Sunday, January 7

Fanning the Flames of Religious Conflict

Well, well,…It seems that Prime Minister Meles will once again ‘allow’ Orthodox Christians to call out to God for help!

Following the protests and mass arrests of November 2005--the recitation of Mehila (a collective prayer which resembles the pessmistic lyrics of Gregorian chant) was outlawed at several parishes throughout the city. (This ancient call-and-response prayer--translated in part as “Save us, Christ! In the name of the Virgin Mary, save us!”--is recognized as a desperate plea for the mercy of God, and has been practiced within the church for centuries.) After being outlawed for months without explanation, it was recently announced that local Christians are now permitted to resume practice of this prayer--a declaration that nicely coincided with the Prime Minister’s increasingly public intentions to drag this nation into war some weeks ago.

Though, in my opinion, few refrains could be considered more appropriate during this time, the phrase “too little, too late” also seems unfortunately well-suited, and this concession is duly recognized as yet another government attempt to ignite the passions of religious fundamentalists and further fragment this already divided society.

Some here and abroad seem comfortable defining the Somalian invasion as a primarily religious struggle (an admittedly romantic notion in an age where ethics and ancient doctrines are increasingly at odds with popular culture); however now, more than ever, it is important to accurately examine the history of this country before giving in to such seductions.

As one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, the traditions, practices and ideology of Orthodox Christianity have permeated every level of Ethiopian society, and continue to fashion much of the intellectual patterns and cultural values of this country today. Introduced in the 4th century A.D.(by Syrian monks who washed upon the shores of the Red Sea Coast following a shipwreck en route to India), Orthodox Christianity quickly expanded into all regions of the country, where it remains strictly practiced by tens of millions of Ethiopians today.

Though despite this rich Christian heritage, it is inaccurate to continully refer to modern Ethiopia as a Christian nation (granted it may be quite helpful in coaxing the support of zealous Western allies!). According to widely available national statistics, Ethiopian religious allegience is, in fact, divided roughly in half between Christianity and Islam (many sources even cite the population as primarily Muslim), which leaves approximately 35-40+ million followers of Islam peacefully residing within this “Christian nation”.

Though much of the Western world would have us believe otherwise, this fact alone is certainly no cause for alarm. Ethiopia has long-occupied the historical stance of religious tolerance, evidenced by the very manner in which Islam was first introduced into this country: In approximately 615 A.D., a group of Muslims were advised by the Prophet Muhammad to escape persecution in Mecca and seek refuge in Ethiopia (also the birthplace of Bilal, one of the Prophet’s closest companions). Upon arrival, they were warmly received by the Axumite king who provided asylum, and the teachings of the Prophet were subsequently spread throughout the land. This country has since held a position of honor among the Muslim world, internationally revered as the “Haven of the First Migration”(or Hijra) and eternal gratitude is expressed in the hadith—“Utruk Al-Habesha ma tarkukum” (“Leave the Abyssinians alone, so long as they do not take the offensive”). Tradionally, Muslim priests teach holding a sword, representative of the bloody, religious battles fought in the Arab world; in Ethiopia, however, a staff is instead carried as reminder of the peaceful circumstances in which the religion first reached Ethiopian soil.

Clashes between the followers of these two religions have since occurred intermittantly, without doubt (namely the violent uprisings of the 16th century), but Ethiopia has so far managed to avoid the brutal religious warfare that has marred the pasts of so many other nations, and continues to stand as a rare global testament to religious tolerance and cooperation.

While there are those who wish to involve Ethiopian Islam in the current global trend of ‘Islamic villification’, it seems quite ridiculous to assume that Ethiopian Muslims who have peacefully co-existed in this country for thousands of years will be suddenly inspired by foreign jihadists to take up arms against their brothers and sisters. That being said, it remains a fact that Ethiopia has witnessed an alarming increase in violent religious clashes over the past year, and current tensions between the two groups have reached unprecedented levels. But if it is not the ‘poisonous doctrines of neighboring extremists’ seeping across the borders, who then is responsible for this escalating internal conflict?

