The 21st Century’s “Great Schism”

Written by: Marija Markovic

Imagine your own nation’s government publicly participating in actions that go against the religious freedoms of citizens. And alongside this, there is minimal global coverage, not allowing the world to view the situation.

As of February 4th, more than 30 Orthodox Christians at two different Orthodox churches in Ethiopia were killed by regional state security forces. Earlier this year, The Orthodox Church of Ethiopia denounced the Ethiopian government for allowing a group to form their own church that goes against the Orthodox Church, whilst also appointing patriarchs, deacons and authority figures within the new church. The new group has also broken into many Orthodox churches. The government has been criticized by The Ethiopian Orthodox Church for allowing this separation to occur when Orthodox churches around the country were burnt down several years ago and no action was taken by the government.

The new group claims that The Ethiopian Orthodox Church failed to serve believers in their native languages, resulting in the detachment from their culture and the subsequent loss of millions of believers. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church disproved this by explaining the use of the many languages spoken in Ethiopia within the hymns and sermons of Orthodox services, and the translated Bibles that were available in the country. 

Protests by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians began in early February, with a collective, peaceful protest that lasted from February 6th to the 8th. During the three-day fast of Nineveh (which coincided with said protest), Orthodox Christians abstain from meat and dairy products. This is an important Orthodox holiday that commemorates when Prophet Jonah spent three days inside the belly of a whale, as Jonah’s struggles embodied our weakness as humans. During this protest, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians nationwide wore black to symbolize mourning and solidarity for the Orthodox parishioners killed throughout this situation. These Christians stood throughout the streets of numerous Ethiopian cities, most notably Addis Ababa, holding candles, wearing all-black clothing, and praying harmoniously, as seen in the few videos and photos leaked to the rest of the world

As a result of these protests, the Ethiopian government has placed a ban on black clothing, arresting and assaulting those in offices and the streets for wearing all black. Likewise, the government has placed strict social media restrictions across the country, to reduce any coverage of the situation.

When examining Ethiopia’s history as a nation, it is clear that these current protests hold great significance. The nation is known for being a cultural stronghold but also has undergone a great deal of conflict. Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country, having never been colonized aside from a five-year-long Italian occupation during World War II. Likewise, Ethiopia is one of the founding members of the United Nations, which symbolized independence and power at the time of its founding, especially from an African nation. This means that, apart from those five years, Ethiopia has never undergone an international loss of identity, and Ethiopia has had full control of its traditions, values and rules. However, there have been disagreements domestically regarding these traditions, values, and rules, that have historically created deep conflicts within the Ethiopian population.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is also one of the oldest Christian denominations and religious bodies in the world, introduced to Ethiopia in the 4th century. Particularly, the Ethiopian Orthodox community has been identified as some of the most devoted followers of their faith. 43.1 percent of the Ethiopian population identifies as Orthodox Christian (around 52 million people), officially being the most followed faith in the country. Other Orthodox Christians around the world view this situation as an attack against the Church as a whole, so the situation spans more than just that 43.1 percent.

Up until 1974, Orthodox Christianity was the central religion of the country. From the 4th century A.D. to the 20th century, the Church served as a position of legitimacy and power for the country. It was the faith of the ruling elite, so when the government was overthrown in a coup d’etat in 1974, Orthodoxy was publicly diminished as it was no longer portrayed in the government, and a more secular state was promoted. Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor from 1930-1974, became extremely unpopular in the 1960s as many different aspects of the country began to suffer. Inflation, low salaries, poor working conditions, famine and human rights abuses were just a few of the problems the country was experiencing. A council of combined security forces known as The Derg decided to take political and economic matters into their own hands when they arrested and imprisoned Selassie. They then established a more progressive government, with the goal of switching from a monarchy to a socialist state, adopting Marxism-Leninism as their official ideology. The Derg, however, was not successful, as a number of overthrowings throughout the 70s and 80s would often occur. In 1991, The Derg was successfully defeated when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front would take control. Many Derg members were arrested for genocide, and a democratic system was established. This governing system is still in effect today, with a prime minister as head of the Ethiopian government and a president as head of the state.

Nonetheless, this democratic system has been at the center of a multitude of conflicts within the country, seen recently by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians as against their faith. The Ethiopian government, according to records from the U.S. Department of State, requires the separation of state and religion, with no state interference in any religious affairs. They also permit freedom of religion and prohibit the discrimination of religious beliefs. Hence, Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia believe the state is violating their own rules, and have unlawfully committed crimes against them when they appointed elite members of the new synod.

One notable characteristic of the current government has been its constant deprecation and attack on journalists. According to data from Human Rights Watch, Ethiopia is responsible for the second-highest number of journalists in exile in the world. Ethiopian media tends to be heavily affiliated with the government–the state controls most broadcasting outlets, including national broadcasters ETV and Radio Ethiopia. Numerous newspapers and news agencies have been harassed and shut down when attempting to stray away from what the state wants to see reported and broadcasted. Internet and mobile services have also typically been restricted during periods of social unrest. With the latest social media restrictions resulting in little coverage of the current situation, high levels of distrust between the government and Ethiopian citizens are present.

The dire and heated nature of the present situation in Ethiopia illustrates the importance of freedom of religion in determining a government’s legitimacy.

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