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Ethiopia, new schism in the Orthodox Church

Patriarch Abune Mathias’ first attempt at reconciliation fails

The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahodo Church (EOTC), His Holiness Abune Mathias, and his delegation paid a working visit to Mekele, seat of the regional state of Tigray. A meeting that did not take place. The purpose of the visit was to start a reconciliation process with the bishops of the Tigray Orthodox Church following the schism between the Church of Addis Ababa and the Church of Mekele.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches and one of the oldest in Christendom, having been present in Ethiopia since 330 AD. Initiated by the patriarch Abune St Frumentius, it became the religion of the kingdom of Aksum through the conversion to Christianity of the Aksum king Ezana. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the only native ‘Christian Church’ in Ethiopia. It is one of the founding members of the World Council of Churches.

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The war in Tigray, which started in November 2020, has caused both political and religious tensions, pitting the government of Ayid Ahmed against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. These tensions did not spare the Orthodox Church. The differences between the Church and the authorities in the conflict became more pronounced. The archbishops of the Tigray region (a region affected by the civil war) were abandoned by the Holy Synod in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. On the one hand, Patriarch Abune Mathias called the conflict ‘genocidal’. Some bishops are accused of galvanising Abiy Ahmed’s war effort during the conflict in Tigray.

The tense situation led to a break between the Holy Synod and the Mekele Church. The rupture occurred on 22 January 2023, when three archbishops of the Oromo ethnic community appointed 26 bishops without the agreement of the Holy Synod. They allegedly accused the Holy Synod, led by Patriarch Abune Mathias, of discrimination against the Oromo community, discrimination that they said would lead the faithful to abandon the Orthodox Church in favour of other religions.

In response, the Holy Synod pledged to meet with the Mekele Church and attempt a new reconciliation. Patriarch Abune Mathias travelled from Addis Ababa to Mekele this week. However, the planned meeting did not take place. The archbishops of the region did not want to meet the Patriarch. The delegation could only be received by the interim administrative head of the Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichal, chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a radical ethnic organisation in Tigray that started a war with the federal government when it attacked the northern command of the Ethiopian Defence Forces in November 2020.

Tensions are rising, the Patriarch was not welcomed by his ‘people’ and there was no Orthodox welcoming ceremony. His Holiness went to pray alone on the wall of Mekele Cathedral. It is the tradition of the Ethiopian Tewahodo Orthodox Church to welcome a patriarch with a religious ceremony that includes Sunday school songs. This did not happen when His Holiness Abune Mathias arrived in Mekele on 10 July, where he spent the day. Nevertheless, His Holiness Abune Mathias had to visit the camp for internally displaced people in Tigray and bring them humanitarian aid.

The reason for this refusal to receive the Patriarch was not given. The Holy Synod had already excommunicated the archbishops of Mekele, who later declared that they had established the ‘Selama’ patriarchate, abandoning the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.

How did an ultra-political conflict lead to the split of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church?

The conflict started in early November 2020, when the federal government accused the TPLF of attacking the Ethiopian army stationed in Tigray. The government in Addis Ababa then decided to launch an offensive in the Tigray region to silence the TPLF. According to the author, the political tensions go back much further.

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize) came to power in 2018, his victory was not celebrated by the Tigray Regional Authorities (TPLF), which had dominated the country’s political life for three decades, but were ousted from power and marginalised. However, the government accused the TPLF of supporting the opposition, which was trying to destabilise peace in the country. The Tigrinya ethnic group is a minority and represents only 6% of the population.

The conflict has therefore rekindled old disputes and many new actors have joined in. These include the Amhara and Afar regions bordering Tigray and Eritrea, which has sent armed forces to support the government against the TPLF.

The fighting has resulted in thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, plunging the country into a deep humanitarian crisis, with massive material damage ranging from the bombing of hospitals, schools and churches to mass extrajudicial executions and the blocking of humanitarian aid to the needy.

A situation that has cast doubt on the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Abiy Ahmed, who should be protecting his own population but instead is turning around and waging war against civilians, a war that, although it has been declared over, could degenerate in the long term, turning the region into a cradle of terrorism and destabilising the Horn of Africa, given its geopolitical situation.

In the face of this bloody situation that has shaken the region of Tigray, the Holy Synod, the highest authority of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has allegedly been accused by the bishops of Tigray of never having condemned the military operations launched by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, and of failing to provide humanitarian aid to Tigray.

This is the criticism that the archbishops of the Tigray region allegedly levelled at their superiors. They then announced their intention to establish a Church independent of the Addis Ababa Synod. The institution now led by Patriarch Abune Mathias represents 40% of the believers in this country of 115 million inhabitants. The country, which is emerging from two years of civil war, is in serious danger of degenerating into a political and community crisis due to the schism that has already occurred in the Orthodox Church.

Another demarcation point supporting the schism, according to the refractory archbishops, is the cultural and linguistic problem. They denounced the lack of diversity and inclusiveness in the Church in Addis Ababa. In particular, the unity of the Church patriarchs was undermined during the ongoing civil war in Tigray.

The active war ended in November 2022, when the two warring parties signed the Pretoria Agreement. A victory celebrated by the Ethiopian Church. The archbishops of Tigray congratulated the federal government for its efforts to end hostilities.

Is history repeating itself in Ethiopia?


In 1991, the Ethiopian Tewahodo Church split in two again, following the appointment of a new patriarch under the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the end of the military-Marxist Derg regime.

At that time, Patriarch Abune Merkorios had retired to found his branch in the United States, thus breaking away from the Holy Synod. For 27 years, the Orthodox Church was divided, with two patriarchs at its head: the ‘Synod of the Interior’ and the ‘Synod of Exile’.

The government of Ethiopia, led by Ayid Ahmed, was the man responsible for the reconciliation of these two synods as soon as he came to power in 2018. He played a role in shaping the past and present destiny of the Church. For him, there is no Ethiopia without the Orthodox Church, a State-Church relationship that must always be maintained to ensure the stability of this nation. He also called for a historic reconciliation with neighbouring Eritrea, bringing an end to the border dispute that has pitted these two Horn of Africa countries against each other for years.

After 27 years of schism, a rapprochement was possible in 2018. The end of the schism was declared and the two patriarchates recognised the existence of a single synod. To this end, Patriarch Abune Merkerios had to return to Ethiopia and assume the position of His Holiness of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Tewahodo, a position he will hold until his death, when he will be succeeded by the current Patriarch Abune Mathias.

The World Council of Churches later acknowledged the reconciliation and the end of the schism and praised Ayid Ahmed for working for the reconciliation of the two synods and for promoting peace and unity in the Church. The excommunications of the archbishops appointed during the schism were lifted by the Holy Synod.

What kind of mediation to promote?

At the moment, local mediation is unable to bring the two sides together. This is because Patriarch Abune Mathias does not accept that the Ahmed government can mediate, given all that the Addis Ababa government has done to the people of Tigray. Church-state relations deteriorated during the war. Prime Minister Ayid Ahmed invited the two synods to dialogue, but this never happened. Patriarch Abune Mathias accused the government of recognising excommunicated bishops. Faced with the growing tension between the Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa and the dissident bishops, the patriarch sent a firm message to the government, forbidding it to interfere in the religious and canonical affairs of the Church.

What mediation will be needed to reconcile the two synods? What if external mediation is preferred, since the local authorities are limited in the exercise of their reconciliation mission? Would the World Council of Churches, already working for church unity, be the neutral institution to initiate this dialogue and work for reconciliation?

Photographs taken from


Spazio Spadoni

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