For those familiar with Ethiopian politics, such a question is, no doubt, rhetorical; once again, in-country evidence clearly fingers none other than the usual suspects—Meles Zenawi and his powerful entourage of international allies. Judging by the current social climate here, it appears the most serious threat to the precious remaining shreds of religious equilibrium can be found entirely within Ethiopia’s own borders, expertly moulded to assume a lethally complex 3-pronged front--stemming from religious, ethnic and political divide.

It is clear that religious conflict in this country has only recently adopted strong ethnic and political lines (which must be thoroughly examined in far greater detail than I can hope to provide). These factors were first conspicuously introduced into the religious debate during the 2005 election campaign, throughout which the EPRDF employed political discourse to paint the opposition CUD as a primarily anti-Muslim group (a subtle, but crucial distinction from portrayal as a primarily Christian party) attempting to usurp power in order to advance the interests of the Christian Amharas and restore Ethiopia to its original position as a predominantly Orthodox nation. In some regions this was intentionally very seriously propagated by the government, and this image has tragically served to bring about uneccessary lasting religious and ethnic disharmony (In Jimma, for example, the clashes occurred primarily between Muslim Oromos and Christian Amharas, designating the few Christian Oromos involved the “shameful stooges” of the Christian Amharas).

Though the EPRDF certainly had no intentions of establishing themselves as a ‘Muslim party’, they shamefully used the election opportunity to gain Muslim political support (particularly at the local level) by pitting them in this fashion against the official opposition, and thus, more dangerously, against specific ethnic groups as well as the nation’s vast Christian population.

In a climate where mistrust is actively encouraged by the government, conditions for violent conflict are naturally ripe—communities are divided, suspicions nursed, old grievances resurrected, and retaliation invited. It is, however, the lack of official action in response to these (arguably) inevitable religious clashes that has now become an increasingly serious cause for concern; according to sources, evidence surrounding some of the most recent and bloody religious conflicts, in fact, seems alarmingly suggestive of deliberate government instigation!

Again, in the instance of Jimma, during the clashes a few months ago in which at least 18 people were murdered (according to official reports, though eye-witnesses insist the toll is far higher), it has been revealed that the local administration repeatedly and deliberately ignored reports of imminent clash between the two religious groups. Such glaring ommission is nothing less than criminal, as it is the appointed responsibility of the government to swiftly act on such information and prevent certain bloodshed. (It is important to note that the people who finally intervened in this case--stopping the clashes and exposing the criminals—were, in fact, Muslims, not Christians. It was later also concluded that the the crimes were committed by a small, radical band of men, though the overwhelming majority of the Mulsim population condemned the attacks.) In similar outbreaks that have occurred in Gondor, Dilla and Jijigga over the past year, it has also been discovered that the violence was actually initially perpetrated by those who were leaders in their communities (of varying degree). It then stands to reason that without EPRDF consent these dangerous criminals would never have been appointed to community leadership positions (which naturally require close cooperation with the central government) and these clashes can then, in such light, be considered to have been instigated (both directly and indirecttly) by government action; or, at the very least, such evidence makes the party guilty by association.

