a State Struggling to Cope with Rapid Transition

Bisrat Kebede

 Vijay Vinoth / Pexels

In 2019 in early September, the Ethiopian government held an emergency meeting with leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to discuss the ongoing political and religious tension in the country. Since July 2018, thirty churches have been attacked across several regions in Ethiopia. More than half of those churches have burned to the ground, leaving a total of at least fifty people dead. 

The underlying causes of this recent pattern of violence lay bare some of the deep and very complicated issues surrounding ethnicity, politics, and distinctions between church and state. According to some observers, the church burnings in the eastern regions of Ethiopia are symptoms of the increased influence of Islamic extremism.  Similar attacks in the northern region have been identified as tactical advancements orchestrated by the preceding heads of state, namely the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, as a means of challenging the authority of those currently in power. The most recent attacks, which took place near the capital city, have been attributed to the Oromo Democratic Party’s (ODP) demands for the establishment of a bureaucratic administrative hub of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (ETOC) within the Oromo region. 

To comprehend these attacks, it is also necessary to understand Ethiopia’s complex religious and multi-ethnic roots. Currently, it is estimated that 98% of Ethiopians claim a religious affiliation. Approximately 45% of the population is Christian Orthodox while 35% is Muslim. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the largest and oldest Oriental Orthodox Christian Churches in the world. During the extensive period of imperial rule from the 4th century A.D. to as recently as the 20th century, the EOTC served as a source of legitimacy and power for the empire. It played a key role in substantiating claims to the imperial throne and existed as an establishment of the Empire until the new regime ushered in by the Marxist revolution of 1974 disestablished EOTC as the imperial church. Disestablishment was seen as a key step in the process of creating a secular state that would propel the country away from feudal rule and toward modernity. 

In practice, even after 1974, the EOTC still held significant influence and power over the administration of the state. The concept of modernity has been described as a project that seeks to institutionalize principles such as constitutionalism, moral autonomy, democracy, human rights, and secularism. While the various regimes that followed the end of imperial rule in Ethiopia attempted to create a secular state, they found that aligning themselves with the EOTC was integral to establishing their right to rule and maintaining control of the populace. 

“Processional Crosses” / scottgunn / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Unsurprisingly, then, religion plays a major role in the life of the average Ethiopian. The church is so much a part of public and private life that the moral code of the collective is directly supplanted by the moral code of the church. One argument for the law prescribing special treatment to religion is that religion is an integral part of a functioning society, providing society with core values that serve as the bases from which laws of the state could derive legitimacy. This view holds true in the context of Ethiopia. There, the moral code provided by religion helps ensure that Ethiopians internalize the rule of law not only in the public realm but also in private, even to the point where lawfulness is infused with one’s identity. 

It is therefore not surprising that the regimes that followed the fall of the empire, with the exception of the Marxist regime, maintained close ties with the EOTC and refrained from taking steps to separate it from the state. The heads of state were not the only ones who utilized and leveraged religion in order to facilitate their political agendas. The multitude of ethnic groups inhabiting Ethiopia have relied on religion and religious institutions as a means of igniting their respective movements in the strife for political significance and dominance. The recurring periods of escalated advances against the church and other religious institutions, therefore, serve as signals of major political and social shifts within the country.

This relationship is clearly demonstrated by the proximity of the church burnings to the recent change of leadership in April of 2018. Soon after Abiy Ahmed was appointed as the new Prime Minister, the country undertook its biggest stride toward becoming a liberal democracy. This progressive approach opened the door for various political factions and ethnic groups to assert themselves in their respective regions. The three main actors in this push for power were the Tigray in the northern region, the Oromo near the capital city, and the Somali of the Eastern region. 

The multitude of ethnic groups inhabiting Ethiopia have relied on religion and religious institutions as a means of igniting their respective movements in the strife for political significance and dominance.

