Argument

Christian Nationalism Is Tearing Ethiopia Apart

A religious revival rooted in the country’s imperial history has coincided with civil war and the spread of genocidal rhetoric—endangering a diverse and multifaith nation.

A man stands in a damaged mosque.
A man stands in a damaged mosque.
An Ethiopian Muslim stands inside a damaged mausoleum at the al-Nejashi Mosque, one of the oldest in Africa, in the Tigray Region’s village of Negash, Ethiopia, on March 1, 2021. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images
By , a lecturer on religious and political ethics and Ethiopian studies and the author of the forthcoming Why Pray? Seven Practices for Flourishing on the Edge of Faith.

An ancient Christian imperialism is resurging in Ethiopia today under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. This archaic vision promises to unify Ethiopia and restore its divine glory. But it appears to be shattering Ethiopia and fueling catastrophic suffering.

Its core belief is that Ethiopia is a Christian nation created and destined by God for greatness under Christian leadership. Today it is supercharging enmity and silencing critical voices calling for the end of war, genuine dialogue, and an inclusive Ethiopia where diverse people can belong together.

Understanding Ethiopia’s religious history is crucial for understanding the complexity of Ethiopia’s conflicts and prospects for peace today. Analyses of Ethiopia often marginalize or ignore religion, but an estimated 98 percent of Ethiopians say religion is “very important” to them. Ethiopia’s last census estimated that 43.5 percent of Ethiopians identify as Orthodox Christian, 33.9 percent as Muslim, and 18.6 percent as Protestant. When you overlook religion in Ethiopia, you fail to understand one of the most powerful sources of motivation—and manipulation—in Ethiopian society.

A man stands in a damaged mosque.

An Ethiopian Muslim stands inside a damaged mausoleum at the al-Nejashi Mosque, one of the oldest in Africa, in the Tigray Region’s village of Negash, Ethiopia, on March 1, 2021.EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

An ancient Christian imperialism is resurging in Ethiopia today under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. This archaic vision promises to unify Ethiopia and restore its divine glory. But it appears to be shattering Ethiopia and fueling catastrophic suffering.

Its core belief is that Ethiopia is a Christian nation created and destined by God for greatness under Christian leadership. Today it is supercharging enmity and silencing critical voices calling for the end of war, genuine dialogue, and an inclusive Ethiopia where diverse people can belong together.

Understanding Ethiopia’s religious history is crucial for understanding the complexity of Ethiopia’s conflicts and prospects for peace today. Analyses of Ethiopia often marginalize or ignore religion, but an estimated 98 percent of Ethiopians say religion is “very important” to them. Ethiopia’s last census estimated that 43.5 percent of Ethiopians identify as Orthodox Christian, 33.9 percent as Muslim, and 18.6 percent as Protestant. When you overlook religion in Ethiopia, you fail to understand one of the most powerful sources of motivation—and manipulation—in Ethiopian society.


Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie stands with his troops.

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie looks over his troops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in this undated photo. He was deposed in 1974 by a military coup and died in 1975.AFP via Getty Images

Before 1974, Ethiopia was a Christian empire for 1,600 years.

Emperor Ezana, who reigned from roughly 320 to 360 A.D., converted Ethiopia’s Axumite state to Orthodox Christianity around 330 A.D. Ezana previously titled himself the “son” of the war god Mahrem, This was a common way of claiming untouchable divine status in ancient empires known as “sacral kingship.” Ezana then claimed to be the “servant of Christ” and worked in “symphony” with Ethiopia’s first Abune or Patriarch Frumentius to convert his empire. Conquest and evangelism then expanded the empire southward for centuries as Orthodox emperors functioned as “priest-kings” over church and state. Lalibela and Gondar—known as Africa’s Jerusalem and Camelot—are historic capitals of this Orthodox imperial expansion.

Being Orthodox, then, defined identity and belonging in imperial Ethiopia for more than 1,000 years. This identity was demonstrated by being baptized, receiving an Orthodox name, and wearing the black baptismal string around one’s neck.

