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Special Edition: The role and relevance of religion in Ethiopia’s current conflicts

Terje Østebø, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, November 06/2029 – Ethiopia has always been celebrated as a unique case of peaceful religious inter-relations. This has recently been distorted by what seems like a surge of religious violence. There have been reports – confirmed and unconfirmed – about religious-based casualties, attacks on Christians and Muslims, churches burnt, mosques destroyed, and people seeking refuge in churches. It is moreover claimed that since July this year, over 100 Orthodox Christians have been killed and more than 30 Orthodox churches burnt – mostly in the eastern parts of the country, but also in Sidama zone in the south-central part, in SNNPRS. This resulted in widespread demonstrations mostly in the northern part of the country in the month of September, organized by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC).

Are we now seeing religion emerging as a more explicit conflictual factor? Should we expect an increase in religious violence? And, is this something new?

On the one hand, it is clear that the way religion has surfaced in this manner represents a new development. This has the potential to contribute to escalate current tensions, and beyond that, also create new conflict categories and enemy images. In addition, the articulation of religion as the driver and the claims of religiously-motivated violence have the inevitable effect of further accentuating the religious dimension of the conflicts. It is particularly interesting to note how the government is underscoring religion as part of the current violence, seen for example by how Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed explicitly mentioned the religious affiliations of the causalities of the latest violence. Recent developments are, on the other hand, intimately connected to ongoing ethnic conflicts, and the current situation cannot be fully understood without recognizing the intertwined relationship between religion and ethnicity. Similarly important is that the relevance of each of these two dimensions needs to be carefully examined as they appear in local contexts.  

The current violence is, at the same time, a reflection of a broader trend of increased inter-religious tensions in Ethiopia over the last decade or so. Most of these have been of a local character, often related to contestations over building of mosques, claims about desecration of religious books or artifacts, and conflicts related to celebrations of religious rituals. Increased inter-religious fragility is intertwined with a number of factors, but remains connected to significant shifts in Ethiopia’s religious landscape over the last decades, which has become more dynamic and fluid where boundaries are transgressed, re-demarcated, negotiated, and contested. A full understanding of the current developments can thus only be achieved through an examination of these intertwined dynamics.


I will, in the following section, take a step back and try to explain the current situation in a deeper perspective, and examine how the current violence connects to, or are a result of, complex developments that have taken place over the last decades. I first discuss the intertwined nature of religion and ethnicity and what this means for the current conflicts. The second part focuses on the re-configuring of Ethiopia’s religious landscape over the last decades, pointing to four main trends which have had reciprocal impacts for the different religious communities. These suggestions are based on over two decades of research on religion in Ethiopia and on a recently completed book project on the interrelations between religion and ethnicity.

Religion and the Study of Ethiopia

In spite of its prominence in Ethiopian society, religion has largely been overlooked by both foreign and local observers, resulting in limited understanding of contemporary religious discourses. Sure, religion has been the subject in the historiography of Ethiopia, but has, most notably in Tadesse Tamrat’s seminal ‘Church and State’, mainly been treated as an ancillary aspect of the political center. Centrist perspectives focusing on the relationship between church and state has not only reduced the Orthodox Church to a state-like institution, but also limited our understanding of Ethiopian Christianity as a lived religion. Such perspectives have also tended to render other religions in Ethiopia, such as Islam, invisible and irrelevant.

While this ignorance partly can be explained by foreign scholars’ secular outlook, it has been exacerbated by Ethiopian academics who, colored by political developments in the 1970s, narrowly interpreted Ethiopia from the perspective of class-conflict. Religion continued to be overlooked when the class category was replaced by ethnicity in the early 1990s – as a result of the activism of dozens of ethnic-based resistance movements and of Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) ideological discourse enacted through Ethiopia’s new ethnic-based federalist structure. This spurred intense public debates about ethnicity and ethnic boundaries, much centered around accusations of past ethnic dominance and subjugation and the question of ethnic diversity, which gradually spawned a new body of literature devoted to the question of Ethiopia’s ethnic past and present. The general disregard of religion can be exemplified in the comments made by a former Marxist TPLF veteran, in response to a lecture I held about Islam in Ethiopia: “I don’t get it. We thought religion would go away, but it keeps popping up again and again.”

This resurgence of religion over the last decades has, fortunately, generated an increasing interest in questions related to religion over, reflected in a growing body of literature on Islam, the Orthodox Church, and Protestant Christianity in Ethiopia. Scholars, journalists, and observers more in general are gradually paying attention to the role of religion in people’s lives, as part of social fabrics, and as an integrated part of communal identities. There are, however, still numerous unexplored areas. We still lack detailed knowledge about the role of religion in Ethiopian socio-politics, its role in relation to power relations and processes of “othering”, how it contributes to create distinct identities, and the continued salience of religious fault-lines.

