Has Religion Been Fueling the Politics of Conflict in Ethiopia? A Cautionary Tale

Jon Abbink

body of water under cloudy sky during sunset by Storiès on Unsplash.

Conflict and Religion

Is religion a conflict dimension in today’s Ethiopia? Does it have an impact on the ongoing armed confrontations in the country? Some observers think so, but I disagree. Ethiopia, the second-most populated country in Africa, with approximately 112 million people, is, indeed, torn by violent conflict, notably since November 2020, when an insurgent party, the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), the erstwhile dominant ruling party before 2018, started a devastating war. On August 24, 2022, it appeared that these insurgents, who control the northern regional state of Tigray, had reignited the war again in the area around the city of Kobo, in Wag Hemra, and elsewhere, with attacks on federal army units and shelling of villages. They thereby flouted the offer of permanent ceasefire and peace talks, cautiously brokered by the African Union. An AU offer for talks in South Africa on October 8, 2022 was also rejected by the TPLF, posing conditions. In addition to this tenacious conflict of a retrograde movement, Ethiopia has seen mass killings of a specific ethno-linguistic group, the Amhara, in an ongoing, ideologically vague insurgency of certain “rebels,” referred to as “Oromo Liberation Army,” among the Oromo people, who make up approximately 35% of the Ethiopian population and who reside in parts of western Ethiopia. 

The conflicts have seen ugly feats of war, mostly on the side of the insurgents, including targeting of civilians, random mass executions, use of child soldiers, torture, mass rape, “ethnic cleansing,” extrajudicial executions, and scorched-earth devastation of occupied areas, including religious places. There have also been wild accusations of “genocide” and the use of “food aid blockade” as a “weapon of war.” But the conflicts, though multidimensional, are mostly fought on the basis of instrumentalized ethnicity and elite power rivalry–not religion.

For much of its history,  Ethiopia has been seen as a “deeply religious” country, with the settlement of the earliest Christians in the early fourth century and Muslim communities in the early seventh century. One might ask: why in a deeply religious country there is so much violence, since violence is presumably not in line with religious ideals? The answer must be sought in a combination of factors relating to politics, ideologies, and international relations which put religion in the shadows. The political factors have to do with rivalling, undemocratic elites. The ideological factors have to do with the heritage of the authoritarian Marxist Derg regime (1974-1991) and with an imposed ethnic-based federalism that has deeply impacted political life since 1991. The international factors have to do with the often parochial and misguided meddling of foreign parties, notably “donor countries” (USA and EU). This international meddling has often been stimulated by substandard, sloppy global media reporting that does not ascertain the relevant facts, repeats propaganda stories, and has been remarkably selective, if not biased, towards the insurgents.

The Religious Tapestry

Historically, Ethiopia is an ancient African state whose political antecedents were formed in the highlands of the Horn of Africa. From the mid-fourth century forward it was a “Christian monarchy.” In later ages, new territories were included, often by conquest, with substantial numbers of Muslims increasing rapidly from the twelfth century and local “indigenous” believers made part of the polity by conquest or incorporation. Ethiopians are currently about 62% Christian (Orthodox, Evangelical Protestant, or Catholic), 35% Muslim, and 3-4% “traditional” local believers. Ethiopians also strongly self-identify as belonging to their religious community in a wider “cultural” sense. Religion in Ethiopia is embedded in the lived socio-cultural patterns of the population, whereby both doctrinal strictness and fanatic commitments are traditionally avoided. Common among the people are behavioral expressions of an everyday piety and a general deference to divine, ritual calendars. This body of beliefs was largely respected by those of other faiths. 

However, Ethiopia also has an historical heritage of religious tensions, as well as past incidents of discrimination or persecution, which are sometimes related to local-geographical or “ethnic” identification, since some groups are 99% Christian or Muslim. These were passing phases and not so entrenched as to prevent accommodation and coexistence or to produce causal factors for perpetual antagonism, let alone the harsh war that we see today. In addition, the insurgent wars of the 1970s and 1980s in Ethiopia, notably against the military Derg regime, were not driven by religious identity-based fighting, but rather mostly by “ethno-regional” grievances.

