By Tariku N (PhD)
The current constitution of Ethiopia under article 11 clearly stipulates the separation of State and Religion. Sub articles, 1, 2 and 3 indicate that state and religion are separate; there shall be no state religion; and the state shall not interfere in religious matters and religion shall not interfere in state affairs. However, what we see is the polar opposite of the provisions in the constitution and an unprecedented violation never heard hitherto in the recent history of the country.
State and religion are separate: This is a fundamental principle and a modus vivendi for a country of religious diversities. Ethiopia is a conglomeration of major Abrahamic and other traditional religions that co-existed peacefully for centuries. By meddling in the internal affairs of religions and putting undue influence, governments in Ethiopia have always wanted to control the country where more than 99 percent of the population is faithful. Some religious institutions camouflage under the guise of political parties to influence the government and propagate their faith. Practically, drawing a clear borderline between religion and politics is very difficult as they both deal with the same subject. However, strict observance and enforcement of moral and ethical standards in political, civil and military institutions help reduce constitutional infringements.
Recently, the incidence of bloody conflicts along ethnic and religious lines has become common in Ethiopia. Behind the scene are different actors in covert and overt operations with or without the support of the government. However, the involvement of government in the internal affairs of religious institutions has never been as clear as the recent crisis within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC).
Following a three decade old implementation of ethno-linguistic based politics, the infiltration of ethnic thinking into the Holy Synod of EOTC was made public when three bishops went astray and ordained 26 bishops uncanonically. The splinter group falsely accused EOTC for lack of church services in Afan Oromo and other local languages.
The fact is that Ge-ez, an ancient Ethiopian language that cannot be assigned to a particular ethnic group, has been in use in Hymnal Divine Liturgy Services since time immemorial. It has only been 50 years since Amharic started to be used for sermons and other complementary church services. Other languages including Afan Oromo have been in use for similar purposes since the last ten years. Mahibere Kidusan and EOTC Televisions also broadcast services in many languages including Afan Oromo.
Rather than supporting the church to expand this linguistic diversity, the federal and Oromia regional governments sided with the renegade group and provided them protection when they broke dioceses and took over churches by force. Militia and special police forces in Oromia killed, injured and arrested priests and believers that defended their churches; believers that wore sackcloth in accordance with the biblical story of the people of Nineveh, based on spiritual guidance given by EOTC, were barred from work or arrested, and during the celebration of the 127th victory of Adwa, priests and believers attending Mass at St. George Church in Addis Ababa were tear gassed and dispersed by federal police forces.
The brutal treatment of EOTC’s structure, priests and believers did not come out of the blue. Extremist political thoughts have been labelling EOTC as a hindrance, based on false and fabricated narratives, against their plan of advancing party and ethnic political agendas. Using their power within government and allying with extremist groups in clandestine ways, they attempted to stifle the voices of the church and dismantle its cannons and structures.
There shall not be state religion: According to Pew research center, more than 80 countries in the world have state religion, and 64 countries have religious symbols on their national flags. Officially, Ethiopia does not have a state religion. However, its tri-colored flag carries a pentagram, a symbol of a superstitious religion since 1996. A pentagram is a five-pointed star circumscribed by a single or concentric circle(s). The symbol is often widely used by Wiccans and paganism. Wicca is a modern pagan syncretic religion developed in England during the first half of the 20th century and was introduced to the public in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant. This symbol currently represents an idol named baphomate, a demonic figure, worshiped in some countries in the world.
The yellow interlaced pentagram radiating rays of light on a blue shield on the national flag designates a religion of which over 99 % of the population in Ethiopia don’t believe in. The pentagram is described as a demonstration of unity and equality of nations and nationalities at a surface level. However, the deeper meaning is demonic described in acerbic polemic. If a symbol is needed to show these virtues, one can suggest hundreds of other religion neutral symbols with the same desired meaning.
Disappointingly, followers of EOTC are currently being forced to use the flag with the pentagram in public processions. People that carry the tri-colored flag without the symbol are being humiliated, arrested and jailed by government forces. This is contrary to article 27 of the constitution which stipulates that every citizen has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to hold or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and the freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
The state shall not interfere in religious matters and the religion shall not interfere in state affairs
Driven by earthly politics and acting as agents of extremist political elements, the defector archbishops atypically demanded government interference within EOTC’s internal affairs in the televised ‘’mediation effort’’ by Abiy Ahmad (PhD). He looked disinterested in the plea in public. But actions speak louder than words and his discordance in the two is now a public knowledge.
One can also see a clear synergy of tactics between elements in government and extremist political parties in their view of EOTC and its place in history. For these elements, deconstructing, redefining and rewriting Ethiopia’s history begins with weakening the church. They consider the church as the last stronghold of their divisive political agenda. Hence, they distort history, conduct smear campaigns, infiltrate the church’s structures, hire double agents and put all sorts of pressure.
Good or bad, the church’s influence on government is the thing of a distant past: not at least during the Dergue, TPLF or the current government. In these three successive regimes, leave alone interfering in state affairs, the church has been at the receiving end of all forms of injustices.
These past few days, there are signs of de-escalation of tensions between the EOTC and the government. These are positive news which I wish would last long. However, the violation of religious rights in the current Ethiopia is both structural and systematic. Besides, situations are fluid, erratic and fast changing- that is the new normal. Hence, the peaceful struggle has to continue until a reliable and full respect of religious freedom prevails in the country.
Editor’s note : views in the article reflect the views of the writer, not the views of borkena.com
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