The growing religious divide in this country is unfortunately even more complex. The tragic circumstances mentioned above can similarly be traced to an increasing lack of social cohesion due to the absence of national moral authority. The head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Abuna Paulos, has been considered to lack legitimacy from the very outset--after his election to the church’s highest and most sacred position through a process which was dubious at best. (Church law states that that a patriarch can only be replaced if found to be in violation of the basic doctrines of the church or if proven incapable of executing his repsonsibilities--in which case he traditionally almost always remains in power, relying more heavily on the assistance of aides). Though ‘health failure’ was publicly announced by the former patriarch Abuna Merkoriyos, upon relocation to the US, he revealed that he had actually been forced to resign by former Prime Minister Tamrat Layne, or face death. Many prominent scholars left the church immediately following this controversial election and the leadership of the church has since been viewed as largely corrupt and shamefully politically aligned. The head of the national Islamic Court was also appointed around the same time through a similarly questionable procedure, which has likewise served to strip him of true religious legitimacy. (It is worth recalling that during last year’s election campaign, religious leaders from both factions frequently appeared in the media in support of EPRDF platforms and policies, and both leaders publicly (albeit indirectly) denounced the official opposition on several occasions. Interestingly enough, just before the May 2005 elections, a meeting was held by the Prime Minister in his office, which required the attendance of all national religious leaders. During this session, both political and religious absurdities of all sorts abounded: one prominent Orthodox leader reportedly spoke at length on the “appropriateness of the national land policy”, while another announced that it was revealed to him through a vision that Meles was, in fact, the savior long prophesied (by Ethiopian legend, which suggests that a man called Tewodros will arise and come to save the nation from disaster). With similar flair, a high-ranking Muslim leader stood up and heatedly announced that they were ready to die to defend their rights from the “growing anti-Muslim population”…What a show it must have been!)

Such lack of moral authority evidently seems to have resulted in the further disintegration of social fabric, as communities now find themselves increasingly fragmented by the void of credible religious leadership exposed by last year’s election procedures. With such a largely dissatisfied population now unable to rely on either political or religious leaders to guide community decisions or dissolve regional tensions, the explosion of wide-scale domestic conflict now seems, sadly, only a matter of time.

Additionally, we can now thank Prime Minister Meles for further fueling this already precarious trend of religious unrest, by publicly polarizing the Ethiopian Muslim-Christian divide through his recent invasion of Somalia. Many Muslims feel betrayed by a government eager to label followers of Islam “radical, Taliban-loving extremists” (in a thinly-veiled effort to rejuvenate waning Western favor), and insulted by the insinuation that they could be so easily coerced into acts of terrorism by infiltrating Somali jihadists. The Christians, for their part, have also become increasingly unsettled—while most seem to recognize Meles’ exaggerated warnings of imminent attack for exactly what they are, furious few nonetheless now stand ready to defend their country from Muslim takeover “by any means necessary”. Add to that the mounting anger of both groups over the extreme ‘preventative’ measures recently taken by the federal government (last week’s wave of mass arrests)—and it seems that Meles just might have found the final ingredient in his recipe for disaster.

Or, perhaps the war was merely the final attempt by a government ‘in the hot seat’ to externalize the obvious national problems and divert attention and resources (both national and international)—hoping in vain to unite ‘all concerned’ against a common enemy?

Either way, the recent invasion has only served to aggravate an already dangerously explosive situation—both abroad and at home. It seems that now, as a direct result of the war, (not to be confused with the prior unfounded claims used to justify the invasion) there is suddenly a very real danger that this brewing dissent could be effectively cultivated and exploited by foreign fighters eager to wage holy war in this new sub-Saharan front. Now, the possibility that outside terrorist forces will seek to fund, arm, unite and provoke the small scattered bands of radical Islamists that do (without doubt) already exist in this country, must be seriously considered. With Somalia struggling to close its borders to the recent influx of thousands of foreign fighters and constant reports of ‘terrorists on the run’, it seems highly possible that determined jihadists could instead be re-routed to Ethiopia to carry out attacks on the capital from within. Such acts of terrorism would undoubtedly serve to convict the entire Ethiopian Muslim population (in the eyes of many here and within the international community) and could forseeably provoke immediate violent retaliation and eventual full-scale religious warfare.

Given the current lack of legitimate moral and political authority, combined with the simmering anger of the oppressed millions, the escalating tension in this country simply cannot be dismissed along with yesterday’s headlines. Whether the war has officially ended or not is longer the issue; rather, it appears we must immediately concern ourselves with how to avert the eruption of wide-scale religious conflict here. Such a volatile climate will certainly result in catastrophe if this growing social divide is not soon be mended, which naturally raises a most important question: Who here is suited for such a task?