Of course, Ethiopia has also been home to Islam dating back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (570-632). This history of mutual coexistence between Christians and Muslims is rich and should be built on. But the story isn’t so simple—as Ethiopia’s royal chronicles reveal.

For example, The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia (1314-1344), the chronicle of a founding ruler of Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty, narrates the gruesome slaughter of Muslims in the name of the Orthodox God. Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (1506-1543) later unleashed a devastating jihad in Ethiopia, which supercharged religious conflict. Under that shadow, the Chronicle of Emperor Yohannes I (1667-1682) states, “[Muslims, Jews, and other minorities] should not live with the Christians,” even as the peripheries of the empire kept developing religious and social identities that were very different from and sometimes combatant with Orthodox identity.

Being Orthodox defined identity and belonging in imperial Ethiopia for more than 1,000 years.

The Council of Boru Meda in 1878 was a major modern milestone. Emperor Yohannes IV decreed that Muslims must convert to Orthodoxy within three months or be punished. Dignity and security in the Ethiopian empire remained dependent on being Orthodox and obedient to the emperor. Emperor Menelik II (who ruled from 1889-1913) famously called Ethiopia “a Christian island in a sea of pagans.”

Emperor Haile Selassie’s religious policy was more tolerant, and his 1955 Ethiopian Constitution recognized religious freedom (Article 40). He permitted Protestant missionaries to proselytize in the non-Orthodox peripheries of the empire. But Ethiopia officially remained an Orthodox empire, the emperor titled himself “the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God,” and he explicitly claimed the same sacral kingship that Ezana did 1,600 years before: “the person of the Emperor is sacred, His dignity is inviolable and His Powers indisputable… The name of the Emperor shall be mentioned in all religious services.” Protestantism and Islam remained marginalized at best.

A dramatic rupture took place in Ethiopia’s Orthodox Empire with the country’s revolution in 1974. For the next 17 years, Ethiopia became a Soviet-backed communist state known as the Derg.

The Derg blamed religion for Ethiopia’s “backwardness.” But the Derg’s militant atheism on behalf of “Enat Hager” (the “Motherland”) mirrored Orthodox imperialism on behalf of “Kidist Hager” (the “Holy Land”). Marxism became the new orthodoxy, and religious communities were severely persecuted and senior leaders assassinated. A traumatized collective memory haunts many families from this time of extreme violence.

Still, Ethiopian people are deeply religious, and this zealous secularization was destined to fail from the first bullet. And it did.

In 1991, the Derg was overthrown by another revolution led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF formed a governing coalition to rule Ethiopia known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and freedom of religion received new legal status under the EPRDF.

A fighter is seen in Ethiopia in 1991.

A fighter from the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front poses in front of the presidential palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on May 28, 1991.JEROME DELAY/AFP via Getty Images

Article 11 of the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution was a revolutionary breakthrough. It secularized the state, and Ethiopia officially became home for people of any faith or no faith at all. Protestants and Muslims cautiously rejoiced while many Orthodox felt disinherited. This French-style secularism remains problematic because it marginalizes religious voices in Ethiopian public life and discourages universities from establishing religious studies departments. Nevertheless, the new constitution rejected the militant secularism of the Derg, and religions were free de jure to expand.

And they did. The Evangelical movement exploded from a small minority into around 20 million members today. This movement emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries with European and American missionaries. But under the Derg’s persecution, many missionaries left, and the movement thrived under indigenous leadership. Islam also took up new prominence in Ethiopian public life. Ethiopia’s religious landscape started shifting dramatically, and this caused new anxiety in Orthodox circles, which felt like their empire was slipping into the past.

Of course, the EPRDF was a brutally authoritarian regime, and it forcefully intimidated, arrested, and attacked anyone who criticized it. So Christians who didn’t like the EPRDF largely silenced themselves and went along with the status quo for fear of being punished. Sadly, this Christian quietism continued even in the face of terrible atrocities in 2005 and from 2014 to 2018, when public protests against the EPRDF were violently suppressed.

