The Tigray Conflict: When Ethnicity Takes Precedence

By: Khataza H. Gondwe

July 19, 2021

Religion and the Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia

The conflict in Tigray is predicated on ethnicity rather than creed. To make sense of it, the war must be viewed through the prism of Eritrea, where a totalitarian regime deemed to have been committing crimes against humanity since 1991 violates fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion or belief, comprehensively. Events in Tigray mirror some of the violations endured by Eritreans for the last 30 years. The ongoing conflict is the outworking of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s ongoing grudge against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the Tigray region, which dates to the liberation era. This grudge was compounded by Eritrea’s defeat in a post-liberation border war that occurred at a time when Tigray dominated Ethiopian politics.

Afwerki found a ready ally in Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who initially appeared best placed to unite a fractious multi-ethnic and religiously diverse nation. His family background encompasses significant fissures. While respecting the Muslim faith of his Oromo father, Abiy Ahmed professes Christianity, the faith of his Amhara mother. However, a prophecy he reportedly received from her in his youth indicating he would one day become Ethiopia’s king has influenced him significantly: “Ever since his mother’s prophecy, Abiy had possessed a messianic quality.” This, along with a preference for centralized power, possibly rendered him vulnerable to Afwerki’s machinations, accounting also for his rapid decline from lauded Nobel Laureate to possible genocidaire. 

A general proliferation of hate speech preceding the war found a ready audience. Lingering resentment at excesses committed by Tigrayans while in power, who often exerted excessive force while also achieving food security and economic growth, provided fertile ground for ethnic sectarianism, including within religious communities. Ethnic profiling of Tigrayans has been ongoing since hostilities began, with recent reports of arbitrary detentions; forced closures of 48,000 Tigrayan-owned businesses in the capital, Addis Ababa, and retaliatory murders; and destruction and looting of Tigrayan property

Abiy Ahmed enjoys significant support from espousers of religious nationalism. Predictions emerge continually from well- and lesser-known Christians declaring imminent victory, with Tigrayans regularly referred to in derogatory terms: “In the first two weeks, gospel singers, influential figures and pastors enthusiastically took part in a social media campaign calling Ethiopians to stand with the Defense Forces against Tigray in what was essentially a civil war. Ironically, even the country’s Reconciliation Commission, made up of the country’s top religious leaders, including evangelical leaders, joined the public endorsement of violence and death.”

Abiy Ahmed enjoys significant support from espousers of religious nationalism. Predictions emerge continually from well- and lesser-known Christians declaring imminent victory.

Since hostilities erupted, Tigrayan civilians have been targeted in a manner indicating an intentional effort to dismantle and destroy a people group, its history, and its land. Its ancient heritage, of significance to all three Abrahamic religions, its monuments, and its archaeological sites have been pillaged. This aspect of the war made international headlines following the massacre at Maryam Zion Church in Axum, believed to house the Ark of the Covenant. However, similar attacks have occurred regularly: The sixth-century monastery on the Debre Damo Mountain was shelled, stormed, and looted; hundreds of Tigrayan monks were profiled and driven from Waldeba Monastery, one of the oldest in Christendom; the Ethiopian Catholic Church compound in Adigrat was used as a military command center, despite the presence of church workers.

Initially, the destruction of churches and looting of ancient Christian artefacts were attributed to the deliberate deployment of Eritrean soldiers from the predominantly Muslim lowlands of the country. In reality, they attacked indiscriminately. Most significantly, 80 people—both Christian and Muslim—were reportedly killed between November 24 and 25, 2020, when the seventh-century Al-Nejashi Mosque was shelled, vandalized, and looted.

In another example of ethnicity taking precedence over religious identity, a priest related how he and others escaped execution: “They start beating us from the church until we reach their bureau. They dug a pit and asked to stand in it. In the pit, they were about to shoot and kill us. One of the soldiers whose name was Captain Abdi, is the one he saved our life. He shield us by standing between us and the shooters. He asked the shooters to leave us. Later he told us he is from Hawassa, Southern Ethiopia.” He added that the “cruellest, and who destroyed our life are the ethnic Amhara soldiers,” whose tribe is overwhelmingly Christian.

Tigrayan clergy and worshipers have died in significant numbers, as attacks coincided with services: “Up to the 4th of May 2021, the total number of religious leaders killed during their religious service are more than 326.” The number also includes Muslim leaders. As part of a brutal campaign of sexual violence, nuns were reportedly raped in their convent

Tigrayan clergy and worshipers have died in significant numbers, as attacks coincided with services.

The indiscriminate bombing of ancient religious sites and extensive looting of irreplaceable historical objects and manuscripts are catastrophic not only for Tigray, but also for world heritage. Yet despite mounting evidence of these and other egregious violations, expressions of concern from Ethiopia’s faith communities remain muted, and the few to speak up receive short shrift. 

In a video smuggled from Ethiopia, the Orthodox patriarch, Abune Mathias, described events in Tigray as genocide, highlighting atrocities and urging international intervention. He was insulted for being Tigrayan and officially placed under house arrest. A Christian in Addis Ababa who recently asked, innocuously, for people to “pray for Tigray” was ejected from a church [1].

The indiscriminate bombing of ancient religious sites and extensive looting of irreplaceable historical objects and manuscripts are catastrophic not only for Tigray, but also for world heritage.

The seemingly “intentional destruction of markers of Tigrayan identity” has been attributed by one observer to the alleged advancement of an Amhara claim to the Axumite legacy, in which the Orthodox Church, its unique written language, and Ethiopia’s imperial history are rooted. 

As Temesgen Kahsay recently wrote: “The persistent and sustained ideological and religious support given to the war by Ethiopian religious leaders and influencers, has been one of the most troubling elements of this brutal conflict.” Prospects for effective intra- or inter-religious peacebuilding are dim as long as religion continues to be subordinated to Othering along ethnic lines.

  1. Dr. Berhane Asmelash, Director, Release Eritrea, verbal briefing (July 10, 2021). 
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