Certainly not the current national leaders of either the Orthodox Church or the Islamic Court, who long ago publicly swapped allegiance from the moral to the political.

Certainly not the international community, who has eagerly embraced Ethiopia as the newest gladiator in the global anti-terrorist arena and ignorantly applauded her latest efforts at “regional stabilization”.

Most certainly NOT the dictatorial federal government, as has been repeatedly evidenced by their disgusting political corruption and horrific internal abuses.

So where then does that leave us?

Ethiopian salvation can clearly only be sought within the democratic process itself (which demands the release of all current political prisoners)– in a society where people are free to share their views and express dissent, and have confidence in the decisions and interventions of their elected leaders. Only then, through the functions of a healthy democracy (based on the fair representation of citizens and their concerns and equitable distribution of resources) will there be any hope of bridging this widening divide and restoring this fragmented nation.


Al Shabaz said...

Jermaine has caused national controversy by openly praying his obligatory five time prayers live on national TV. However Channel Four the Broadcaster has censored any footage of the Former Jackson Five practicing his faith. Outraged muslims have begun to complain on grounds of fair representation as Shilpa Shetty was broadcast practicing Yoga, they are demanding an explanation from Channel four as to why Jermaine Praying has been censored. Complaints to Ofcom the body that adjudicates media complaints are set to flood in this monday. Jermaine has begun to attract many thousands of muslim votes.

Ftih said...

Thank you mengedegna

good and timly post as usual. keep the flame of justice and liberty burning. One day it will wipe out tyranny , and autocratic dictatorship.

FYI mengedegna. Check the demography of Ethiopia ( ethnicnity, religion etc.. from The census of 1984 and 1994 ,summarised in an erudite article by Professor Birhanu Abegaz; entitled - ethiopia a model nation of minorities. Can get it via yahoo search.

Fikre Hizb said...

What a wonderful analysis full of balanced and objective insites! Thank you Megenagna! How comes that only few Ferenjis understand the complexity of Ethiopian politics very well like you do? Well done and Hats off! May God replace the brutal dictator Meles with a democratic and fair system!

Anonymous said...

It is simply a wonderful analysis. I could not imagine a Ferenj with such detailed knowlegde of the situation in our country. You are great. We want people with sense of tolerance and justice.

Anonymous said...

Galatoomi, Megenanya! (That is thanks in Afaan Oromoo).

Yours is an insightful and balanced analsis. The reality remains that no matter how much Ethiopians who are members of Orthodox christianity claim -ad nausem- that Ethiopian chrisians have lived harmoniously with their "moslem brothers", the status of the Ethiopian moslems remained the same: oppresed, maltreated non-citizens of Ethiopia!.

worse, most of the christian crowd would like the status quo maintained, not withstanding all their posturings for religious equality and tolerance in Ethiopia. After all, the opposition parties and most of the christian crowd are against Meles Zenawi's regime but not necessarily against the historic arrangement where orthodox christians remain the state-makers and true citizens of Ethiopia and moslems as non-citizens that remian in the shadows.

For example, there is nothing to suggst that the CUD oppostion has a policy that would attempt to reverse the christian-dominated status quo in post Meles Zenawi era.

Would members of Ethiopian christian confraternity accept makeking the army and the security forces of Ethiopia 50% moslem? I doubt.

It is evident that the ruling regime is using christian-moslem devide to maintain its grip on power. This latest grant from Ato Meles Zenawi (permitting banned chrstian chant) is basically an attempt to reward/massage the inately anti-moslem and war-mongering nationalistic ethos of the Amhara-Tigre dominated chrisitian population of Ethiopia.

That is: nicities and unproven posturings of religious tolerance aside, most christian Ethiopians are against the current regime but not necessarily against the christian-dominated status quo of Ethiopia.

