News Analysis

Ethiopia’s churches are being targeted – and no one is quite sure why

An outbreak of violence in Ethiopia at the end of October has manifested a worrying new trend in one of the world’s most religious countries, with reports of Christians targeted during the mayhem that left around 80 dead.

Since July 2018, about 30 churches belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church – the largest of the Oriental Orthodox churches – have been attacked during ethnicity-related strife plaguing the country, according to the Amhara Professional Union, a US-based diaspora organisation.

In August 2018, an estimated 10 churches were burned in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, resulting in 29 deaths, including those of eight priests. This March and April, another two churches were attacked in the region’s capital, Jijiga, resulting in 12 deaths. In July, five churches were attacked with three torched in the southern Sidama zone – killing three people. The most recent attacks compelled Pope Francis to speak out.

The ethnicity-based frictions in Ethiopia mean it’s hard to pinpoint the motivations behind the church attacks.

It’s been suggested that religious buildings are being singled out to incite tension, so as to further political plots.

At the same time, the attacks highlight concerns about Muslim extremism in the Horn of Africa. It has also been noted that Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have become increasingly involved in Ethiopia, funding the building of mosques and promoting Wahabism, a more conservative form of Islam.

Ethiopia has hitherto presented a remarkable success story in religious tolerance compared to most of the world, with about 45 million Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and about 35 million Muslims living in relative harmony.

The fear now is that any hint of religious-based hostility would worsen the country’s ethnic troubles.