The Crisis in Tigray: Orthodox Christians’ Hope and Demise

by Alexandra Sellassie Antohin | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

debre damo

Since the eruption of hostilities in November 2020 between federal and regional forces in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern state bordering Eritrea, two major dimensions of the crisis have been at odds with each other. There is the armed conflict and its immeasurable human cost and trauma, and there is the reporting on this conflict. I have witnessed the arguments back and forth from Ethiopians outside Ethiopia, my primary lens of observation, that focus on who is at fault, whose agenda the reporting fulfills, and scrutiny over the extent and impact of the humanitarian conditions on the ground. The story about the story has taken precedence over the undeniable fact that people are suffering and dying and side-steps the heart of the issue: we are watching a country at war with itself.

As an Ethiopian-American, I felt at times mentally and emotionally paralyzed. It is a complicated story of political fragmentation, with seemingly endless competing narratives based on scattered information. I reached a personal impasse where offering coherent interpretation and analysis felt an impossibility. The recent news of a ceasefire only offers temporary relief for the innocent and vulnerable and more fodder for conflicting narratives that prevent clear heads out of this conflict. 

As an anthropologist who studies Orthodox Christian life and institutions, I have been grasping for an emergent paradigm of grounding values to emanate from this faith tradition. The three major players of this conflict by and large represent populations that are dominantly Orthodox Christian. This includes Eritrea, whose population is 63% Christian, most of which are Orthodox. Unlike other international examples of sectarian conflicts where religious differences are strategically mobilized to inflict greater brutality, the Orthodox Christians involved in the fighting in Tigray, canonically, liturgically, sacramentally, are one and the same. It is a sad reality that institutionally, Orthodox Christians of this region (39 million adherents collectively) align with the ethnic politics of their nations. There has not been a unified voice from Orthodox Christian leaders, as Temesgen Kahsay argues, and this has played a detrimental role in this crisis.

Similarly, I am compelled to plead for greater Orthodox Christian cooperation, particularly given the historical and existential importance of Tigray for members of this faith. This region is considered the birthplace of Christianity in Africa, seeded by the Axumite kings in the 3rd to 6th century whose presence spanned northwest Ethiopia (present-day region state of Tigray) to the coast of the Red Sea, now Eritrea. Many revered locations for Orthodox Christians are concentrated here, such as the monastery of Abune Aregawi in Debre Damo and the church of Tsion Mariam (Mary of Zion) in Axum, reputed to house the Ark of the Covenant. It is plausible to assume that the individuals participating in this conflict are practicing members. Among the many places attacked, Axum and Debre Damo suffered great human casualties in addition to physical damage and looting. Knowing how significant these locations are as spiritual epicenters for believers, these events signaled the passage of an unimaginable threshold. Given the near certain probability that the culpable party was an Orthodox Christian, what were their moral implications for endangering holy sites? If a shared ethic of sanctity were to kick in, the moment would be now.

An indisputable reality is that churches and monasteries are quite literally the battlegrounds of this conflict. Alula Tesfay Asfha’s perspective as a scholar of Ethiopian heritage management distilled the situation as mobilizing heritage churches as tools of intimidation: the threat of destruction of holy sites used as collateral for cooperation. Since the launch of the armed conflict, individuals and families have fled to churches and monasteries for safe refuge, which in turn make them targets for armed forces searching for combatants. It is a horrific irony that these places where people gather, pray together and build ties between neighbors and strangers are the very locations targeted by armed forces to effect greater harm, death and terror.

This crisis reveals that common religious identity does not motivate greater responsibility to preserve people of shared communion. This is a stark realization when compared to the longstanding rhetorics of Christian-Muslim antagonism, the “Ethiopia in a sea of Islam” narrative. During my ethnographic field studies, I encountered Orthodox Christians speaking ad nauseam of the threat to their Church as coming from Muslims. The popular memory of the wholesale devastation to countless churches, manuscripts, church knowledge in the 16th century, led by Ahmed Gragn, actively contributed to the inertia of present-day political justifications for keeping the visibility of Islam at bay. It also served a persistent narrative to uphold and defend an Orthodox Christian cultural core of highland Ethiopia, the cultural groups discussed here. Moral righteousness seems to operate unequivocally when directed to “the other,” the Muslim, despite the fact that Islam has as deep a history in Ethiopia and historic mosques are also under threat in this conflict.

Presenting religious history this way has directly assisted the imperial project of “Ethiopia,” particularly as it fully emerged during the reign of Menelik II in the 19th century, and no doubt will continue to serve ideological objectives. However, these churches and monasteries are the lifeblood of the people of this region because they are embedded in their social life, their understanding of their history and ancestors, and predates the contemporary idea of “Ethiopia” by many centuries. Thinking through this conflict as violent and deadly encounters between co-religionists, what are the obligations to the fellow believer? Observing the events of the last eight months and the vitriol of the story of the crisis, there does not appear to be a functioning Orthodox ethic of consciousness.

The Orthodox Christian faith tradition might be the last remaining domain of social life and paradigm of identity from which to build common ground and affinity. Interpreting Orthodox Christian identity exclusively as a fulfillment of an imperial or ethno-nationalist project mistakes something bigger than this moment. This region’s deep history of Orthodox faith as a cultural and ethical orientation of life has the capacity to act as a through line out of this crisis and a pathway to resolution and reconciliation. Endangering this heritage kills the lifeblood of the people, with consequences beyond the duration of any political party or ruling class. The historical consciousness so active and ingrained for Orthodox Christians of Ethiopian and Eritrean origin can be a vital resource in a time when every truth is destabilized and uprooted. We—all witnesses and especially those who carry this spiritual inheritance—have an opportunity to re-center our frames of thinking to collectively defend the sanctity of life. It can be a guiding light out of this tragedy, if we choose.

I would like to thank Alula Tesfay Asfha for offering his reflections and research on the developments in Tigray as well as his work to bring greater attention to the threat to heritage sites of the region, part of an international petition for the salvation of the cultural heritage of Tigray.

Alexandra Sellassie Antohin is the Director of Education at the Vermont Folklife Center. She has conducted ethnographic research with Orthodox Christian communities in South Wollo, Ethiopia and Magadan, Russia and historical research on the Orthodox Church in Alaska.