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Ethiopia and the things of Caesar and God

By Abebe Gellaw

In his recent televised address, in front of his own cabinet, Prime Minister Abiy declared what he called the three main challenges facing the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church. According to him, they are “politics, theft, and racism.” Violating the clear separation of church and state, he tried to undermine the Church by raising such issues which are beyond the realm of his political mandates.

If he has credible evidence of theft or embezzlement within the Church, he can discretely report the matter to law enforcement. If politics is a problem, injecting divisive political rhetoric into the Church will only aggravate it. If there are allegations of racism, a cardinal sin in a unifying church, they must be thoroughly investigated and addressed per the doctrines and regulations of the Church. The Prime Minister’s involvement in anything concerning religious institutions is neither his job nor his mandate.

The Prime Minister then proceeded with promoting his group’s agenda. His call for worship in individual mother tongues within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church undermines the Church’s historical role as a unifying force that has brought people together regardless of language, ethnicity, or culture. It is noteworthy that mosques in Ethiopia use Arabic for worship and prayers, and Catholic services still use Latin. Would this also be a concern for the Prime Minister? Hopefully, that is not the case.

The idea of worshiping in one’s own mother tongue is rooted in the belief that it allows for a deeper connection and understanding of the religion and its teachings. There is nothing wrong in worshiping in one’s own mother tongue. It should be promoted and encouraged. The argument is that worshiping in a language that one is fluent in helps in creating a more personal and intimate relationship with the deity, which in turn leads to a greater sense of spirituality and devotion. However, when it comes to the church as a national entity under a legitimate synod, creating splinter synods for every ethnic group is a highly sinister motive aimed at undermining the sacrosanct nature of the church.

The use of a universal language like English has facilitated a sense of community among diverse groups of people from around the world. It allows people to hear the same messages, sing the same songs, and participate in the same activities, thereby creating a shared experience. The use of different mother tongues in worship, while it is important to some extent, can deepen personal spirituality. But it also has the potential to create linguistic and cultural barriers within a religious community.

In countries like Ethiopia, ethnicity has deeply ingrained itself in every aspect of society. The Church has never been immune from the toxic infection. This is also a major challenge for the church, as it strives to promote unity and bring people together under the message of the gospel and the cross of Christ. Unfortunately, some individuals, including the Prime Minister, seem to be bent on using language as a tool to incite division and create further strife within the church. By focusing on language, these individuals are disregarding the unifying power of faith and using it to further political and ethnic agendas. The argument that every ethnic group needs a synod because TPLF created one is irresponsible and counterproductive which can potentially tear apart the fabric of the church.

What is happening these days creates a situation where language becomes a source of conflict, rather than a means of communication and understanding. The focus should be on spreading the message of the gospel, rather than on political or ethnic affiliations. By doing so, the church can play a critical role in bringing people together, promoting understanding and peace, and fostering a sense of community and belonging.

Amharic has come a long way to become a national language. Over the years, it has evolved into the lingua franca of Ethiopia, serving as a common language for people from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds to communicate with each other. That means Amharic belongs to the whole of Ethiopia, not just Amharas, as English now belongs to the whole world, not just English people. This is a testament to the power of language to bring people together, breaking down barriers and promoting unity. However, despite its status as a national language, some may still cling to the notion of Amharic as a language of the Amhara people and use it as a means to further ethnic divisions. The Prime Minister also did the same thing citing the use of Amharic in Amhara region, a creation of the ruling party. For that matter, neither Amhara nor Oromo regions belong to one linguistic group. The ethnolinguistic regions irresponsibly allotted to certain ethnic groups, in a diverse nation where over 80 ethnic groups live, are in fact a major source of conflict, mass killings, and displacement since their inception.

No language in the world is superior or inferior to others. But some languages have transcended ethnic, and cultural boundaries more than others. Politics aside, it is important to recognize and acknowledge the evolution of Amharic into a national language enriched by all Ethiopians. It is the only language in Ethiopia that transcends ethnic and linguistic boundaries.

Prime Minister Abiy’s recent speech advocating for worship in one’s mother tongue is not only misguided but also counterproductive. Even if the issue he raises could be important, it should not be the subject of his televised dictations. Such divisive language from a political figure like the Prime Minister has the potential to fan the flames of division and aggravate conflicts, rather than promoting the ideals of inclusiveness and unity that the church represents. Moreover, it is not appropriate for a leader to inject such politically charged and potentially inflammatory rhetoric into an autonomous religious institution. Such speeches have the potential to further inflame ethnic tensions and create division, especially in a country like Ethiopia where ethnicity has long been a destructive force causing mass killings and displacement.

The Church has a rich and long-standing history as a unifying force within the country. This has been achieved through its role in bringing together individuals from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds under a shared spiritual and cultural umbrella. The Church has served as an anchor of continuity, providing a sense of community and belonging to its followers and promoting values such as unity, compassion, and peace. Despite the challenges faced by the Church over time, including political and social divisions, it has remained steadfast in its commitment to fostering unity and promoting a shared sense of purpose among its followers.

By injecting his rhetoric as a politician, the Prime Minister is not only overstepping his boundaries, but he is also providing legitimacy to a government-formed synod that has the intention of undermining the church and its leadership. This intervention violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. It is also a threat to the independence and autonomy of the church. A leader’s primary responsibility is to bring people together and promote unity, not to sow the seeds of division and ignite ethnic tensions. It is a serious dereliction of duty for a national leader to use his platforms including the media, the cabinet, the parliament, or his party to foment divisions and animosity.

It is unacceptable for politicians to interfere with the affairs of the church, especially when it has a rich history that dates back to the 4th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has always been a unifying force, bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. The government should stay out of church affairs and respect the decisions made by the synod, rather than trying to interfere and create chaos. The church has been a source of stability and hopes for the people of Ethiopia, and this must remain unchanged in the face of political interference. It does not mean that the church is a perfect entity. Far from it, it has its own weaknesses and failings including the slow pace of modernization that must be addressed within its institutional framework.

But the Prime Minister has no mandate whatsoever to give any orders to the synod or even a local church for that matter. The recent decision of the synod to excommunicate the splinter synod, which was engineered by the blessing of the ruling party, should be respected. This decision was made to preserve the integrity and unity of the church, and it should not be disregarded simply because it goes against the government’s political agenda. The government needs to prioritize the well-being of the church and its members, rather than its own myopic political interests. After all, churches and mosques are the last bastions of unity and national cohesion in Ethiopia. The consequence of dividing the Muslim community by the previous regime has contributed to its downfall.

It is imperative that the government must respect the autonomy and independence of the religious institutions and desist from interfering in their internal affairs. These institutions are spiritual entities with their own beliefs, values, and practices. They have the right to govern themselves and manage their problems without outside interference.

The government’s unhealthy interference not only undermines the credibility and integrity of the Church but also fans the flames of division and ethnic tensions, which is not in line with the church’s mission of unity and peace. Interfering in the church’s affairs only serves to detract from the importance of the church’s role in society and its historic contributions to the betterment and stability of the nation. The government should uphold the principles of religious freedom and respect the autonomy of the church. As the saying goes, it is foolish to start a fire just to see the blaze.

Trying to do so by abusing one’s political and ethnic leverages will only have severe consequences. The failure of leadership is far worse in the corridors of power than in the corridors of the church. That is exactly why Ethiopia is in such a big mess.

It was Christ himself who said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). As a political leader, the Prime Minister is dealing with the things of Caesar. But the church is focused on the spiritual realm. The two are clearly separate and should never be intermingled.