31 May 2023, The Tablet

Ethiopian church announces aid for people of Tigray

The announcement has found the Tigray Church in the middle of plans to ordain ten episcopates for dioceses in Tigray and abroad.

Ethiopian church announces aid for people of Tigray

Recipients of aid in the town of Agula in Tigray.
Associated Press/Alamy

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has announced a 20 million birr (£294,000) in aid of the people in Tigray, in what is seen as an attempt to appease the war-scarred Orthodox Churches in the region and draw them back into its fold.

The funds will be used to meet the immediate needs for the people, recovering from a deadly war fought between the Ethiopia army and allies, and the Tigray People Liberation Front.

The conflict from November 2020 to November last year may have killed 600,000 people, according to the African Union, and has displaced millions.

“The synod has decided to donate 20 million birr to our people in Tigray region due to the war that has happened in the northern part of our country,” said the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Matthias, in a statement on 24 May, after the annual summit of priests.

The Church will also conduct comprehensive humanitarian support and implement consolation and visitation programs for the people, according to the patriarch. It will also send peace envoys to facilitate dialogue and reconciliation, in a larger effort to unify the church.

Mary’s Meals has a crisis appeal currently to aid Ethiopia. In this Tablet podcast, Ruth Gledhill talks to Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, founder of Mary’s Meals, which feeds 2,429,182 children every day at schools in 18 countries, across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Currently, one of their concerns is the Tigray war that lasted for two years from November 2020, thought to be one of the deadliest conflicts in recent years.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the largest religious organisation in Ethiopia and is closely tied to the state. According to analysts, a split would have major consequences for the stability of the Horn of Africa country.

But the announcement has found the Tigray Church in the middle of plans to ordain ten episcopates for dioceses in Tigray and abroad.

In February, the Tigray Church rejected attempts by officials to normalise relations, after it sent letters to five archbishops asking for reconciliation. This was the first communication between the two sides in two years.

Bishops in Tigray accuse the hierarchy in Addis Ababa of betrayal, after it kept silent, when in Tigray, priests were being killed, churches and monasteries destroyed, and holy heritage sites looted. Many members of the Church were also killed, and women and girls raped, as fighters used rape as a weapon of war.

On 27 May 2021, Orthodox archbishops in Tigray said their dioceses had split from the Church in Addis Ababa after it took sides in the war.

Patriarch Mathias said last week’s assembly had made significant decisions to address the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, to foster unity among Orthodox communities, to support peace-building efforts and to address challenges in the Oromia region.

The synod aims to heal divisions in the country’s Orthodox Church. It also authorised the release of the salary and operating budget of the employees of the Kessate Berhan Spiritual College of St Fremantos Abba Selama in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, and to continue the normal learning and teaching process by accepting students in the 2024 fiscal year.

However, the statement came against a backdrop of Church leaders in Tigray threatening to ordain their own bishops.

The synod in Addis Ababa has previously accused them of creating “a new illegal regional structure in a way that violates the institutional unity and existing structural organisation of our Church”.

With regard to the overall situation of the Orthodox Church in the country, the synod announced the establishment of a dedicated peace committee that will play a crucial role in addressing prevailing challenges and fostering peace.

The synod expressed deep concern about challenges in the Oromia region, which has seen disputes over the appointment of bishops, the language used in services, and the suspension of church services. The synod passed a decision to work to resolve the problems and return to the normal operating structure including restoring regular ecclesiastical orders.

Orthodox Christians constitute 43 percent of the population, making them Ethiopia's largest and most influential religious group.

Meanwhile, an Ethiopian Catholic bishop visiting the UK has called for the resumption of peace talks in his country’s ongoing civil conflict.

Bishop Varghese Thottamkara, Vicar Apostolic of Nekemte in west Ethiopia, told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) on a visit to their UK offices in Surrey, that both government forces and rebel ethnic groups “need to think of the good of the people”.

He told ACN around 20 per cent of churches in his diocese have had to close due to security concerns. Many priests, seminarians and religious sisters have been kidnapped in Ethiopia as a result of the unrest, and Bishop Thottamkara himself has had his life threatened multiple times. 

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