Ethiopia’s all-powerful church is unlikely to reform anytime soon

‘Before we could not talk’: Church’s immunity may be weakening through government reforms

People pray around Saint George, one of the 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, an ancient site that draws tens of thousands of foreign tourists every year. According to legend, angels helped King Lalibela build the churches in the 11th and 12th century after he received an order by God to create a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Photograph: Radu Sigheti/Reuters

People pray around Saint George, one of the 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, an ancient site that draws tens of thousands of foreign tourists every year. According to legend, angels helped King Lalibela build the churches in the 11th and 12th century after he received an order by God to create a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Photograph: Radu Sigheti/Reuters

 

In the early morning light in Lalibela, while tourists are still in bed or perhaps just making it to breakfast, crowds of Ethiopians clad in white shawls crowd around the city’s rock-hewn churches.

Some stand alone, praying toward the churches, while others wait patiently to approach an Ethiopian priest, noticeable in a yellow shawl, to kiss and touch the wooden cross in his hand.

Lalibela’s churches are world famous as an architectural marvel – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited them in January. They are also a potent display of the hold of Christianity in Ethiopia and of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) that goes with it, dating all the way back to the 4th century.

This ecclesiastical power has, as with other churches around the world, often gone unchecked, resulting in deep-rooted problems.

Younger Orthodox Christians are beginning to ask more questions about the church’s behaviour

But so deeply rooted in Ethiopian hearts and minds has the EOTC become across the centuries, it has managed to transcend the sort of analyses and reflection that brought on the ongoing political reckoning for the Ethiopian government, which saw a sudden change in prime minister in early 2018 to try resolve years of protest against its rule.

The church’s apparent immunity to criticism may be weakening, though, with the government’s ongoing bevvy of reforms – including the lifting of restrictions on media and freedom of expression – resulting in a recalcitrant society finding a bolder public voice, with increasing issues up for discussion.

“Now we are free, before we could not talk,” says 35-year-old Emeuteulu Aseged, reading the morning paper in Tomoca coffee house in the centre of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. “The newspapers are free – there’s lots more opinion now.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is shown details of a rock-hewn church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, in January. Photograph: Harry McGee
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is shown details of a rock-hewn church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, in January. Photograph: Harry McGee

Attempted reforms

Ethiopia vies with Armenia for the claim to be the world’s first country to officially adopt Christianity as the state religion – historians tend to side with Armenia’s claim – and with it recognition as the world’s oldest Christian country.

Either way, Ethiopia continues to be one of the world’s most religious countries, with about half its 100 million population following the EOTC, the largest of the oriental Orthodox Christian churches.

Furthermore, Ethiopian identify is inextricably bound up in the EOTC and the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, “a religion that embraces culture, politics, flag, identify and nationalism, all put in one package”, says religious studies professor and author Tibebe Eshete.

As a result, Tibebe explains, throughout history attempts to reform the church have been viewed as tantamount to endangering Ethiopian identify itself, and hence been resisted. The result is a church out of step and increasingly ill equipped to compete in a modern, rapidly urbanising and better educated society.

Change is in the heart of people now

“Now there is a new generation [among church goers] who know the bible and won’t allow it to be misquoted,” says 27-year-old Getachew Alehean, a tour guide in Lalibela.

It also means, he explains, that younger Orthodox Christians are beginning to ask more questions about the church’s behaviour, which in Lalibela includes its lacklustre efforts to protect the rock-hewn churches – much-needed recent repairs were carried out by foreign organisations – despite all the money it makes from tourists visiting them.

Like many churches around the world, the EOTC is collectively wealthy, but unlike other churches it does relatively little community outreach beyond the sacristy.

“The church owns a lot of real estate in Addis Ababa – [and] it owns four hotels here,” says Byan Abbat, a hotel manager in Lalibela. “Then people look at how little it is doing for the local community. It’s the same over Ethiopia, they don’t do anything more than the spiritual.”

More truth than myth

In Ethiopia, the second biggest provider of schools after the Ethiopian government is the Catholic church, despite Catholics representing a tiny proportion of the population.

This lack of engagement by the EOTC with civic society, leading to accusations of insularity, can be partly explained by how the Ethiopian Orthodox faith historically drew on “a philosophy that favours spirituality and asceticism over seeking material gain”, says Mohammed Girma at the London School of Theology.

But nowadays, especially in a continually developing Ethiopian society, material gain is increasingly accepted and expected, buttressed by an increasing willingness to question former norms.

The resulting societal tensions between conservative and rural religious values and the aspiration to be more modern means the EOTC faces increasing numbers of Ethiopians drawn to the modernity of Pentecostal churches and their uplifting message of prosperity.

A young man reading a religious book in Lalibela. Photograph: James Jeffrey
A young man reading a religious book in Lalibela. Photograph: James Jeffrey

Since the 1960s, Pentecostalism in Ethiopia has grown from about one per cent to 18 per cent of the population.

“We are willing to contribute more to community programmes,” says deacon Mekonnen Gebremeskal, head of the church’s planning and development department in Lalibela. “That is why this department was created recently-we recognise these churches are the heritage and property of the people.”

For centuries, Ethiopia held a special place in the European imagination as a mythical Christian kingdom, the fabled land of Prester John, sealed off from the rest of the world. Arguably, there was more truth than myth to the reality, with Ethiopia nurturing its own unique blend of Christianity.

Today that Christian kingdom is, like the Ethiopian government, having to wrestle with external influences and the changing perceptions and demands of the faithful.

“Change is in the heart of people now,” says 29-year-old Eshito Asnehay outside the entrance to Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches.

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