The war in Tigray has divided evangelicals, creating strong feelings against one another

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There is no end to killings in Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of civilians have died during the yearlong violent inter-ethnic unrest around the province of Tigray in the north of Ethiopia.

In June, Amharic rebels attacked the Oroma villages near the city of Gimbi and massacred more than 100 civilians. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is from the Oroma people group, visited the region on 18 June and declared "no tolerance" for terrorists committing such crimes. His government is keen to end the unrest in Tigray and retain the unity of multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

1. What triggered the violence in Ethiopia?

The violent conflict in Ethiopia started in 2020 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed the national election due to the pandemic. This was not accepted by the old political elite concentrated in the regional party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF led the liberation against the former Ethiopian communist regime in the 1980s and, after the victory in 1991, was for 27 years the leading political force in shaping the country.

In 1995 Ethiopia became an ethnic union, structured as a federation of ethnic people groups, promising each one an equal share in political influence and independence. In reality, however, the smaller ethnic minorities were largely excluded from political power, and the natural areas of overlap between ethnic territories fostered tensions around issues of land and water.

The one-party government, built by a coalition of former ethnically shaped liberation movements, ruled the country undemocratically. This added to the constant tensions between the regions and the central government in Addis Ababa. The TPLF, a largely Amharic and Coptic Christian movement, dominated the coalition and consequently the government.

Since 2015, millions of Ethiopians protested against the central TPLF-led government. In the beginning of 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned and Abiy Ahmed became the first Prime Minister to be Oromo and a convert from Islam to evangelical Pentecostal Christianity.

Ahmed favored a structural change for Ethiopia, dismantling the ethnic federalism and introducing a federation of regions. He integrated different regional and ethnic political movements into the newly founded Prosperity Party, minimizing the role of the old coalition of liberation movements such as the TPLF. The TPLF refused to integrate, left the old coalition and formed an opposition, concentrating on a regional government in Tigray and clearly opposing the political course of Ahmed and his Prosperity Party. The old elite lost its power in Addis Ababa but was forming a new force to fight back from Tigray.

Months of political tensions followed and on 4November 2020, the Ethiopian army started a military operation against TPLF, responding to some attacks of the Liberation Front against the National Forces. Soon a full-size civil war began. Last year the fighters of TPLF came within 400km of Addis Ababa, but the army, together with Eritrean forces, managed to push them back to Tigray. According to Amnesty International and the Evangelical Alliance of Ethiopia, both sides have committed numerous crimes among civilians.

2. Drought, floods and hunger

The political crisis and civil war in Tigray are not the only evil the people of Ethiopia are facing today. The pandemic has weakened the economy, and a drought crisis, followed by devastating wet seasons and floods, has reduced the national food production to a minimum. Millions of men, women and children face hunger and malnutrition in Ethiopia and other regions of the Horn of Africa. It is estimated that about 14 million people, including 5.5 million children, suffer hunger and starvation.

In addition, the war in Ukraine has had a major impact on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa as whole due to the high reliance on grain imports from Ukraine and Russia. Russian sanctions on grain imports disrupted supply soon after the war in Ukraine started in February 2022, but the UN food aid programme has also been affected.

The humanitarian situation is critical. Latest estimates indicate that 23 million Ethiopians will soon need humanitarian assistance and food aid across the country. Some areas, however, are already in a critical situation. People in the south are still dealing with the negative effects of the 2017 drought, which caused massive displacement of rural populations in search for water and grassland. And due to the war, the government blocked humanitarian aid to Tigray, contributing further to hunger.

3. The dangers are at hand

What happens if the conflict escalates? Will we see a breakdown of the Ethiopian multiethnic state with 100 million people? Will the crisis trigger other national and ethnic conflicts in such a highly explosive context? Ethiopia is both economically and politically the most important state in the Horn of Africa. The African Union has its headquarters in Ethiopia and the country is a spiritual giant. No other country in Africa, or even possibly the whole world, has seen revivals in recent years on a par with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, dating back to 330 AD. The Coptic Orthodox Church is still the largest religious association of the country. But there are also numerous Protestant evangelical denominations in Ethiopia, such as the Lutheran "Mekane Jesus" church with about 5 million members or the Mennonite Mesere Kristos church, the largest Mennonite church in the world. Baptist and Pentecostal churches make up the rest of the roughly 14 million Protestants in the country. These churches are growing by 6.5% annually and are highly active in mission.

Nonetheless, the economic and political crisis in Ethiopia is affecting the witness of the evangelicals in a number of ways.

Firstly, evangelicals are found across Ethiopia and they tend, generally speaking, to support Prime Minister Ahmed, who himself is a Pentecostal Christian. But not all of them. The evangelicals in Tigray, for instance, largely support the TPLF and even participate in military actions by the rebels against the government in Addis Ababa. The war has divided evangelicals, creating strong feelings against one another. And where there is no unity, the witness will be considerably weakened.

Secondly, both the Coptic Orthodox former elite and the Muslim tribes see evangelicals in a critical light. The 400,000 Muslims who have become evangelical Christians in recent years has led to successive waves of persecution in the south of the country. The changed political situation could lead to more obstacles in evangelism in the country as well as mission outside of Ethiopia.

Third, the unrest in Ethiopia will limit the peace and reconciliation witness of Ethiopian churches considerably. The Horn of Africa is, politically speaking, a powder keg. Conflicts of different kinds may arise at any time. Ethiopian evangelical Christians have been an agent of reconciliation in the region. If they prove unable to solve multi-ethnic conflicts in their own country, this could make it harder for them to do so in similar situations in the wider region.

This and more should motivate evangelicals all around the world to pray for Ethiopia and for wisdom for both the government of Prime Minister Ahmed and the leadership of the various Christian churches. It is time to intercede for Ethiopia and pray for a functioning peace effort that will bring the conflicting parties and tribes, religious groups and churches to the table. Jesus is our peace. Millions of Ethiopians know Him. Now is the time to exercise peace across the nation. Our prayers are needed.

 Johannes Reimer leads the Peace and Reconciliation Network of the World Evangelical Alliance.