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HomeOpinionWhere Mussolini strengthened the catholic, Abiy weakened the Ethiopian Orthodox church

Where Mussolini strengthened the catholic, Abiy weakened the Ethiopian Orthodox church

Mussolini Catholic Ethiopia Orthodox Church
Mussolini (photo source : Ethiopiawinet)

By Yilma debele

By the time Mussolini came to power in 1922 the whole of Italy was in commotion. As soon as Mussolini grabbed power, in an attempt to bolster his power, he approached Pius XI. The Pope seized the opportunity to revitalize the power 0f the catholic church which it lost in that era. In that era in Western Europe   faith was disparaged and many people were becoming atheists. Mussolini himself was no different. He had become an atheist. But for the sake of his power, he was rebaptized to show his allegiance with the church when he was struggling to seize power. 

As we know if catholic is for Italy, Orthodox is for Ethiopia. Pope John II of Poland is said to break the tradition by becoming a non Italian Pope after 400 years. Therefore, Mussolini believed that using the catholic church helps him strengthen his power. Like Mussolini, Abiy seemed to have believed aligning himself with the orthodox church was helpful to clinch   his power. Yet, the two men’s approach of the church is quite different. The former gave the church real power and the Pope had restored most of the privileges the church lost. Even church education which was suspended, began to be given in Italian government schools. Mussolini himself even had his children baptized.   On the contrary, Abiy approached the Orthodox church not to strengthen it, it is for quite the opposite purpose. First, Abiy pretended that he mediated the exiled Patriarch with Patriarch at home. Those who know about the matter say that his role was indeed minimal in the mediation effort.  

The challenge the Ethiopian Orthodox church is facing, has something to do with Abiy’s character., Though like Mussolini Abiy approached the orthodox church, unlike Mussolini his approach was to weaken it. Before professing atheism, Mussolini might have had a catholic background and he knew the power catholic in Italy had, therefore, he believed that consolidating it is a plus to his power and working closely with it implicitly empowers his rule. 

Of course, it was not only Mussolini’s willingness that helped the then catholic church reinvigorate its power. Unlike today’s Ethiopian Orthodox church, the then Catholic church even if it was undermined due to the ongoing politics, its problem didn’t emanate from inside. The problem emanated from outside. Therefore, the clergy’s unity was intact. Besides, Pope Pius XI was as strong as Mussolini himself, uncompromising to give in. The two men’s relationship was symbiotic, Pope Pius XI wanted Mussolini to advance the church’s interest, and the latter wanted to cement his power using the church. 

In contrast, when Abiy was trying to use the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the church was already split into two: one at home and the other in exile. Even if he was spuriously involved in the mediation between the two priests, it didn’t take him that long to invent a rift between the two patriarchs. For instance, in an overt attempt to marginalize Abune Mathias, in one holiday he went to Abune Merkorios and claimed that his Holiness blessed him. This is not to say why he received blessing from Abune Merkorios, but he did it in a very theatrical way trying to portray wantonly Abune Mathias as anti-reform and probably pro-TPLF. 

The challenge the Ethiopian Orthodox Church faces takes root way back in the 19th century. It is pretty much related to Mussolini’s occupation of Ethiopia. Mussolini when he strengthened catholicism at home, his forces tried to weaken the Ethiopian orthodox church in Ethiopia. The Italians believed that the obstacle not to realize their dream of colonizing Ethiopia was Amhara domination and orthodox Christianity as such they vehemently toiled to undermine the church. It is said that they are the ones who started constructing the big Mosque known as ‘anwar mesgid’ located in the center of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, in front of Raguel church, in an attempt to get a rallying support from the Muslim community, it was finished after they left by Ethiopians. Once the occupation was over and the occupying force was defeated, the orthodox church was able to regain its power. The advent of the ‘Derg’ regime was another dark day for the Ethiopian orthodox church as the regime claimed to be atheist. Party members of the regime were dissuaded to abandon their faith. Really, the Ethiopian orthodox church was a unifying force for Ethiopian nationalism. But consecutive regimes busied themselves flagging this great faith. The EPRDF regime that succeeded the ‘Derge’ was crueler to the Ethiopian orthodox church. On my part, I don’t know how much the ‘Derg’ regime was involved in the church, but I think that it was minimal. EPRDF was not only involved in it, but it intertwined and damaged the church’s fame. The TPLF leadership which was dominating the defunct EPRDF had a big part in it. Abuy Sibhat unashamedly claimed that they had broken the Ethiopian orthodox church in a way that it won’t come back again. This was because TPLF regards the Ethiopian orthodox church’s strength and upsurges TPLF’s fear of losing power. Therefore, TPLF busied itself splitting the fathers along ethnic lines. The fathers who were supposed to serve their congregation spiritually, surrendered to TPLF’s wishes and echoed TPLF’s ethnic politics. That further disunited the fathers. Especially, the replacement of the Amhara Patriarch by a Tigrayan Patriarch was a thorn in the side for the church, because that was regarded as sacrilegious by the congregations. The other challenge the church is facing comes from Oromo radicals. These people fully buy the Italian claim, due to the fact that they feel that their language and culture is subjugated. They say we Oromos are majority, but the country Ethiopia marginalizes us; therefore, Ethiopia should be deconstructed and for that dismantling the Ethiopian orthodox church is significant. 