Ethnicity and Religion in Ethiopia

The Oromo proverb Anafi si, akka Islaama fi Amhara (I and you are like a Muslim and an Amhara) with the equivalent Amharic ene’na ante lik’ende Islem’na Amhara nen – is an explicit, and forceful expression of deep suspicion in Ethiopia. Although it refers to religious differences, it is not merely or necessarily about religion, but refers to ethnicity in its broadest sense. However, the fact that religion is the metaphor of seemingly unbridgeable division is interesting, and points to the salience of a religious divisions within Ethiopia. What is similarly interesting is the seemingly juxtaposition of a term with an obvious religious connotation (Islaama) with a term that commonly is understood as an ethnic one (Amhara). This points to the complexity inherent to religion and ethnicity and to the intimate relations between the two.

Among the Muslim Arsi Oromo in Bale, for example, the term Islaama was the most common self-designation up until the 1980s. Oromo was not commonly used, and there were in fact those who opposed the word Oromo, associating it with being pagan, or awama. This is not to say that Islaama referred exclusively to being Muslim, and the crucial point here is that it for the Arsi Oromo was a term that encompassed both their ethnic and religious orientation. Being Arsi Oromo was being Islaama and being Islaama was being Arsi Oromo. This is confirmed by the way they referred to their language as both Afaan Oromo and as Afan Islaama, similar to how the Amhara in Bale referred to the Oromo language as Islamigna.

The term Amhara, which is inherently elastic, has over the last few years gradually moved from being a designation for Ethiopianess to gaining a more explicit ethnic connotation. It has, however, always had a distinct religious dimension – representing a Christian. While people in the core Amhara areas usually referred to themselves according to localities such as Gonder, Gojam, or Wollo, Amhara as the encompassing and collective term was related to being a Christian. Orthodox Christianity was not only an inescapable part of people’s daily life, but also the dominant element of the national identity, founded upon a shared belief in the Solomonic myth, in the divinely anointed king, and in themselves as a blessed nation. Amhara thus reveals, similar to Islaama, the complex intertwined intersection of religion and ethnicity – as two tightly woven and mutually reinforcing dimensions in the making of collective identities. In both cases, ethnicity and religion were merged in a way that produced a sense of belonging that was locally anchored, and which simultaneously – through genealogies as well as religious narratives – opened up for belonging that transcended immediacy, time, and space.   

This religious dimension has been pivotal in shaping inter-communal relations in Ethiopia, where people in Bale and elsewhere in the south commonly associated Amhara with an intruder, an alien, a neftegna, and in particular with being a Christian. Menelik’s campaigns and the forceful integration of the south were not only seen as submission to an alien and hegemonic regime, but also to a Christian kingdom. The conquering northern forces harbored, on the other hand, clear pejorative attitudes towards the non-Christian “others” – dichotomized as being backward, primitive, barbarian, and heathen. Relations between Muslims in the southeast, on the one hand, and the state and local Amhara settlers, on the other hand, remained therefore strained for most of the 20th century. Religion constituted a powerful aspect of this animosity, and the perceived negative treatment of the Muslims was interpreted as religiously based. Still today, Amhara is the word for a Christian, and the Arsi Oromo, for example, refer to “Christian meat” as foon Amhara.

This means that religion as a factor for the production of disparities and discrimination in Ethiopia is a historical reality, and something that generally has been overlooked in contemporary studies. While there is a general agreement that Ethiopia’s past has been characterized by inequalities and discrimination based on ethnicity, it is possible to argue that disparities and discrimination based on religion were more profound. Historically, while becoming fluent in Amharic, taking an Amhara name, and adopting “Amhara culture” were crucial factors for assimilation, for access to the elite, and for being recognized as belonging to the nation, conversion to Christianity remained the cardinal criterion for successful integration, for access to political positions, and for becoming accepted as an Ethiopian. Conversion was therefore far more than a change of creed; it was, as argued by Messay Kebede “a naturalization, an admittance to citizenship.” Unsurprisingly, the group most reluctant to convert were the Muslims, for whom conversion was both the loss of religious and social identity as well as submission to a “foreign” force. As Christianity constituted the main component in Ethiopian nationalism, their refusal to convert made the Muslims the religious “other” – close to being considered the antithesis to Ethiopianess. The Muslims were nevertheless there, and their presence as the “other” was also imbued with a certain danger, in turn making it necessary to underscore the Christian nature of Ethiopia.

