As the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia celebrated the feast of True Cross last month, its most senior bishop raised concerns over rising attacks on its churches and an emerging rift within the church itself.
Abune Mathias, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, led the national celebration of the feast known as Meskel (“Cross” in the Ethiopian Amharic language). Meskel is a religious festival that marks the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena; it is analogous to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, celebrated by the Catholic Church on September 14.
At Meskel Square in the capital Addis Ababa on September 27, the patriarch appealed for unity and peace as he led the one of the country’s most popular religious celebrations.
“Let us protect our unity and peace,” Mathias said to the gathering, which included senior Orthodox bishops and priests, as well as other church leaders, government officials, and diplomats. He stated that the True Cross united people through forgiveness and love.
The festival is a major religious celebration for the Church in the Horn of Africa country, where the majority are Orthodox Christians. Each year, anticipation starts weeks before the main celebrations on September 27. For the country’s believers, the festival is as significant as Easter or Christmas.
The tradition is that in 326 AD, St. Helena—the mother of Constantine the Great—embarked on a search for the Cross, and succeed after receiving direction from a dream. The dream instructed her to light a bonfire and follow the smoke to discover where the Cross was buried. Soon after, she lit torches to announce her success.
Celebrations start with the lighting of a bonfire known as the Damera, which symbolizes the smoke that led Helena to discover the Cross. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians find family unity, reconciliation, social cohesion, and peaceful co-existence in the festival.
According to records, the feast has been celebrated in its current form for more than 600 years and in other forms since the 13th Century. In 2013, UNESCO inscribed the festival on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia believe that a piece of the cross was given to the Ethiopian Emperor Dawit by the patriarch of Alexandria in the Middle Ages, as a reward for protecting the Coptic Church members. That piece is believed to be kept in the Amba Geshen mountains.
But Abune Mathias demanded an end to a wave of violence that has left several churches burnt and hundreds of Christians dead. He said the killing and attacks are unacceptable under all circumstances.
At least 25 churches have been set ablaze, with an unspecified number of church members killed in the violence, according to agency reports. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church recently accused the government of failing to protect them.
Since 2015, the attacks have been escalating. The attacks in Jijiga, a city in the Somali region of Ethiopia, left 12 people dead in March and April this year. Attacks in the Sidama region in the South in July left three people dead.
In August 2018, media reports indicated that seven priests had been killed and seven churches burnt in the city. In July the same year, about 30 churches, mainly in the eastern and southern regions, were attacked, with more than half of them burned to the ground, according to reports.
The Church is facing calls for restructuring from the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group. In mid-September, the Holy Synod, the Church’s highest organ, called an urgent meeting to discuss the demands of an Oromo splinter group. Led by Kesis Belay Mekonnen, the faction is demanding that the Church adopt a structure that accepts autonomous ethnic churches.
“The desires of the divisions are destructive,” Abune Mathias told the Meskel gathering.
Attacks on the churches are not new in Ethiopia. Similar attacks occurred in 2011, but recent ones have been more intense. Divisive national politics is seen as one of the drivers; other concerns are that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is attempting to undermine the power of religious groups in the country.
While senior Ethiopian Orthodox Church officials believe the recent attacks are fueled by anti-Orthodox sentiment, some observers say that the motivations are multiple, as the country has experienced several years of escalating violence and a rise of ethnic nationalism.
Tensions among Ethiopian ethnic groups—Oromo, Amhara, and Tigryans—have been rising. The Oromo people have protested against what they see as land encroachment by the government, while the Amhara people are upset over regional integrity threats by their Tigrayan neighbors.
Another concern in the country is the rising threat posed by Islamic extremists. Some observers say money from radical groups in the Middle East has found its way into the country and is being used to construct mosques and schools with the intention of introducing Wahhabism, a strict and conservative form of Islam.
But at the Meskel celebrations, Takele Umma, the Deputy Mayor of Addis Ababa, told festival-goers that the government has not abandoned the Orthodox Church, and is protecting it as the mother of all Ethiopians and the home of the people’s heritage.
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