Tigray crisis in Ethiopia: from monk to soldier

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Father Gebremariam Aderaw

An Ethiopian monk, who once carried only the cross and the Bible in a country famous for its rock-hewn churches, now picks up a gun to fight Tigray rebels in a war that is tearing the nation – and the Christian Church apart orthodox – one part.

“I am fighting with both – the prayer and the ball,” said Father Gebremariam Aderaw.

The monk, whose name means “servant of Mary”, pledged to join the Ethiopian army, a few weeks after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called on all able-bodied men to join the fight against the People’s Liberation Front. Tigray (TPLF).

He launched a rebellion in November in his heart of Tigray after a bitter falling out with Mr. Abiy over his political reforms.

“When I saw the country crumble (…) and the priests killed, I joined the defense forces, believing it was important to fight,” Father Gebremariam told BBC Amharic.

He said he had already received training from a militia in the neighboring region of Amhara, where he lives.

“I am not afraid of injuries or deaths during war. I am ready to accept them all. I only fear God,” he added.

In what was seen as a response to the capture of Tigray territory by Amhara forces at the start of the war, the TPLF took control of several key towns in the Amhara region in August. This included Lalibela, a World Heritage Site famous for its 12th and 13th century rock-hewn churches.

Biete Ghiorgis (Saint-Georges Church), Lalibela

Lalibela has 11 ancient rock-hewn churches

“There are over 700 priests in Lalibela, but now they have a problem because no service is taking place due to the TPLF’s control over the area and they also do not receive a salary,” said Menychle Meseret, academic. at the University of Gondar. in Amhara.

Sockets found in a church

Although no destruction was reported in Lalibela, Mr Menychle said a number of other churches in the area had been looted with money, food and ancient manuscripts, a sign that the TPLF was carrying out a “all-out war without granting appropriate protection to religious sites and cultural property”.

State media also reported that the 5th-century church of Checheho Medhanialem was damaged after being the target of heavy artillery fire from the TPLF.

And the Associated Press news agency reported that its correspondent saw cartridge cases lying on the floor of a damaged church in the village of Chenna Teklehaymanot, while residents said six priests were among dozens killed during of an attack by the group at the end of August.

All parties to the conflict have repeatedly denied having committed atrocities.

Orthodox Christians make up 43% of Ethiopia’s population, making it the largest and most influential religious group in the country. And the conflict has divided many of them.

A fire in front of a statue of Jesus Christ during the annual celebration of Meskel at the Bole Medhane Alem church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - September 26, 2021

Orthodox Christian religious holidays are an important part of life in Ethiopia

Tigrayan clerics said the government’s military operation in Tigray, reinforced by troops from neighboring Eritrea, resulted in the killing of around 325 religious leaders, some from the Muslim minority community, and attacks on 12 churches and mosques in the first six months. of the war.

Abiy “abandoned secularism”

Getachew Assefa, a Canada-based scholar who is a prominent member of the church in North America, told the BBC he viewed the attacks as an attempt to “break up” the Tigrayans and make them “kneel down” “in front of Mr. Abiy and his Eritrean ally. , President Isaias Afwerki.

The 6th-century Debre Damo Monastery, built on a steep 80-foot (24 m) cliff in the Tigray Mountains, was among the sites Eritrean troops are said to have looted from its old manuscripts and other cultural treasures.

One of the books that survived the 1995 fire in which 70% of the library was destroyed.

Many books in Debre Damo Monastery were destroyed in a fire in 1995 – this is one of those that survived

Professor Getachew said the war had caused a deep rift in the church, with the Tigray branch “unofficially following its own path”.

“Even in the diaspora, you will find that people no longer want to pray together. In ontario [in Canada], a church was renamed the Orthodox Church of Tigray. This also happened in Philadelphia in the United States and Australia, ”he said.

Professor Getachew said Mr Abiy – a Pentecostal Christian – has moved away from secularism that underpins the Ethiopian state.

“He presents the war he is waging as a spiritual warfare. Speaking of the international pressure to stop the war, he said that the country is ready to take the bitter drink that Jesus was forced to take on the Cross, and at the end ‘we’re going to win’.

“He even says such things on religious holidays when people should pray for peace,” Prof. Getachew added.

One of Mr. Abiy’s advisers, Daniel Kibret – a very popular deacon among Orthodox Christians, especially young people – called the TPLF “satans” who should be “erased”.

“There should be no land in this country that can support this kind of weeds,” he told AFP.

Professor Getachew said the deacon had been his friend, but they stopped communicating shortly after the war started.

“I realized his role in what was happening. His rhetoric is genocidal,” he added.

After the US State Department condemned the preacher’s comments as “dangerous” and “hateful,” Daniel said he was referring to a “terrorist organization” and not the people of Tigray. The spokesperson for Mr. Abiy agreed, telling AFP that there had been a translation error by supporters of Tigray.

An Ethiopian refugee who fled the conflict in Tigray prays during Sunday mass at an Ethiopian Orthodox church built by former Ethiopian refugees in the neighboring village of Um Raquba refugee camp in Gedaref, eastern Sudan , December 6, 2020

More than five million people need humanitarian aid in northern Ethiopia, aid agencies say

Mr Menychle attributes the conflict to the TPLF, saying it has always encouraged “hatred” and a policy of ethnic division.

“We even hear them accuse the prime minister of having an imperialist view similar to that of the Amhara emperors of the past, and of wanting to destroy. It was pure ethnic propaganda that the TPLF used to mislead the Tigrayans,” he said. Mr Menychle said. .

For Professor Getachew, only dialogue between the government and the TPLF can end the war.

“After the massacres and famine, they will have to negotiate,” he said, adding that he hoped the international community would continue to pressure the government to accept the talks.

The church’s patriarch, a member of the Tigrayan ethnicity who previously said genocide was being committed in Tigray, also called for peace.

“The cross that we imprint on our clothes and tattoo on our body is not for beauty. As long as the meaning of the cross is peace and reconciliation, we must maintain peace and reconciliation among ourselves and with God.” Abune Matthias said at a major press conference. religious event at the end of September.

But Father Gebremariam remains on the war footing, wanting to defeat the TPLF.

“Until now we have tried in prayer, and now we [will] win by bullets. We will bury the enemies of Ethiopia and unite Ethiopia, ”he said.

Learn more about the conflict in Ethiopia:


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