The Tigray war has divided evangelicals, creating strong feelings against each other

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There is no end to the killings in Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of civilians have died in violent, year-long inter-ethnic unrest around Ethiopia’s northern Tigray province.

In June, Amharic rebels attacked Oroma villages near the town of Gimbi and massacred over 100 civilians. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who belongs to the popular Oroma group, visited the region on June 18 and declared “no tolerance” for terrorists who commit such crimes. His government is keen to end the unrest in Tigray and preserve the unity of multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

1. What sparked the violence in Ethiopia?

Violent conflict in Ethiopia began in 2020 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed national elections due to the pandemic. This was not accepted by the former political elite concentrated in the regional party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF led the liberation against Ethiopia’s former communist regime in the 1980s and, following victory in 1991, was for 27 years the main political force shaping the country.

In 1995, Ethiopia became an ethnic union, structured as a federation of ethnic groups, promising each an equal share of political influence and independence. In reality, however, small ethnic minorities were largely excluded from political power, and natural areas of overlap between ethnic territories fostered tensions around land and water issues.

The one-party government, built by a coalition of former ethnically formed liberation movements, ruled the country undemocratically. This added to the constant tensions between the regions and the central government in Addis Ababa. The TPLF, a predominantly Amharic and Coptic Christian movement, dominated the coalition and therefore the government.

Since 2015, millions of Ethiopians have protested against the TPLF-led central government. In early 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned and Abiy Ahmed became the first prime minister to be Oromo and converted from Islam to Evangelical Pentecostal Christianity.

Ahmed promoted structural change for Ethiopia, dismantling ethnic federalism and introducing a federation of regions. He integrated different regional and ethnic political movements into the newly founded Prosperity Party, minimizing the role of the old coalition of liberation movements such as the TPLF. The TPLF refused to integrate, left the old coalition and formed an opposition, focusing on a regional government in Tigray and clearly opposing the political course of Ahmed and his Prosperity Party. The old elite lost power in Addis Ababa but were forming a new force to fight back from Tigray.

Months of political tension followed and on November 4, 2020, the Ethiopian army launched a military operation against the TPLF, responding to some Liberation Front attacks on the National Forces. Soon, a full-scale civil war began. Last year, TPLF fighters came within 400 km of Addis Ababa, but the army, together with Eritrean forces, managed to push them back towards Tigray. According to Amnesty International and the Evangelical Alliance of Ethiopia, both sides have committed numerous crimes among civilians.

2. Drought, floods and hunger

The political crisis and civil war in Tigray are not the only evil facing the Ethiopian people today. The pandemic has weakened the economy and a crisis of drought, followed by wet seasons and devastating floods, has reduced national food production to a minimum. Millions of men, women and children face hunger and malnutrition in Ethiopia and other parts of the Horn of Africa. It is estimated that around 14 million people, including 5.5 million children, suffer from hunger and starvation.

Additionally, the war in Ukraine had a major impact on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa as a whole due to the heavy reliance on grain imports from Ukraine and Russia. Russian sanctions on grain imports disrupted supplies shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, but the UN food aid program was also affected.

The humanitarian situation is critical. Latest estimates indicate that 23 million Ethiopians will soon be in need of humanitarian assistance and food aid across the country. Some regions, however, are already in a critical situation. People in the south are still grappling with the negative effects of the 2017 drought, which caused massive displacements of rural people in search of water and grasslands. And due to the war, the government has blocked humanitarian aid to Tigray, further contributing to hunger.

3. The dangers are close at hand

What happens if the conflict escalates? Will we see a collapse of Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic state of 100 million people? Will the crisis trigger other national and ethnic conflicts in such an explosive context? Ethiopia is both economically and politically the most important state in the Horn of Africa. The African Union is headquartered in Ethiopia and the country is a spiritual giant. No other country in Africa, or even perhaps in the whole world, has experienced revivals in recent years comparable to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, dating back to 330 AD. The Coptic Orthodox Church is still the largest religious association in the country. But there are also many evangelical Protestant denominations in Ethiopia, such as the “Mekane Jesus” Lutheran Church with around 5 million members or the Mesere Kristos Mennonite Church, the largest Mennonite church in the world. Baptist and Pentecostal churches make up the rest of the country’s approximately 14 million Protestants. These churches are growing at 6.5% per year and are very active in mission.

Nevertheless, the economic and political crisis in Ethiopia affects the witness of evangelicals in several ways.

First of all, Evangelicals are found all over Ethiopia and they generally tend to support Prime Minister Ahmed, who himself is a Pentecostal Christian. But not all. Evangelicals in Tigray, for example, are broadly supportive of the TPLF and even participate in military actions by the rebels against the Addis Ababa government. The war divided evangelicals, creating strong feelings against each other. And where there is no unity, the testimony will be greatly weakened.

Second, both the old Coptic Orthodox elite and the Muslim tribes see evangelicals in a critical light. The 400,000 Muslims who have become evangelical Christians in recent years have led to successive waves of persecution in the south of the country. The changing political situation could lead to more obstacles to evangelism in the country as well as mission outside of Ethiopia.

Third, the unrest in Ethiopia will severely limit the witness to peace and reconciliation of Ethiopian churches. The Horn of Africa is, politically speaking, a powder keg. Conflicts of various kinds can arise at any time. Ethiopian Evangelical Christians have been an agent of reconciliation in the region. If they prove unable to resolve multi-ethnic conflicts in their own country, it may be more difficult for them to do so in similar situations in the wider region.

This and more should motivate evangelicals around the world to pray for Ethiopia and for the wisdom of Prime Minister Ahmed’s government and the leaders of the various Christian churches. It is time to intercede for Ethiopia and pray for an effective peace effort that will bring warring parties and tribes, religious groups and churches to the table. Jesus is our peace. Millions of Ethiopians know him. Now is the time to exercise peace throughout the country. Our prayers are needed.

Johannes Reimer leads the Peace and Reconciliation Network of the World Evangelical Fellowship.

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