Resentment boiled, but the trauma of the Derg was still fresh.


People protest the Ethiopian government in 2017.

People protest the Ethiopian government during Irreecha, the annual Oromo festival that celebrates the end of the rainy season, in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, on Oct. 1, 2017.ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP via Getty Images

The year 2018 represented a major turning point in Ethiopia’s religious history and public life.

Resentment exploded during the Oromo protests of 2014 to 2018, and Ethiopia rapidly became ungovernable. In 2018, then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn—Ethiopia’s first Protestant ruler—resigned, and Abiy Ahmed was appointed in March 2018. Abiy was a young Oromo leader and the EPRDF’s former surveillance boss.

Abiy became Ethiopia’s first Evangelical prime minister. His father was Muslim, his mother Orthodox, and Abiy himself converted to Pentecostalism in his 20s. (In Ethiopia, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism are overlapping Christianities.) Abiy was ecstatically hailed by many Ethiopians—especially Evangelicals—as a messiah, as a new “Moses” or “King David” who would save Ethiopia from disintegration. In an early speech, Abiy announced himself as Ethiopia’s “seventh king,” a reference to his Orthodox mother’s prophecy over him as a child. This self-presentation powerfully evoked the ancient history of Ethiopia’s Christian imperialism and the promise of Ethiopia’s restored greatness. (Seven is the number of perfection in much of Christian numerology.)

And in Abiy’s Ethiopia, Christian imperialism is resurgent.

A woman holds a photo of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

A woman holds a photo of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during a rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Nov. 7, 2021. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians vowed at the pro-government rally to defend the capital against Tigrayan rebels.EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Abiy started publicly elevating extremist voices in the Orthodox Church like Daniel Kibret, a prominent Orthodox scholar behind Mahibere Kidusan or the “communion of saints.” This powerful group is a right-ring Orthodox youth movement with the mission, in part, of restoring the Orthodox Church’s historic hegemony. Unsurprisingly, Daniel is also (in)famous for his bigotry against Muslims and Protestants—yet many Protestant leaders, recognizing his power, seem to embrace him, nonetheless. After Abiy appointed him as his personal advisor, Daniel gave a textbook genocidal speech calling for the eradication of his Tigrayan enemies as “weeds” and “demons.” Daniel is now a member of parliament.

The disinherited who longed for a return to the glorious Ethiopia of the imperial past saw it as permission to reassert themselves and their claim on Ethiopian identity. The starless red, yellow, and green flag of the Orthodox empire was resurrected and became a militant symbol of imperial nostalgia. This Christian nationalist flag is ubiquitous in Orthodox churches and a cause of bitter contention in Ethiopia today. A prominent Ethiopian activist told FP that many Oromos view it the way Black Americans view the Confederate flag in the United States today: as a symbol of subjugation and conquest.

Evangelicalism is exploding in Ethiopia today. This rapid growth is strongest in Oromia and the southern regions of Ethiopia, where many have felt oppressed and impoverished by Ethiopia’s Orthodox empire. This movement has injected the “prosperity gospel” into popular Ethiopian culture. Its doctrine proclaims that if you unquestioningly believe your spiritual leader and prove it by giving money, God will make you healthy, wealthy, and triumphant. Ethiopia now has a profitable industry of stylish prophets and motivational speakers promising prosperity. In many ways, Abiy himself is a prosperity entrepreneur. He went so far as to replace the old EPRDF with his new “Prosperity Party,” whose religious overtones should not be missed.

Abiy understood that he couldn’t become the seventh king of Ethiopia without the buy-in of Ethiopia’s Evangelical gatekeepers, and he quickly began calling them into his inner circle.


Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church carry crosses.

Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church carry crosses for the high priest during the celebration of Ethiopian epiphany in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 18, 2020.MANUEL SILESHI/AFP via Getty Images

In 2019, Abiy launched his Ethiopian Evangelical Council. This new umbrella organization was spearheaded by a group of 15 Christian influencers. The group includes famous psychiatrist Mehret Debebe, Evangelical elders like Negussie Bulcha and Betta Mengistu, and young government celebrity Yonas Zewde.

When Abiy pitched his premeditated vision to 400 Christian leaders at the Palace, he told a captive audience: “The constitution says church and state should be separated, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t work together.” (This alludes to the powerful theological idea of “symphony” between church and state mentioned above with Emperor Ezana.) The council’s founding document then dictated in its first article that its leaders were directly accountable to Abiy himself. When questioned about this, one of the council’s architects said, “We are going to prescribe; anyone can subscribe or get left behind.”

Presented as a unification of splintered factions, the Ethiopian Evangelical Council not so subtly meant that Ethiopia’s Evangelical church leaders were now beholden to Abiy—or disloyal and therefore to be “left behind.” Behind the scenes, membership in this group has accrued lucrative business deals, land grants, and appointments to political power. When Abiy was asked about his intentions for the council, Abiy laughed and answered: “That is a very difficult question to answer. You want a strong institution. But my intention is to expand the kingdom of God.”

Abiy’s Christian expansionism energized “dominionist” and “seven mountain” theology in Ethiopia. This political theology promotes the idea that if Christians can control key sectors like politics, business, and culture, then society can be “captured for Christ.” This is the Pentecostal parallel to Orthodox imperialism stretching back to Ezana. Evangelicals then formulated a private strategy document for claiming influence in the delayed 2021 federal election, and some prominent Evangelicals won public office. The dominionist paradigm built momentum within the Prosperity Party.

To date, Abiy’s efforts have been wildly, if not completely, successful. The feeling of devotion to him has been palpable and potent. And the history outlined above is crucial for understanding why. The Orthodox have felt disinherited from their historic right to rule imperial Ethiopia since 1974. Evangelicals were marginalized for a century and then exploded while remaining second-class citizens ridiculed as “un-Ethiopian” by powerful Orthodox leaders like Daniel. Their relationship with one another remains intensely fraught, but both seem to see the seventh king in Abiy—or at least a useful tool for their respective ambitions.

Betta Mengistu, a founding father of Ethiopian Pentecostalism and a key player in Abiy’s Ethiopian Evangelical Council, has often said: “The church is not a democracy! What you know doesn’t matter in Ethiopia. Who you know is everything.” And now these Christian princes know Abiy, and “prosperity” seems to be flowing.


Ethiopians talk about ethnic violence.

Yesuf Chanie and Rehimet Yesuf listen to other survivors from the Benishangul-Gumuz region discuss their stories of ethnic violence in a displaced persons camp in Chagni, Ethiopia, on Dec. 31, 2020.Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Ethiopia today appears hauntingly like a Zemene Mesafint redux—a spiritual “Era of the Princes.” This famous phrase in Ethiopian historiography harks back to the era of violent upheaval between 1706 and 1855. During this time, regional princes struggled against one another for imperial power and fractured the country in the process.

The evidence painfully speaks for itself.

A devastating civil war has raged in the north for 18 months. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, nearly a million Ethiopians face famine, and millions more are displaced. The seeds of future wars have already been planted.

War-like violence is ravaging various regions of the country, including Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and elsewhere. Massacres, mass rapes, and other atrocities are becoming heartbreakingly normal headlines.

We’ve recently seen Muslims slaughtered and mosques burned down purportedly by “Christian extremists” in the historic imperial Orthodox capital of Gondar. State media has recently released an Islamophobic documentary blaming Muslims for Ethiopia’s extremist violence while churches also burn in other places. As an Ethiopian researcher told FP, “Everyone is a perpetrator somewhere and a victim somewhere else.”

With their new access to privilege and power, few Christian leaders have publicly acknowledged the terrible violence ravaging the country.