This ought to have clear implications for how we understand Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia, which somewhat simplistically have been celebrated as peaceful and harmonious. While there is no doubt that inter-religious interactions have been common on the grassroots level, and that relations between the two communities in general have been cordial, it is important to remember that peaceful relations are not the same as religious parity. The point to be made here is that the two groups’ positions and statuses have been clearly demarcated, in turn producing a particular form of asymmetric relationship. As I have argued elsewhere, peaceful coexistence was in fact only made possible because of the asymmetric nature of Christian-Muslim relations.

In other words, the recent developments with the articulation of religion in current conflicts cannot be fully understood without paying attention to intimate connection between ethnicity and religion. The question is why this is happening now. There might be several reasons for that. One obvious reason is the lessening of state-authoritarianism and control, while another could be the fracturing of social structures related to the youth-bulge, unemployment, urbanization, and generational schisms. Also important, however, is how Ethiopia’s religious landscape has shifted over the last decades.

A Shifting Religious Landscape

A common perception is that increased inter-religious tensions are a result of expanding religious extremism, particularly among Muslims, in Ethiopia. This is, I argue, not only a gross simplification, but also highly inaccurate. Whereas the current religious resurgence has intensified religious fervor and created more exclusivist religious identities, there is little evidence for a widespread radicalization in the form of politicized religion. I do not believe that the current escalation of violence can be explained through the prism of religious extremism, nor can it be understood by developments within one particular religious community. Instead, we need to dig deeper.

Ethiopia’s religious landscape is rather peculiar by the way it made up of a tripartite constellation of Muslims, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. While they each are clearly separate communities, they remain entangled in the way that they are all affected by developments in each of them. This is in particular evident as these often involves competition, transgression of religious boundaries, and carving out public space – inevitably causing tensions and sometimes conflict. Such developments and a shifting religious landscape have been intensified by the emergence of religious reform movements within these three communities. Many of these movements, particularly among Muslims, have been rather informal, thus making it more accurate to talk about reform currents. Common for them has been the urge to revitalize past traditions, to cleanse religious practice from assumed aberrations, to produce pious selves, and to expand one’s respective faiths.

Current transformations and the shifting religious landscape can be understood through four interrelated and mutually constitutive trends within the religious communities. The first refers to the expansion of religious space and boundaries, both in symbolical and physical terms. The most obvious form of such expansion is proselytization, particularly from the side of the Protestants. This has led to a steady flow of Orthodox Christians into Protestant churches, and some Protestant denominations have also embarked on a strategy to reach out to the Muslims. Expansion of religious space also refer to how religions are becoming more physically visible, seen for example through changes in religious dress-codes and increased public performance of religious rituals. Particularly noticeable is, however, the growing number of houses of worship – seen by the mushrooming of mosques and, in particular, Protestant churches across the country. Another aspect of this trend is the efforts made by certain Muslims seeking to carve out public space. Seeing Islam as a comprehensive religion, relevant for all aspects of life, the argument made is that Muslims should be more active in all sectors of societal and political life. Embodying Islamic virtues, such engagement is assumed to result in a morally upright and progressive society.

The second and intertwined trend can be labelled the protection of religious space, particularly activated in response to proselytization efforts wherein expansion of one group’s sphere is felt as encroachment by the other. Such sentiments have, as expected, been strongest among the Orthodox, but also among Muslims, particularly in Beghi (Wollega) in 2006 and 2010, where Protestant churches were burned as a result of claims that Protestant development activities were a pretext for evangelization. Ethiopian Muslims have, at the same time, generally been rather protective of their space, something related to a history of marginalization, and which has generated a strategy of self-seclusion. While Muslims, as I will return to, currently have gained more confidence and become more expansive, a certain “politics of withdrawal” remains evident among many Ethiopian Salafis, who ironically are regarded, both by the regime and outside observers, as the most politically active Muslim group. The reality is that Ethiopian Salafism is a movement devoted to maintain the purity of Islamic practices and symbols, consequently been very little concerned with broader political and social issues.

