The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) has recently been entangled in a heated internal conflict. Three archbishops who are members of the Holy Synod have split away, ordaining 26 bishops and forming the “Oromia Synod.” This move has led to retaliation from the Holy Synod, which excommunicated the 3 archbishops and the 26 newly ordained bishops. The Oromia Synod then reciprocated the excommunication.
In response to this development, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a public statement in which he framed the conflict as a disagreement between fathers of the same Church. He reminded the public of his role in reconciling the Addis Ababa Synod and the Synod in exile, which was formed by the breakaway Patriarch Abuna Merkorewos. He called for a similar resolution to be reached in the current conflict.
The Oromia Synod had claimed that the split was a result of the Addis Synod’s refusal to allow Oromo and other southern nations to worship in their native languages. The archbishops appointed to these regions were also claimed to be unfamiliar with the language and customs of the local congregations, which led to many members of the laity joining other faiths.
In his statement, Prime Minister Abiy emphasized that worshipping in one’s mother tongue is a constitutional right for all nationalities, and that he neither has the power to grant nor deny this right. It is apparent that the Prime Minister’s government is actively supporting the Oromia Synod.
Prime Minister Abiy’s intervention
The question remains: why would Prime Minister Abiy take such a stance? He has historically been known to avoid taking sides in controversial issues and instead opting for a mediatorial role. However, the Pretoria peace agreement with the TPLF may have forced him to reconsider his approach.
The Pretoria agreement requires both parties to make painful concessions. The government had to accept a commitment to a multinational federal arrangement and the existing constitution. The TPLF has had to accept disarmament and the renunciation of secession.
The agreement means that the two former foes are, bound to work together, for better or for worse. It also means that the Prime Minister will have to withdraw Amhara militants from Welkait and readmit the TPLF into the political arena. These would threaten his alliance with the Amhara and Eritreans and leave him without a support base.
It is possible that the Prime Minister sees the recent conflict within the EOTC as an opportunity to regain the allegiance of the Oromo people. By openly supporting the Oromia Synod, he hopes to be remembered as their champion, who took a leading role in the struggle against ethnic discrimination. This could be to provide the Prime Minister with an alternative source of support.
The Prime Minister’s end-game seems to be to force a reconciliation between the two synods, resulting in their integration. This would deprive the Amhara nationalists of their remaining stronghold: the Orthodox Church. It is no secret that the Holy Synod was dominated by the Amhara nationalists, especially after the joining of Merkorewos’ synod, which was composed of Archbishops of ethnic Amhara descent who took an extremist pro-unionist position. This domination was useful for Abiy during the Tigray war, as he successfully used it to rally the Orthodox faithful in support of his campaign against Tigray.
However, with the signing of the Pretoria agreement, Abiy’s once useful allies may become his antagonists.
Hence the Prime Minister attempt to force the Synod to accept bishops sympathetic to Oromo nationalism, which would not only secure his support among the Oromo people but also neutralize a potential threat to his power that would have come from the EOTC synod.
In effect, he will have killed two birds with one stone.
The Holy Synod refused compromise with the Prime Minister and its call for a nationwide “protest of martyrdom” on Sunday, 12 February, 2023, threatened to cause much bloodshed and even a potential coup. However, the church called off the demonstrations following discussions with the Prime Minister, during which he accepted some conciliatory measures, including halting the takeover of dioceses in Oromia by the rival Synod.
Despite this tension between Abiy’s government and Abuna Mathias’ Synod remains high, with Abiy apparently determined to see his plan through.
Since this article was published there has been something of a reconciliation, according to the EOTC Broadcasting Service Agency.
The two sides – the Holy Synod and the Church elders who carried out illegal ordinations – met to resolve the challenge that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
They agreed that work to provide services and lessons in the Oromia region in Afan Oromo should continue, to answer the demands of the people. The necessary resources would be allocated to allow this to take place.
There will be additional colleges and seminaries to train ministers who know their local language and new ordinations will take place in May.
The three Archbishops who led the Oromo Church in these demands – Abune Sawiros, Abune Ewstatewos, and Abune Zena Markos – will be restored to their previous dioceses and titles.
There will be fresh research into ways of taking the church to the next generation.
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