With their new access to privilege and power at the Palace, few Christian leaders have publicly acknowledged this terrible violence is even happening. Some have scapegoated Islam, fueled Christian nationalist conspiracy theories, defended the civil war in the north—which incidentally pits mostly Orthodox Tigrayans against mostly Orthodox Amharas and others—and depicted the conflict as God’s will. Theologian friends have called me a “supporter of terrorists” for publicly saying what cannot be denied: The civil war is mass-producing poverty and devastating suffering for millions of ordinary Ethiopians.

In my nearly two decades studying and working in Ethiopia, I have never seen such bitter hatred and raw hopelessness. Media is saturated with polarizing “enemy” language, demonization, and hate. Genocide Watch places Ethiopia concurrently at Stages 5 “Organization,” 9 “Elimination,” and 10 “Denial” of genocide. The EPRDF was brutally totalitarian, and atrocities were common. But the radioactive enmity in Ethiopia today is on a new order of magnitude. African civil society organizations warn that violence on the scale of the Rwandan genocide could still erupt.

This has been stoked in large part by Abiy’s dehumanizing speeches against his Tigrayan “enemies” as a “cancer,” “hyena,” and “weed” who must be eradicated. Dehumanizing rhetoric unleashes genocidal violence. With it, we’re seeing a complex confluence of apocalyptic, messianic religious fundamentalism and supercharged identitarian nationalism. Multiple ethnic groups claim genocide is being perpetrated against them. Still, prominent Evangelical leaders insist that what the world is really witnessing is a return to Ethiopia’s divine greatness.

Prominent Evangelical leaders insist that what the world is really witnessing is a return to Ethiopia’s divine greatness.

The princes of this ancient-yet-resurgent Christian imperialism in Ethiopia are making a dangerous gamble today. They’re sitting at the public table, smiling in photo shoots, and some are taking positions of political power. But as they do so, the country is literally on fire. In 2021, Ethiopia had more internally displaced people than any other country in the world.

Solomon Dersso, former chairperson of the African Union’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, has trenchantly written: “Ethiopians and observers of Ethiopian politics may easily agree that the foremost worst bad habit of Ethiopia is indeed state violence. … [A]ll of Ethiopia’s governments have used it as the main means of maintaining power. It has become so wired into the mindset and institutional tradition of the Ethiopian state. No change of time and conditions has been able to change it.”

Alas, this “worst bad habit” is ravaging Ethiopia today, imperial theology is being used to justify it, and Christian leaders are in the front row—loudly cheering or holding their privileged or intimidated silence.

But Ethiopian history also has a minority thread of prophetic protest. For example, in the 15th century, Abba Estifanos died in prison for publicly critiquing the despotic violence of Emperor Zera Yacob. In the 20th century, Abune Petros (Orthodox) and Rev. Gudina Tumsa (Lutheran) were assassinated for respectively critiquing the violence of colonial Italy and the Derg. In the 21st century, the Muslim group Dimtsachin Yisema—“Let Our Voices Be Heard!”—became perhaps the first nonviolent religious protest movement in modern Ethiopia against government meddling in religious leadership. Today, Abune Mathias, head of the Orthodox Church, has courageously cried out against genocidal violence in Ethiopia.

This prophetic tradition can be continued and built on today for an inclusive and reconciling Ethiopia. Of course, it requires great moral courage. It demands denouncing all forms of religious domination, divesting insider privilege and power, and disavowing allegiance to Abiy and other rulers who build their thrones on religious arrogance, othering, and violence. At heart, it requires a deep compassion for the grief of all who suffer. Ethiopia’s diverse sacred traditions can agree on this healing moral vision, and it can show us the way toward peace: The other is not our enemy but our neighbor.

There is no time to waste.

Andrew DeCort holds a doctorate in religious and political ethics from the University of Chicago. He has taught ethics, public theology, and Ethiopian studies at Wheaton College, the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, and the University of Bonn. He’s the author of the forthcoming Why Pray? Seven Practices for Flourishing on the Edge of Faith. Twitter: @adecort

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