The third trend relates to the contestation of religious space, through which Protestants and, particularly Muslims, have sought to challenge the Orthodox cultural hegemony. While the Protestants have done this in a more gradual and less confrontational manner, the Muslims have more explicitly contested what they see as a prevailing Christian domination in Ethiopia, arguing that in spite of EPRDF’s policy of religious freedom under the secular order, there is a continuous Christian bias in Ethiopia that subverts real religious equality. A very concrete case in point continuously referred to is the ban on building mosques in Axum and Lalibela – seen by Orthodox Christians as sacred places. While the Muslims seek to secure the recognition of Islam as integrated to Ethiopia, and themselves as both Muslims and Ethiopian, they are forwarding their claims as historically subordinate, and their critique on religious biases strikes at the core of what many Christians consider to be foundational to Ethiopian nation and identity. Any attack on the religious heritage and the status quo is thus quickly perceived as simultaneously anti-Christian and anti-Ethiopian. A more visible and confident Muslim population challenging the established inter-religious balance has created feelings of unease, and struggling to come to grip with a changing landscape, many has reverted to a belief that Islam is both expanding and becoming radicalized.

The fourth trend can be characterized as the reclaiming of religious space, and refers in particular to how the EOTC has been forced to maneuver in between the legacy of past glory, new political realities, and a changing religious landscape. Whereas a secular and federalized Ethiopia has forced the church to parenthesize its political-religious dimension, it continues to perceive the Christian tradition as foundational to Ethiopia as a nation. A sense of loss and feelings of being under attack by religious competitors have spurred some interesting efforts to reclaim “lost space”. The most important actor here is the Mahabere Qidusan movement (the Association of Saints), which surfaced in the late 1980s aimed at strengthening Orthodox identity and meeting challenges from the Marxist ideology of the Derg and from Protestantism. Mahabere Qidusan has also emphasized the Orthodox Church’s significance for society and national identity – expressed through the nostalgic notion of the Orthodox Church’s historical importance and through the need to reclaim its legitimate position. This was made visible during the celebration of the Orthodox Church’s holidays, particularly in 2009, when youth were displaying t-shirt printed with the statement “Ethiopia is a Christian island”, “Ethiopia, Christianity, and Baptism”, and “One Baptism, One Religion, One Country”.

Religion and the Question of Ethnic Unity

While religion and ethnicity serve to reinforce collective identities, religion can also cross-cut ethnic boundaries, create new discourses, and cause intra-ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia. This was evident during this year’s Irreecha celebrations, where some Muslim scholars urged Muslim Oromo not to participate, arguing that it was a pagan ritual. Religion may moreover impact the surge of Amhara ethno-nationalism, where the Christian dimension identity is taken for granted as integral to being Amhara. The establishment of the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) seems to have accentuated this, and has sparked reactions among Muslims, particularly in Wollo, who feel alienated from the movement due to the Christian overtones. Religion as a divisive factor is often something that the current ethno-nationalist discourses tend to brush aside and ignore, but remains, I argue, something to be reckoned with.

This relates back to Ethiopia’s ethnic history, where the relations between the Christian Shoa Oromo and Muslim Oromo in the southeast is a relevant case in point. The Shoa Oromo, or Salale as they commonly are referred to, started migrating to the south from the late 1940s onward. The natives in the southeast always looked upon the Shoa Oromo as aliens and as different, where religion constituted a particularly important fault-line. The Christian Shoa Oromo were often referred to – and referred to themselves – as Amhara, while calling the native Oromo Islaama. In Bale, this developed into open conflict between the Arsi and the Shoa Oromo during the Bale insurgency in the 1960s. The insurgency was dominated by the Muslim Arsi Oromo, and was consequently perceived as an Islamic movement by the Shoa Oromo. As the latter sided with the state, they were targeted by the insurgency, causing a vicious spiral of violence. Similar violent conflicts continued with the arrival of the Arsi Oromo-dominated Somali Abo Liberation Front (SALF) in the 1970s, also perceived as an Islamic movement, and again in the early 1990s, when the local Shoa Oromo suspected the OLF in Bale of being Muslim. As a result, they threw their lot behind the OPDO (now ODP), consequently dominating Bale’s government structures for over a decade. While the relevance of the religious divide between the two Oromo groups have diminished over the years, it is still there.

In sum, the role of religion in the production of Ethiopia’s national narrative, the negotiations of diverse religious identities, and the continued relevance of the religious fault-line need to be recognized by anyone trying to understand current affairs in Ethiopia. Rather than understanding religion as secondary to ethnic boundaries, or as ancillary to socio-economic and political developments, my argument is that religion has been – and is – far more fundamental in the production of political narratives, distinctive communities, experiences of belonging, and for perceptions of “self” and “other”. Religion has moreover remained crucial as an integral part of antagonistic relations which recurrently became manifest in open conflict. AS


Editor’s Note: Terje Østebø is Associated Professor, Department of Religion and the Center for African Studies, University of Florida. His main areas of research are Islam in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia and in the Horn of Africa, and he has extensive field-work and research experience from Ethiopia.

He can be reached at

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