The first of the three, the Tigray, were in power for nearly three decades after their victory over the Marxist regime and held power until the appointment of Prime minister Ahmed in 2018. Soon after the shift in power, the Tigray heads of state left the capital and returned to their region in the north. The ousted leaders turned their attention to centralizing power within and began a campaign of undermining the new regime by enticing violent uprisings in surrounding regions that culminated in the destruction of numerous churches in northern Ethiopia. The Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country, saw the reformist approach as an opportunity to voice their grievances through both violent and nonviolent means. Despite their status as the largest ethnic group, the Oromo endured a long history of oppression under the Imperial rule of the Amhara which, during certain periods of its history, classified the group as non-Christian pagans and subjugated its members to slavery. In light of this history, it made sense that one of the Oromo’s is the establishment of a breakaway administrative hub of the ETOC within their region. The ETOC has long been associated with favoring the Amhara and often identified as the church of the privileged Amhara people. It was during this time that the church burnings spread to this region.Attacks on churches in the eastern region of Ethiopia have been attributed to tensions between Somali-Ethiopians and government soldiers over lack of representation and oppression of the inhabitants at the hands of the government. Furthermore, some have attributed the church burnings in the Muslim dominated region to the growing influence of Islamic extremism alleged to have been imported from bordering countries.

Thus, these three separate instances of violence against the ETOC have varying causes that can be traced back to particular issues within their respective regions. What these patterns of violence have in common, however, is that all three involve making churches focal points for expressing political frustration and garnering attention from the government and the country as a whole. The ETOC’s influence in Ethiopian society and the degree to which it continues to be deeply enmeshed with the state makes it an easy target for those who seek to challenge or weaken the current government. The widespread nature of the attacks also reflects the level of tension brewing among ethnic groups and political factions, and the rising intensity of the violence signals that greater political instability may be on the horizon. 

Political theorists John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas advocate varying degrees of separation of church and state as a means of preserving political legitimacy and harmony in pluralistic societies. Their views rest on the assumption that a state that advocates for religious pluralism must also rid itself of religious affiliation to ensure fair political and legal processes that allow all citizens to participate. For Rawls, this means that religious dialogue and religious motivations for action must be confined to the private sphere, while normative discourse in the public sphere must rely on reasoning that is accessible to all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Habermas, however, advocates for a softer version of religious neutrality that permits religious dialogue in the public sphere and only banishes religious reasoning from political decision making. 

 The widespread nature of the attacks also reflects the level of tension brewing among ethnic groups and political factions, and the rising intensity of the violence signals that greater political instability may be on the horizon.

It is possible to apply these political theories to the circumstances in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is religiously heterogeneous and advocates for religious pluralism (at least on paper). The various religious groups have lived peacefully alongside one another for centuries. However, Orthodox Christianity has enjoyed dominance in the region and at various times has been classified as the state religion. Given these circumstances, it is likely that both Rawls and Habermas would view the intermingling of the two institutions as problematic. This contention could be supported by pointing to the lack of representation for the less dominant religions that are subjugated to abiding by laws and regulations that are heavily influenced by the ETOC. Alternatively, one could argue that this form of governance risks the potential for a dominant religion to overexert its power and thereby repress the exercise of other religions. 

Assuming that the Ethiopian government aggressively sought to separate church and state and prohibited all forms of religious dialogue from the public sphere, it is likely that the level of hostility toward the government would multiply tenfold. In Ethiopia, religion is a staple of the public sphere; it could even be regarded as the lowest common denominator. If the government were instead to take the Habermasian approach and prohibit religious narrative only in the confines of the political realm, it is possible that the reform could find success and even appease the grievances of the various ethnic groups by establishing a political institution that is not at risk of favoring one religion over another. This approach may also be favorable to the state because, in separating itself from the ETOC, the state gets rid of the vulnerability to attack created by its close association to the church. The ETOC may also benefit from this separation as the would-be attackers would have very little incentive to target a wholly nongovernmental entity. 

Given the realities on the ground, it is likely that the current administration and its successors will seek to solidify the line of separation between church and state. As the national narrative shifts more toward autonomy for the various ethnic groups, the state will likely have less of an incentive to seek legitimation from the ETOC. The lack of action by the state in response to the fires could be a sign that it is already distancing itself from the matter. The shift of narrative from religious divide to ethnic group autonomy brings up an important question. Does ethnicity now get special treatment? Can ethnicity receive special treatment in the same way religion does? How could ethnicity be treated distinctly? With the conflict amongst ethnic groups and the state boiling to the surface, it is imperative for the state to provide answers to these questions. ♦

Bisrat Kebede is a recent graduate of Emory University School of Law and holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Georgia.

Kebede, Bisrat. “Church Burnings Across Ethiopia: A Signal of a State Struggling to Cope with Rapid Transition.” Canopy Forum, April 10, 2020.