A Church Split Turns Violent

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    Ethiopian Orthodox Christians pray during a Sunday morning service in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. (AP/Ben Curtis)
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    An Ethiopian Orthodox church, the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia (AP)
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    The Tigray region was until recently the center of civil war. Here, black smoke billows in Mekele, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, in October 2021. The fires were caused by an airstrike. (AP)
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    Ethiopian worshippers attend a Sunday morning service. (AP/Ben Curtis)
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    Ethiopian Orthodox priests lead a procession during a Sunday morning service. (AP/Ben Curtis)
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In Ethiopia, a church split led to deadly riots. The prime minister himself stepped in to referee the conflict. Now both sides have reached an agreement. But how did a church scuffle spiral into nationwide violence?

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world. With over 36 million followers, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is also the nation’s largest religion. Ethiopians of every region and language worship in these churches.

These regions are no strangers to conflict. Just last year, Ethiopia saw the end of a bloody civil war with its Tigray region. (See Ethiopia Reaches Peace Agreement.)

Sometimes, regional conflicts arise because of language. In 1994, Ethiopia chose Amharic—the language of the Amhara region—as its official language. The decision left many people groups feeling excluded, including those of Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia.

In January, church members in Oromia accused the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of ignoring them. They complained that even churches in Oromia held services in Amharic. They demanded the church use the local languages of the regions it serves.

God wants all peoples to hear the gospel. During Pentecost, God gave the disciples the ability to speak in tongues, so the message could be shared in many languages. Across history, people like Bible translator William Tyndale have toiled to make God’s words accessible to everyone.

But in Ethiopia, that good desire led to anger and bloodshed.

On January 22, Orthodox Christians in Oromia declared a new synod (branch) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They took over existing churches and installed their own leaders.

In response, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church declared the new synod illegal. It excommunicated (banned from communion) several of its leaders.

People grew angry. Some accused the new synod of seeking political power for Oromia. Rallies opposing the split turned into riots. At least 10 people died and hundreds were arrested. To quell the uproar, the government suspended social media apps. Officials warned people against attending rallies.

Finally, the two sides reached an agreement. The Ethiopian Orthodox church will conduct services in local languages. It promised to provide the resources to make this happen. But will the tensions go away?

Jesus said the world would recognize Christians by their love for one another. (John 13:35) Sinful human nature can get in the way. Disagreements don’t always turn into riots. But in the heat of argument, we can be tempted to do or say unloving things.

We can pray for continued peace in Ethiopia. We can also ask God to help us be peace-makers wherever we are.

Why? Earthly divisions may tempt Christ-followers away from unity, but God calls His people to love one another.