Up to 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie I was deposed in a revolution, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity was the “state religion.” Since 1985, when a new constitution was promulgated by the Marxist-socialist Derg regime, Ethiopia was declared a “secular” state–or rather, religion was “disestablished”–such that religion and state were separate. This mainly disadvantaged the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), whose landed property and real estate were confiscated. The position and recognition of Muslims, on the other hand, received a major boost. The statute of secularism was confirmed in the new 1994 constitution, issued under the former ethno-federalist Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime from 1991 to 2018. It states in Article 11.1 and 2: “The State and religion are separate” and “There shall be no state religion.” So, legally, Ethiopia has a secular state order, a fact not really contested by religious believers and spokespersons. After 1991, with the intensified “globalisation” of religion in Africa, religious polemics and public rivalry between Christians and Muslims increased in the public space. But the big Muslim protests against the EPRDF regime’s prescriptive religious policies in 2011-2014 were in the name of the secular order. The Muslims here specifically referred to constitutional Article 11.3, which stated that: “The state shall not interfere in religious matters and religion shall not interfere in state affairs.”

One might ask: why in a deeply religious country there is so much violence, since violence is presumably not in line with religious ideals? The answer must be sought in a combination of factors relating to politics, ideologies, and international relations which put religion in the shadows.

In centuries past, Ethiopian religious communities lived together in a perception of “separateness”, or recognition of difference, in a largely benevolent way. Piety, rituals, and devotion to the God or Allah of the other were mutually respected. Episodes of severe violence include the early sixteenth-century clashes, when a Christian-Muslim war (from 1529 to 1543) took many victims and brought major devastation. While these had serious political dimensions – involving territorial control and conquest – the religious motivation was strong, especially on the side of the Muslims under their military leader Ahmed ibn Ibrahim, who aimed to destroy the Ethiopian Christian heritage. Christian monarchs had tried to subdue Muslim principalities at the highland fringes and extract tribute from them. Such a war was not repeated, but there were regular tensions, as under Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV (r. 1872-1889), who at some point intended to convert all Muslims to Christianity to forge national unity, against the encroaching Sudanese Mahdist forces attacking Ethiopia in the 1880s. This led to communal fights, but the campaign was not successful. Religious incidents and clashes have been occurring until today, and extremist fringes exist, but in general Christians and Muslims reverted to a quest for coexistence and “getting along,” thereby not waiting for state initiatives. As Mohammed Girma has observed: “the unique peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia came not from the state apparatus, but from the indigenous innovation of the ordinary people.”

The current conflict: ideologies, authoritarianism  and elite failure

The current conflict between the insurgent party TPLF and the federal government erupted on the night of November 3-4,2020, with an attack of the TPLF on sleeping federal army soldiers stationed in Tigray. It is important to realize that the TPLF was the dominant power in Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018, as part of a “coalition” of four parties forged during the armed struggle against the Derg regime. After an internal party shift of power in early 2018 and the election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed, who is of Oromo background, to the premiership, the TPLF elite, resenting the relative loss of federal power, gradually retreated to Tigray, a regional state that they continued to rule in highly authoritarian fashion as sole party, and proceeded to build up a large regional army. No religious motives were involved, only pure power politics.

In the years preceding the outbreak of war in November 2020, there were not only growing political tensions between the TPLF rulers in Tigray and the federal government, but also multiple overtures to contain them. Religious leaders, who usually stayed aloof from politics, tried multiple times to call for moderation and de-escalation. Prior to the war’s eruption near the year’s end,  several delegations of religious dignitaries visited the TPLF leaders in Meqele in 2020 and pleaded for peace and compromise. Women’s delegations also appealed to shared religious as well as secular values of moderation and de-escalation. But it was to no avail, since both groups were rebuffed.

Preparations for war went ahead on the side of the TPLF (as a secret TPLF document of October 2020 revealed), and the TPLF elite forced the Tigrayans to fight in the war, recruiting scores of child soldiers and reformulating its struggle to retain power and privilege as “a fight for the rights of the Tigray people.” Many responded to the call, with some believing in “the cause” and many others simply being unemployed and in need of food and cash. The TPLF also forced all families to surrender at least one of their children as a soldier for its army. Many complied, and those who did not were forced or went to prison. (In 2019, the TPLF local Tigray militia had already swelled to an estimated 240,000). The fighting, with the Ethiopian federal army responding the day after the November 3-4, 2020 attack, killed tens of thousands and caused major socio-economic and medical distress and food scarcity, due to major roads being closed because of the fighting. The federal army retreated from Tigray on June 28, 2021, offering a unilateral ceasefire and leaving supplies of fuel and humanitarian and agricultural aid for local rehabilitation. A ceasefire was refused by the TPLF, which then expanded the war into the adjacent Amhara and Afar Regions, causing tens of thousands of civilian deaths and huge material destruction. The TPLF stripped the occupied areas of equipment, food supplies, and harvests, and any other items of value. The collateral damage to religious institutions was also substantial. Churches and mosques in Afar and Amhara areas were hit and robbed by various parties. Eritrean troops that became involved were later also accused of damaging religious sites in Tigray, although this was much exaggerated in TPLF propaganda. In December 2021, the TPLF were decisively defeated and driven back to the Tigray Region–and the federal army did not enter to pursue them. It declared a truce and readiness to allow continued humanitarian aid and fuel deliveries. But stretches of northern Amhara Region remain TPLF-occupied until this day.

