Christians in the Crossfire in Ethiopia
By Linda Burkle, PhD
Recently my pastor called me and asked, “What do you know about what is happening in Ethiopia?” Puzzled, I responded, “Nothing—why?” He relayed that he had recently received a phone call from “Ben”, an Ethiopian pastor and ministry partner. Ben informed my pastor that he fears for his life and is on the run moving from place to place due to the civil conflict and violence. He is not alone. It is estimated that almost 200,000 people are currently internally displaced in Ethiopia and almost 2 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. 
Over the past year, Ethiopia has seen a dramatic increase in violence driven by civil and military conflicts, the worst of which can be found in the Tigray region where Ben has lived. On March 10, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the US Congress about the “ethnic cleansing” occurring in Ethiopia, particularly in the Tigray region. In early November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which he accused of attacking a federal army base. Despite official denial, the Eritrean military, as well as forces from an adjoining region, Amhara, have been participating in the offensive and committing war crimes. According to witness reports, egregious human rights abuses, such as rapes and mass killings, are being perpetrated by the various actors involved in the conflict. Secretary Blinken called on the Prime Minister to rid the embattled region of external military forces committing atrocities, stating the situation is “unacceptable and has to change.” 
On the same day of Blinken’s testimony, Berhane Kidanemariam, the deputy chief of mission at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., resigned his position. He stated that Abiy was leading Ethiopia “down a dark path towards destruction and disintegration. I resign my post in protest of the genocidal war in Tigray, and in protest of all the repression and destruction the government is inflicting on the rest of Ethiopia.” He stated the government must be transparent, especially regarding the presence of foreign powers. He also accused the federal government of being complicit in a “witch-hunt that is taking place against the Tigrayans in Ethiopia and the diaspora.” 
The current situation in Ethiopia has raised concerns and elicited condemnation from both international government and nongovernmental human rights entities. On March 4, 2021 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, noted that credible information indicates serious violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law by all parties. She noted reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, and widespread destruction and looting of property, stating that the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara Regional forces and affiliated militia all bear responsibility. She called for a full independent investigation into the violations and accountability.
As the human rights violations related to the military conflict have received global attention and condemnation, they have overshadowed the ongoing persecution of Christians. As so often the case, Christians are often caught in the crossfire as ethnic and political conflict accelerates. This year Ethiopia rose from 39th to 36th on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries with the most persecution. This change was due an increase of violence against Christians. In addition, Christians were discriminated against in the distribution of government aid during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Christianity has been the predominate religion in Ethiopia dating back to biblical times with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church originating in the first century. Ethiopia, also known as Cush, was one of the first countries mentioned in the Bible. Prior to that time, Judaism was practiced for centuries and continues to be today. Modern day Ethiopian Jews, referred to as “Beta Yisrael,” live in the Tigray region, where most of the violence occurs. Along with Christians, they have experienced much persecution. In the fourth century, Christianity became the state religion and remained so until the fall of Haile Selassie in 1972. However, the state has maintained a strong relationship with the Orthodox church since that time. Freedom of religion is guaranteed under Ethiopian law and has been generally enforced.  Internationally, Ethiopia became known as a safe haven for those oppressed regardless of their race or religion.
Despite this tolerant history, conditions have dramatically changed. Recently, the central government has failed to condemn violence against the church and seems unable or unwilling to effectively intervene. With varying ethnic and regional motivations for violence, “because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been a unifying force for centuries, it is becoming the first target and focus of aggression.”  Additionally, civil war and ethnic targeting have resulted in more than 1.8 million people already displaced. Sadly, Ethiopia is no longer considered a safe haven for the oppressed.
Today, fifty-nine percent of Ethiopians are Christian (42 percent Orthodox and 27 percent evangelical). Islam now accounts for nearly forty percent of the population and is growing.  The rise of Islamic extremists account for much of the violent persecution in Ethiopia. Typically, persecution varies depending upon where one lives. In the eastern and southeastern regions, converts from Islam to Christianity are harassed, denied access to community services, ostracized, and discriminated against. In the past few years there have been an increasing number of incidences in which churches were burned, homes destroyed, and Christians killed. International Christian Concern reported in September 2020 that five hundred Christians had been killed since June of the same year. In late November 2020, approximately 800 people were killed near St. Mary of Zion Church in the northern Tigray region. The religious leaders attributed the killings to Eritrean armed forces operating in the region. 
While the Orthodox Church is a target for Islamic attacks, it is also a perpetrator of persecution as well. “Because of the government’s special relationship with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, other denominations— especially evangelicals and Pentecostal Protestants—are persecuted by the state and by the Orthodox Church. Christians who switch denominations and leave the Orthodox Church are subject to family and community pressure and can face significant mistreatment. Additionally, churches can be restricted from holding religious gatherings.” 
One Ethiopian pastor summarized the situation, “In the middle of the poverty, the tribal tension taking place, the religious tension that’s taking place, [pray] that God’s Church. . . would not back down, that they would continue to be strong, but they would also have wisdom.”  And so we pray for Ethiopia—and for Ben and others like him—for protection, strength, wisdom, and provision.
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China, and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.