Religion may play role in Ethiopia violence, says United States

Ethiopia has experienced a concerning rise in religious-related violence in in the past year, concluded a United States Department of State report released Wednesday.

In Ethiopia, ethnicity and religion tend to be very closely linked so it can be difficult to distinguish between religiously motivated attacks and ethnic violence- which has been widespread and increasing over the past year.

Due to a lack of on-the-ground access and circulation of reliable investigative information, the motivation behind many of the past year’s violence and attacks has been muddled and remains not completely clear.

As ethnic conflict and tensions between civilians and the federal government have worsened, there has on many occasions been an inseparable religious component to this violence.

“The [Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church] predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in the Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions. Established Protestant churches have the most adherents in Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) and Gambella Regions and parts of Oromia Region” said the State Department report.

It is difficult to distinguish between ethnically and religiously motivated violence because the two are often intertwined. However, there have been many reports of religious groups and even churches being targeted by violence.

As the crisis continues in Tigray, a region that is predominantly Christian, concerns are raised that religion may be one underlying aspect of the conflict- especially in light of reported attacks on Churches by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces.

In the most devastating of such attacks, eyewitnesses reported as many as 800 civilian deaths when soldiers entered the Orthodox Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion and opened fire on November 28 and 29. The attack has come to be known as the Axum Massacre.

However, most of these attacks have been difficult to verify or further investigate due to a lack of access and on-the-ground verification.

As it pertains to religious violence, the U.S. State Department report said “Several human rights groups stated that societal violence was on the rise” over the past year.

Despite freedom of religion being legally protected under the Ethiopian constitution, religious differences have at times been a point of contention in practice.

While conflicts such as the Tigray crisis and the summer’s protests in Oromia have been widely considered ethnically motivated, the reported use of religious slurs and targeting of religious gatherings  raise concerns that there is also a religious component to the nation’s violence and conflicts.

Noah Pitcher is a global politics correspondent for Today News Africa covering the U.S. government, United Nations, African Union, and other actors involved in international developments, political controversies, and humanitarian issues.

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