Paradoxically, in May 2021 Abune Mathias, the patriarch of the EOC, headquartered in Addis Ababa, accused the federal government of “genocide in Tigray.” A Tigrayan himself, the patriarch was a political appointee and confirmed in 2013 by the TPLF-EPRDF leadership. His questionable accusation caused great shock among the majority of believers. He did not mention the targeted mass killings by TPLF units of over a 1000 people, mostly Amhara, on November 9-10, 2020 in the northern town of Mai Kadra. He was denounced by the rest of the EOC leadership, who said he only spoke for himself. The patriarch apparently fell into the propaganda trap of the TPLF and its cyber-army. No scholar or informed observer ever empirically substantiated the “genocide” against Tigrayans–this was a meme purposely created by propagandists. “Genocide” in international law means a systematically planned and deliberately targeted campaign to violently eliminate an entire national, ethnic, racial, or religious group or people. This was never the case regarding Tigray. On the contrary, the Ethiopian federal government targeted primarily the illegal armed insurgency of the TPLF, and always stressed that the problem was not created by the Tigrayan people but by this movement. It tried to provide rehabilitation and aid to civilians throughout the conflict. Interestingly, the first Twitter message proclaiming “genocide in Tigray” had been produced on the day of the TPLF attack on the federal army, even before the federal army had started to fight back. This incident with the EOC patriarch showed the susceptibility of religious dignitaries to political propaganda based on “ethnic” affinity. Other members of the EOC, however, such as the bishop of the city of Weldiya  in 2021, did their best to stay neutral, plead for peace, and help the victims. The same was true for many local Muslim leaders and the Ethiopian mufti, Haji Omar Idris.

Religious politics?

The Ethiopian federal government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is an evangelical Christian and who was re-elected in June 2021’s parliamentary elections, defended its military activities in the name of the national interest and the country’s sovereignty–never in the name of God or Allah or of any specific Christian or Muslim cause. Some Christian activist preachers, however, have tried to depict the prime minister as doing such. Abiy made appeals to Ethiopians to help defend the motherland, but he never acted as an evangelical Christian in power or justified policy on that basis. Still, he appealed to religious constituencies “to work together” with the government. In his more recent public speeches, Abiy may gradually have moved from being inspired by positive Christian ideas to a more direct, emphatic use of religious symbolism – often adapting his rhetoric to his specific audience. There is thus controversy on how dominant his evangelical faith is as a force defining his statecraft and policies. Some observers are highly critical. But such voices often forget that the prime minister does not rule alone, but rather with a party and a parliament and within a constitutional order. He may use words like “the Creator” (Amharic: fett’ari) or “the God of Ethiopia” (yeItiopia Amlak) in his speeches, but these are general terms that evoke not a specific Christian or Muslim God, but refer more to a common religiosity in Ethiopia, to an overarching divine protective force, almost the “genius loci” of the country, which is seen as encompassing all inhabitants of the space called Ethiopia. It is interesting that the underlying idea of a “covenant,” an originally religious idea that was inherited from the EOC tradition, but which evolved into a mythical basis of national history is also seen as applying to Muslims, as equal inhabitants of the country.

It must also be said that neither TPLF nor the Tigrayans publicly vilified religious groups. That would be highly paradoxical, because all EOC believers recognize the essential role of Tigray Region and its top church, Mariam-Tsion in the town of Aksum, as the pivotal place of the faith. It is both the place where the Ark of the Covenant allegedly rests and the place where the first Muslims found refuge in the early seventh century. But TPLF leaders – when in power and during the current conflict – were never caught expressing positive religious thoughts derived from either Christianity or Islam. Both during their armed struggle (1976-1991) and their period of rule (1991-2018), the TPLF had discouraged Christianity and Islam as “conservative” and “counter-revolutionary” and co-opted religious leaders for their cause, often with coercion. They manipulated religion for political purposes all through their reign. 

In the war since 2020, the TPLF has also had no problem with targeting religious institutions, damaging them when they deem fit, and not discriminating between religions. The TPLF has given “equal treatment” to churches, monasteries and mosques as targets in the northern Amhara and Afar regions. Both Muslim villages and Christian villages were shelled in equal manner – with many civilian casualties. In October 2021, the historic mosque of Zarema in Amhara Region was destroyed. There were also accusations that the TPLF had stored its weapons in churches. 