Until such a time they change their attitude, they should not expect Ethiopian moslems to continue accepting their fate as oppressed, invisible non-citizens of Ethiopia forever.


Anonymous said...

Your analysis was absolutely great, and your love and concern for Ethiopia is obvious. How do you know Ethiopia so well?!

Anonymous said...


I wonder if your description regarding negative experiences or limited participation of muslims relates to ethnic issues vs. religous issues. I lived in Addis for over 20 years and muslim vs. christian was a non-issue for most of us growing up. Mostly half of our friends (if not more) were muslims, and by the wayn who were doing better financially - running businesses. We all respected religious observations and knew about them. My family who is from balager had similar level of tolerance. Of course, I don't have to mention about the uncalled for and now somewhat embarrassing Ethiopian ego that in my opinion primarily stems from poverty, those types of individuals put down everyone. Do you think that muslims were financially less successful because of limiting rules, at least any better than similarly aspiring Ethiopians?

T. Alemayehu said...

I appreciate much of what you say but specially your observations regarding the tradition of interfaith tolerance and peaceful coexistence among Ethiopian Muslims and Christians. That said, I am at a loss why you who apparently is knowledgable about Ethiopia but also lives there, choose to lazzily recite the fable about the proportions of the adherents of the two faiths among Ethiopians.

Please take a look at the 1984 census and then take a look at the 1994 census ... the only two taken in the entire history of the nation. You will find that the followers of Islam number less than one-third and those of Christianity more than 61%. Please take a note of this fact and let it be reflected in you future commentaries.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mengedegna,

Your timely analysis of the current situation in Ethiopia is quite interesting. I agree with most of your points. Would you please check some of the statistics? Your cocluding remarks are the real solution to the current complex problems facing the country and its God loving people. You know Ethiopia is a country of Christians , muslims and other faiths who have lived harmoniously for centuries. We will continue to do so in the future. God bless Ethiopia!!! Thank you so much for your effort and dedication!!

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your analysis and presentation of situation that is going on in Ethiopia. It has been said that the coexistance of the two faith in Ethiopia has been so peacefull though, throughout the centuries, despite the fact, in many cases the muslim have either tried to distroy the kingdom or convert the population to their own beliefs in the past by force. I am sure, the way the islamist are thinking and hoping, the eventual design is to convert nations in their way of thinking either by force or through expenditure of untold amount of money (Petrol dollar). One has only to observe how this money is used to convert as many illitrate poor christians in Ethiopia with a promise of money and marriage, who otherwise would not have any alternatives. Hence it is that I do not think that there will ever be a religous war between the two people, as long as the islmist persue their agenda unimpeded

Anonymous said...


Moslem vs Christian rivlary is a "no issue" in Addis, Mr Anonymous, only because until very recently, moslems were not even allowed to own land (most important definer of citiznship in Ethiopia), hold an office and serve the nation as soldiers because they were deemed "aliens" and were not considered TRUE OR DISIRABLE citizens of Ethiopia. Still, little has changed---and I was in Addis last year!.

No, I was not "confusing" ethnic vs religion based descrimination or conflicts in Ethiopia, Mr Anonymous!

As our good observant Faranji has illustrated, there is an overlap of ethnic and religious rivlary in Ethiopia where ethnic groups that are oppressed by the traditional and christian ruling tribe/s of Ethiopia (Amhara-Tige) also happen to be followers of Islam.

This was not a mere coincidence either, as many ethnic groups in the southern-half of Ethiopia that previously followed indigenous religions (Oromo, Sidaama, etc) and others that followed christianity (some sects of the Guraghe), adopted Islam in the bid to reject either forced conversion into orthodox christianity or to reject their imposed status of becoming landless gabbar or serfs on their own homelands.

