Fault Lines of Religion and Violence in Eritrea and Ethiopia

By: Tricia Redeker Hepner

July 19, 2021

Religion and the Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia

July 2001, Eritrea: I stood with Yosief, a University of Asmara student, contemplating the ruins of an ancient stele toppled in the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean border war somewhere near Sen’afe. Its broken inanimate form lay like the bodies of thousands of soldiers who had perished nearby.

“The woyane wants to destroy Eritrean history and identity,” Yosief lamented, using the colloquial term for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former rebel forces that then formed the core of the Ethiopian federal government. Indeed, the border war violently severed continuities among Eritrea and Tigray and replaced them with militarized nationalist differences. 

Indeed, the border war violently severed continuities among Eritrea and Tigray and replaced them with militarized nationalist differences. 

It also justified repression. In September 2001, the Eritrean government set out to crush dissent. Students, journalists, and government reformers were targeted first. Then came the closure of the rapidly growing evangelical and Pentecostal congregations. Laypeople and faith leaders alike were arrested and home worship and Bible study banned. Yosief himself was detained and accused of dissidence for allegedly aiding neighbors who belonged to a banned Pentecostal church. 

A previously unimplemented 1995 proclamation “regulating” religious institutions offered legal cover. Next came the silencing of the Catholic bishops and the deposing of the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Islamic leaders and institutions had already felt the sting. In the early 1990s, just after independence, the government arrested scores of Muslims who opposed the appointment of a state-sanctioned grand mufti, closed Islamic schools and charitable organizations, and detained or disappeared people it accused of links to jihadist movements. 

Next came the silencing of the Catholic bishops and the deposing of the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Islamic leaders and institutions had already felt the sting.

These patterns earned Eritrea an annual place on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” since 2004, while abuses within the military and Eritrea’s extensive network of prisons have been identified as crimes against humanity by a United Nations commission of inquiry. Countless reports by human rights organizations and transnational campaigns led by Eritrean diaspora activists have highlighted these issues for decades. 

Religion-state tensions run deep in Eritrea and Ethiopia. We might describe the relationship as a kind of antagonistic symbiosis, in which governing elites from the early days of empire-building to the present have both co-opted and crushed religious identities and institutions in the course of political conflict and transformation. Eritrea’s nationalist trajectory, ferociously hostile to the competition religion poses, nonetheless reckons with a deeply devout population. Religion matters, and political forces understand its strength and its potential to both fortify and destabilize. Throughout the Eritrean diaspora, independent religious bodies proliferate, providing culturally specific spiritual refuge from secular political conflict, and the Eritrean Orthodox Church (Tewahdo) has split among those loyal to deposed patriarch Abune Antonios against the state-sanctioned church headquartered in Asmara. 

Religion matters, and political forces understand its strength and its potential to both fortify and destabilize.

And then there is the problem of another split: the border between the two nations, and more specifically, between culturally, ethnically, and linguistically contiguous highland Eritrea and Tigray province. Despite the 2000 Algiers Agreement, and the 2018 agreement that earned Ethiopian Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed the ill-fated Nobel Prize and re-opened relations with Eritrea, the border remains a bloody wound that hemorrhages refugees and justifies ongoing militarization. The 1998-2000 war was in many ways an attempt to demarcate Tigrayan versus Eritrean identities through violence. The mass deportations of Eritreans from Ethiopia during those years defined Eritrea’s nationalist project against Tigray in particular. In a striking and underrated moment of ethnogenesis, both Eritrean and Tigrayan “ethnic” identities extended taproots deep into their contested lands. 

The war in Tigray embodies the diabolical blossoming of these and many related shoots. The deliberate destruction of religious and cultural heritage sites by Eritrean and Ethiopian troops, many of which hold broader cultural and spiritual significance to people across both nations and multiple ethnicities, regions, and religions, is especially potent. It is also polyvalent: The meanings are far from singular, and the motives of those perpetrating these genocidal acts are likely diverse, even if systematic and intentional in their execution. 

Most obviously is the violent wrenching from Tigray of any unique claim to Axumite heritage, the seat of national origin myths to much of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and its significance as the cradle of African Christianity and Islam. Ending the association of this history with Tigray may perversely take precedence over the preservation of heritage for the entire region. 

Most obviously is the violent wrenching from Tigray of any unique claim to Axumite heritage, the seat of national origin myths to much of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Then there is the inculcation of religious antipathy among Eritrean conscripts. Torture, forced recantations, and other abuses on the basis of religious identity—real or perceived—has persisted in the military for decades. This may help make sense of how Eritrean troops could participate in targeting of holy sites and committing atrocities within religious spaces. But so does the ethnicized, and weaponized, hostility toward Tigray nurtured since the border war. The Eritrean memory of the TPLF’s destruction of its own sacred heritage sites—recall the toppled stele near Sen’afe—may find retribution. 

A related and possibly significant element has to do with the emergence of the transnational Agazian movement, a form of Orthodox Christian Zionism collapsed into a greater Tigrinya-Tigrayan indigeneity narrative that is particularly hostile to Islam. Some observers have identified this extremist movement with the TPLF, but it is also present within Eritrean Tigrinya circles. Insofar as Agazian could challenge the cultural and religious meanings of the border, it is a threat to both Eritrean sovereignty and to Ethiopian federalism. 

The latter must of course make space for religious diversity within competing Ethiopian nationalisms, and particularly for the growing fundamentalist Christian presence in Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy and his Prosperity Party identify with Pentecostalism, which competes with the traditional, indigenous religions of Orthodox Christianity and Islam, and connects Ethiopia’s political elite to Western, especially American, political and financial capital. Sadly, this linkage seems more likely to shield Abiy’s government than hold it accountable. 

Finally, the destruction of sacred spaces in Tigray, including remote monasteries and ancient mosques, signals another painful reality: There is nowhere safe to go. In a poignant analysis, ethnohistorian Wolbert Smidt notes that religious sites in the region have a long history of providing sanctuary for anyone fleeing conflict. A critical message thus heard by Tigrayan people, Smidt notes, is that “you don’t have refuge anymore; no space for you as a society.” 

The destruction of sacred spaces in Tigray, including remote monasteries and ancient mosques, signals another painful reality: There is nowhere safe to go.

Prospects for peace in Tigray must be joined by unequivocal demands for justice. Observers who have referred to the conflict as “genocidal” do so on the basis of sound reasoning, both legal and humanitarian. The African Union, to Ethiopia’s chagrin, has commenced a commission of inquiry. Possible referral to the International Criminal Court looms on the horizon for both Eritrean and Ethiopian perpetrators. 

Religious leaders in the Horn and its diasporas also have an important role to play, as do the larger bodies and traditions to which they are connected. Already the Eritrean Catholic bishops, the independent Eritrean Orthodox Church of North America, Europe and the Middle East, and the Ethiopian Orthodox patriarch, have called for an end to the violence and destruction. If ever a time should come for repairing breaches within and across religious entities, now would be it. 

If ever a time should come for repairing breaches within and across religious entities, now would be it.

Concerned Eritrean citizens, secular political opposition groups, and emergent Eritrean-Tigrayan activist alliances have authored letters, hosted webinars, and demanded action. As members of religious congregations and communities, these individuals can also help build platforms for peace and justice by pressing leaders of all faiths and denominations to forge strong ecumenical alliances. 

For the war in Tigray is not simply an atrocious and preventable catastrophe. It is a moral affront to all that which defines our shared humanity.

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