The renewed fighting since August 24, 2022, bodes ill and shows all the signs of previous abuse, including TPLF recruitment of child soldiers, shelling of villages, theft of humanitarian aid and fuel for military purposes, human-wave tactics with ill-trained young troops put in the first frontline, propaganda war, and refusal to talk peace sincerely. No appeal to any religious values – in the old days a core marker of Tigrayan identity and dignity – has been visible. While the clashes in western Oromia cannot be discussed here in detail, there are some indications that the OLA rebels more clearly target Orthodox churches, which they identify with the “Amhara settlers” that are their focus. But at the same time many local Oromo people are also Orthodox.

Religion and war

The intensified conflicts of the past two to three years, as well as and those before, are primarily the result of decades of ethnicist divide-and-rule ideologies inspired by Marxist-Leninist thinking of the 1970-80s, as primarily embodied in the TPLF, which from 1991 to 2018 was the dominant unit in the “coalition” of four ethnic-based parties, the EPRDF. Religious-communal differences rarely added fuel to these ethnic animosities, with some exceptions, and religious identities did not become part of the conflict in the current war. The Tigray armed conflict was political-ideological. Religions – be they Islam, Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Protestantism-Evangelicalism, Catholicism, or “traditional-local” religions–cross-cut all warring groups and were not appealed to in the armed confrontations. Certain misguided observers, however, tried to over-interpret religion and accused Ethiopian leaders of a “religious agenda” and a revival of a “Christian nationalism,” whatever that is. This was, however, based on a skewed and “ethnicized” reading of modern Ethiopian history. Moreover, it was not convincing, because lacking a decent political analysis. Christians and Muslims in the country do feel solidarity with their fellow believers on the other side of the divide in Tigray, and they recognize the primarily political and “ethnicist” reasons for this conflict.


Religion did not play a causative role in generating or fueling the armed conflicts of 2020-2022 in Ethiopia. In these conflicts, religious buildings were indeed targeted and partly destroyed not because of a religious reason among the attackers but to demoralize the local community and its spirit. While, historically speaking, frequent religious tensions and violent incidents have occurred, in virtually all cases the decisive role of covert political agendas and meddling politicians could be discerned, instrumentalizing religion for their political-ideological purposes. This was visible in the later years of the EPRDF regime, when religious rivalry seemed to get out of hand, with extremist-activist minorities emerging and religious incidents between Christians and Muslims growing. But this onset of instrumentalizing religion was largely defused by ordinary believers, not going along in the machinations of “leaders” or extremists.

It is, nevertheless, somewhat disturbing to note that the presumed religious commitment of people in Ethiopia in general neither prevented nor restrained combatants, notably of the TPLF, from engaging in appalling cruelty and abuse of civilians and ordinary people. Eye witnesses in TPLF-affected areas have earlier reported cases of abuse as “never seen before” and as “bestial” (I refrain from giving examples). This has led to a serious fracturing of the social fabric and of inter-ethnic community relations in northern Ethiopia. The country’s political elites (and would-be elites) seem engaged in a pattern of mimetic political rivalry that could escalate further in a “race to extremes” in the Girardian sense, endangering national cohesion. This despite the fact the federal government in crucial moments has tried to break this cycle with offers of ceasefire no fewer than three times, along with aid provision. It is hoped that an appeal to religious values, mediators and rehabilitation programs can be made to restore relations and forge a path to some kind of reconciliation, so as to let the country heal. The “National Dialogue” process, started by the federal parliament in December 2021, could play a role. But here also the TPLF has refused to participate – ignoring the overarching role of religion and religious holy places of national significance that are located in Tigray itself. With the TPLF since September 2022 militarily and diplomatically in a much weaker position, some form of talks will eventually materialize, shaping the outlines of a political settlement. A new call from African Union mediators for talks in South Africa on 24 October 2022 was immediately accepted by the Ethiopian government, and some days later also by a hard-pressed TPLF. Whether they will yield breakthrough results is doubtful. Despite the great reserves of “social capital,” including cherished religious values that exist on the level of ordinary people in communities across the country, the resolution of the conflict and the restoration of social peace will be momentous tasks. ♦

Jon Abbink is a political anthropologist-historian and professor of Politics & Governance in Africa at the African Studies Center at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He published widely on Horn of Africa societies, cultures, and politics, notably on Ethiopia.  His last (co-edited) book was 2022 The Routledge Handbook of the Horn of Africa (Chief editor: J.N. Bach).

Recommended Citation

Abbink, Jon. “Has Religion Been Fueling the Politics of Conflict in Ethiopia? A Cautionary Tale.” Canopy Forum. October 26, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/10/26/has-religion-been-fueling-the-politics-of-conflict-in-ethiopia-a-cautionary-tale/