Ethiopia has taken centre stage over the last four years, with a Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister propelled to power by a four-year civil protest movement quickly leading the country into multiple internal war fronts. The last two years, in particular, have seen many begin to wonder if the Ethiopian state itself will survive the compounding conflicts, given that they are rooted in a tumultuous, contested, and violent past. The most recent and significant development in the tectonic shifts that have been breaking social and political ground in the country occurred on the 22nd of January 2023.
Three Oromo archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church announced the formation of an Oromo Orthodox Church Synod, with 26 patriarchs appointed to lead the synod across Oromia. In stark opposition to the new synod, a large number of Ethiopian Orthodox Church members, particularly those of an Amhara ethnic background, have been coming out in protest at the breaking up of the church, citing it as a violation beyond politics, and a breach of holy religious law.
The government, which has been supportive of the Oromo Synod has – in the manner in which it regularly responds to any expression of civil dissent – responded with state violence, shooting at protesters and, for a short while, shutting down the Internet and telecommunication services.
On the 13th of February, the Oromia Media Network reported that the new Synod is in the process of supporting the formation of synods of other national and ethnic identities, naming the Gambela, Gumuz, Sidama, Gurage, and Gamo as amongst those that will be forming their own Orthodox Church Synods in the near future.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has existed since the 4th century and belongs to the broader body of Orthodox churches that include the Coptic, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox churches, and the Syrian Orthodox Church of India. The liturgical language of the church is Ge’ez, a Semitic language originating from northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, with Amharic also being used in the church today. Orthodox believers make up approximately 30 per cent of Ethiopia’s population and Amharic, the language of the Amhara ethnic group who make up approximately 22 per cent of Ethiopia’s overall population, is the official working language of Ethiopia.
Language, and the social and political power that it comes with, is one of the reasons that supporters of the Oromo Orthodox Synod believe that this recent shift is necessary. Cultural marginalization has been the experience of the Oromo and other national and cultural groups in the country since the formation of the Ethiopian state in the 1800s, a formation that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was instrumental in spearheading.
When Menelik II began his expeditions into the Oromia heartland with the intent of consolidating the new state of Ethiopia, the proponents of this project came across a people who lived, worked, and worshipped predominately in Afaan Oromo. In particular, they practiced Waaqeefatta, the monotheistic religion of the Oromo.
Cultural marginalization has been the experience of the Oromo and other national and cultural groups in the country since the formation of the Ethiopian state in the 1800s.
Even though the popular narrative is that Ethiopia was never colonized, one of the impacts that Menelik achieved with the support of the Showan Amhara conquerors who were armed by the West was the upheaval of Oromo religious, cultural and political practice. This was replaced by the church’s own religious beliefs, as they were considered the only way to effectively commune with God.
In Ethiopia, as in much of the world, religion has always had political undertones. Historical narratives recounting both Protestant Christianity and Islam being used by Oromos to counter the effects of cultural and political domination experienced through the combined efforts of the Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian state speak to these political undertones.
Is the split really unprecedented?
Politics pervades every aspect of life everywhere, and although we would like to think that spiritual matters are beyond politics, there is perhaps nothing as politically charged as the relationships religions have with people, with states, and with the desire for social change.
Schisms and splits that occur for political reasons are not a new phenomenon in the world of Orthodox Christianity. In the 17th century, a movement to establish religious uniformity between Greek and Russian Orthodox practice was met with resistance that eventually saw a split into “Old Believers” and the official Russian Orthodox Church.
The reason for the split was disagreement over the introduction into the Russian Orthodox Church of specific religious rituals that belong to the Greek Orthodox tradition. Although it began as a disagreement about religious protocol, it developed into a movement where different parts of Russian society began to voice dissent against the feudal order led by leaders in the church.
There are obvious and significant differences between the 17th-century Russian split and what Ethiopia is facing today, but in order to avoid viewing the split within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as entirely unprecedented, we should see the formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod in the larger context of movements that have taken place in the history of the church, whereby politics and faith have collided to create new institutions and communities.
Is this just about religion?
The formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod has an impact on much more than just how people practice their faith. This event signals greater shifts that have been on the political horizon in Ethiopia for the last four years.
Opposition to the formation of the Oromo Orthodox Synod has been defined by language describing it as an affront to the church’s values of “oneness”; the full name of the church is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, with the word “Tewahedo” meaning “to be made one” in the Amharic language.
The ideal of “oneness” or “unity” versus the reality has been at the heart of Ethiopia’s most critical political issues. The Ethiopian state has, in concert with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, had a history of violently assimilating a deeply diverse people and, in the same breath, defining itself as a beacon of unity. What we must understand is that what might be a breach of oneness and unity for one people, is for another people an act of revolution and decolonization.
The solution to this crisis, in my opinion, is not for the formation of the Oromo or other prospective synods to be stopped. Instead, as I think is the solution to many of Ethiopia’s issues, people must be willing to hear stories from the other side of the political divide in order to better engage the social and political changes of the now, and of the future.
I think that this is just the beginning and that although separation, like all change, can cause confusion, grief, and uncertainty, it can sometimes be the boldest step we can take towards building a new social contract for togetherness, cohesion, and harmony.