Yup, I too went to school in Addis (briefly) and there were only TWO moslem boys in my school that had more than 2000 pupils! Both of them quit school because their parents told them there was no chance for them to break into jobs or opportunities that are entirely reserved for the chidren of christian Ethiopians with the right conncetions!.

Yes, there have been few that have succeeded in commerce and in other persuits deemed DEGARDING by the christian Ethiopians (like shoe-making in markato region, shoe-shining Gurgage boys, etc). Many of the few notable rich moslems are not even typical Ethiopian moslems but half-caste Arabs (Jeberti, Worji, etc merchants). The same could not be said of the ethnic Oromo-molslems (Qotu, Arsi, Jimma), the Afar moslems, the Somali moslems, the Guraghe moslems, the Kambata moslems, the "Shankilla" moslems (Assosa and Sudanese border regions), etc...

Anyway and for a change, lets the actual moslems tell us about their status in Ethiopia instead of this self-rightous rhetoric by the christian Ethiopians that keep on remindig us that Ethiopia is a country where "moslems are respected", "are treated as equals" and "live in harmony with their christian fellows, etc"- which is not true.

Sooner or later Ethiopian rulers will have to take concrete measures of equality -such as making the army and security forces 50% moslem for instance- for moslems to feel that they indeed have become true citizens of Ethiopia.



Anonymous said...

In brief, fair analysis that reflects the reality on the ground.

Anonymous said...

To start with, I am a muslim also. What I could not understand from your statement:
"Yup, I too went to school in Addis (briefly) and there were only TWO moslem boys in my school that had more than 2000 pupils! Both of them quit school because their parents told them there was no chance for them to break into jobs or opportunities that are entirely reserved for the chidren of christian Ethiopians with the right conncetions!."
Who is to be blamed? The system or the 2 muslim fathers' action?
Hypocracy or paradox?

The other part of your statement is mixing religion with ethnic groups. As Jeberti or Worji etc.. the same can be said to Amhara/Tigrai as descent or half caste of Arab. Being Ethiopians we have more unifying ingredients than elements that divide us.

Eventhough inequities are abundant whether religious, ethnic or class but changes are taking place and recognition is unavoidable irrespective of the statistics.
The most challenging and difficult task for Ethiopia and as well as Africa is how to establish a system in all the spheres that takes care of endless bloodshed and poverty. Education is part of the whole. For human rights number does not matter. Majority and minority rights must be respected. Avoiding extreme stance of both sides of aisle is the duty of our learned men and women.



ethioinfo said...

I appreciate what you are doing. 2 requests: 1.Please don't let Thomas H ( a woyane whose job is to stupid comments on all anti tplf webistes)and his friends take over the comment area on your blog.
2.IF you have access, get me pictures of tplfites and their followers so I could post them on my site. Good work!

Anonymous said...


You obviously have a unique experience - I wrote to you the note about my addis school experience. I happen to be a gurage with many muslim relatives and friends. I celebrated muslim holidays in my friends homes. People always made funny jokes but I tell you, the negative experiences, if any, related to our being gurage nothing out of the ordinary on religious points. At the end, it did not matter because the people who were negative were the ones begging for money to the gurages few years later. It’s just poverty. In terms of government instigated, issues, well today, al a modi owns half of the country with the other half left for his partner meles so you tell me. Government fixes the census for muslims, gurages or everyone to fit its goal. The way people put down others in Ethiopia in the old days and now is no different from the way people put down others in south central LA – its may be a multiplied magnitude to account for the pverty difference.

Anonymous said...

Guraghew from LA,

Thanks and agree with you!

Endoo, yemigezaan binagengn habashaan- beteley Tigrewochin- be kissara inkuan bihoon meshet (sell) neber!

Woyyim be liwach yiwseduachew (smile).

Ke Sumale worerachew behuala- tirfim liyasgnu yichilaalu -(wode Iraq hedew le Amerika inde kitrengna baanda wotader lihonu).

Happy New Year to you and to All!


Anonymous said...

can yio give as a brake devil