Wayward fathers

Like I said, Pius XI had a very strong personality. He confronted Mussolini to get the church’s interest. It was during his time that the Vatican became an independent state after he had dealt with Mussolini, Yet, his relation with Mussolini was not always smooth. There were emissaries among the priests who used to serve as a go between. These priests were kowtowing to Mussolini. They knew the pope wouldn’t budge an iota to submit to Mussolini. The emissaries when the Pope sent them to Mussolini needing something, Mussolini might get angry if he didn’t want to fulfill it. These emissaries used to consult among themselves to cheat the Pope, because they wanted to be seen as more faithful to Mussolini than the church. There was this priest who told Mussolini that he was a fanatic catholic at the same time he was a fanatic fascist. I think that the same thing is happening in Ethiopia today. By the way, Pius’ XI successor was not as strong as him.  He was more like the emissaries. He was submissive not only to Mussolini, but also even to Hitler. He played a role in inflaming the second world war by making himself obedient to the two dictators. Abiy too, seems to have subservient fathers. They are the ones who are roiling the church. Why does Abiy want to dismantle the orthodox church? There could be several reasons. To mention a couple of them. One is to look more Oromo than radical Oromos. I have written a piece on this topic in 2020 titled Black enough versus Oromo enough on His other reason could be the faith he claims to pursue such as prosperity Gospel. I assume that he wishes this faith to replace the orthodox church. Those who claim that the orthodox church should sermonize in Afan- Oromo are unrepresentative of the Oromo congregation. Both Abiy and radical Oromos convince a few wayward Oromo priests claim that the question is the Oromo people’s question, but true Oromo priests don’t buy this. Those who are pushing from behind are not even Orthodox Christians, most are protestants. These radical Oromos on the one hand say that Orthodox Christianity is not ours, on the other hand they push Orthodox fathers to sermonize in Afan-Oromo. Their struggle is utterly apolitical targeting only one thing and that is as they always say deconstructing Ethiopia so as to disseminate Oromo culture. Should Oromo culture become Ethiopian culture no sane person opposes it, and it is still Ethiopian culture. Their attempt to obliterate others’ culture , especially Amhara culture, is daft to say the least.        

Aune Mathis a unifying Father

Abune Mathias is really a unifying Father. His reign is full of challenges. He is sandwiched between two rivalry groups. On the one hand, radical Tigrayans want to pull him out and settle in Tigray so that Tigray’s secession can be realized; on the other hand, Abiy and his team want him to desert so as they can place someone who may serve their interest. A lot has been made to push him out. The worst and barbaric attempt was the day a team of Abiy orchestrated a drama. That day he had a flight from Addis Ababa airport to the US. In a foolish attempt they released news accusing the Father of taking out antiques and claiming he won’t be back. They did this as they had interest in installing a priest of their own. This was good news for radical Tigrayans, hence they tried to take advantage of the matter. Their wish was after this news his Holiness would make up his mind and establish a Tigrayan church. But the Ethiopian Orthodox church congregations were angry at the news. The wanton of Abiy’s team intention was that the congregation would buy their trivial lies and join them in denouncing the Father. Credit to the true Orthodox congregations, they all rallied behind the Father and expressed their fury and that shocked Abiy’s team. The Fathers at home also deserve gratitude for their solidarity and halted the plot. This sort of unity is what Orthodox needs to defend itself from any attack and revive. In my view, Orthodox need to regain their prominence should Ethiopia revive once again. She is really Ethiopia’s identity, there is no need to be scrupulous to say Orthodox is the symbol of Ethiopia. Look at the Islamic Republic of Iran. Shia Islam is its identity, it subjugates other faiths including Sunni Islam, but Iran is a strong unified country because of Shia Islam.  I am not saying Orthodox need to subjugate other faiths, but they should not shy from publicly admitting it is Ethiopia’s identity. Abiy and Oromo radicals’ struggle is not really Orthodox sermonizing in Afan-Oromo in what they call their region, under the guise that it is to obliterate this holy faith altogether from that land. The clock is ticking Orthodox Christians need to unite and make every effort to preclude the worst. 

All the ideas on Pius XI and Mussolini are taken from the book entitled The Pope and Mussolini by David I. Kertzer.    

The writer can be reached at 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of


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  1. Yilma,
    You are so eager to pounce on Abiy that you were willing to credit Mussolini for “strengthening” the Catholic church. The reality is the opposite. Mussolini used and abused the church to his own fascistic ends! Yes, we all have problem with Abiy but not at the expense of the truth!

  2. “It is said that they are the ones who started constructing the big Mosque known as ‘anwar mesgid’ located in the center of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, in front of Raguel church, in an attempt to get a rallying support from the Muslim community” – you said it all with this statement. The great ordeal Muslims of Ethiopia experienced when the ETOC had power, wealth, land … when they were making or deposing Kings – is unforgettable and unforgivable. For Muslim situations are gradually improving and no body will deter that change from its course.


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