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Religious desecration as an act of war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region

The military conflict in northern Ethiopia has drawn the attention of the world’s media and faith-based news websites have also reported on the destruction of religious sites. Sarah-Leah Pimentel explains the causes of the Ethiopian conflict and why the destruction of religiously significant places and objects is a deliberate war strategy to quell the uprising.

In 2019, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee deemed him a worthy recipient of the prize stating that he had played a pivotal role by taking a “decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

Two years later, Ahmed seems to have joined forces with Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afwerki, to wage a war in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. How did Ethiopia’s Nobel Laureate become a war monger?

The roots of the Tigrayan conflict

When Ahmed won a seat in parliament in 2018, the then ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) — a coalition made up of four political parties representing Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups — was beginning to crack. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant party in the coalition, but unhappiness by the political parties representing the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara, threatened to topple the government by fomenting instability in various parts of the country.

Ahmed was able to unite the Oromo, Amhara and all the other parties that made up the EPRDF — with the exception of the TPLF who refused to join the new coalition. With their support, Ahmed headed up the new government and ousted the TPLF from power for the first time since 1991, when they took control of the capital, Addis Ababa, by force.

READ — Rise and fall of Ethiopia’s TPLF – from rebels to rulers and back // Guardian, 25 November 2020

Ahmed’s efforts to unite these disparate groups won him the Nobel Peace Prize. But the TPLF could not be so easily cast aside. The party returned to its bases in the Tigray region and won overwhelming support in the regional election in September 2020. Ahmed declared that the election was illegal, because it violated the ban on elections during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, the TPLF has accused the government of targeting its members in an anti-corruption drive. The central government also cut funding to the Tigray region, prompting the TPLF to declare it an “act of war.”

On 4 November 2020, the Addis Ababa government found the excuse it had been looking for to send in the troops. It accused the TPLF of attacking federal military bases in Tigray and stealing weaponry. By the end of November, federal troops had regained control of the main towns in the region, but fighting has dragged on and shows no sign of abating.

Eritrea, which has an acrimonious history with the TPLF, prioritizes the protection of its southern border with Ethiopia. It has, accordingly, joined forces with Addis Ababa to contain the TPLF.

The military incursion has seen the mass displacement of civilians, an unknown number of casualties amid a media blackout (thought to be in the thousands), and the destruction of cultural and religious sites. The situation has become so bad that United States has accused Ethiopia of ethnic cleansing and Amnesty International has reported widescale massacres.

Tigrayan refugees, 1 April 2021 // Tigray Update, Facebook

Conflict draws attention of religious communities

Several Catholic media outlets have reported on the Tigrayan conflict, drawn by reports that Christian churches in Tigray are being vandalized and religious artefacts destroyed. Shortly after the first government offensive in Tigray, Pope Francis urged the parties in the conflict “to stop the violence” and to “restore peace to the populations,” a call that he echoed during his Urbi et Orbi message on Easter Sunday.

Pope Francis urged the parties in the conflict “to stop the violence” and to “restore peace to the populations.”

In early January, Catholic News Agency reported on a massacre at an Eastern Orthodox Church that left 750 people dead. The Jesuit Refugee Service has called for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to allow aid workers to deliver food and medicine to some 100,000 displaced Tigrayans.

Christian sites are not the only religious targets in this conflict. The BBC reported that in December 2020, both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops bombed al-Nejashi mosque, thought to be among the oldest mosques in Africa, dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

Destruction of religious sites as a tool of psychological warfare

Attacks on religious property are not new. In 2015, ISIS destroyed ancient statues in Mosul. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed 6th century Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. The Nazis destroyed religious and cultural art during World War II. Catholic religious artefacts were destroyed throughout Europe during the Reformation. And going back throughout history, cultural and religious symbols are often the target of wars and power plays between nations and warring groups.

The International Criminal Court in 1998 drew up the Rome Statute, a document that lists a variety of crimes against humanity. The destruction of religious sites and artefacts is included in its list of war crimes. Human rights organizations go to great lengths to protect these sites and punish those who desecrate them.

So why do places and objects of religious significance become caught up on conflict situations?

Acts of desecration, irrespective of the religious background of both the perpetrators and their victims, is not a by-product of warfare. It is a deliberate tool used by governments or rebel groups to take control of regions and their populations.

Their purpose is two-pronged. One is to demoralize the communities into giving up their rebellion or succumb to the invading force. In an effort to safeguard their places of worship and religious artefacts, communities may choose to surrender on grounds that cost of their political demands is too high.

The destruction of religious sites is a deliberate tool used by governments or rebel groups to take control of regions and their populations.

The second reason is the loss of identity. In times of war and uncertainty, religious attachments (especially for communities that are already deeply religious) become even stronger. They try to find a divine purpose to the suffering they are enduring.

Religious sites and rites offer solace and renew the resilience of a community under siege. It connects them to the common past they wish to protect and offers hope for a future in which they can live in peace once again.  The destruction of religious artefacts disrupts the community’s attachment to its religious traditions and serves to weaken their religious convictions.

Ethiopian religious painting // Wikimedia Commons

Armies deliberately target these sites to weaken the link between the community and their cultural and historic roots. Robbed of a strong sense of identity, communities are more likely to surrender.

How do we respond?

As people of faith, our first reaction is outrage to the desecration of a religiously significant place or artefact. We know very well how much it hurts when a tabernacle is desecrated or when government decisions hamper our access to acts of worship. The loss that the population of the Tigray region feels at the destruction of its religious sites is more than we can possibly imagine from the relative security of our religious traditions.

When we read news such as these, we feel helpless. There seems little to do except pray for those who risk their lives to protect their religious heritage, as was the case of the attack on the church in Aksum in November 2020, where 750 people are said to have been killed. They had both sought refuge in the church, thought to hold the Ark of the Covenant, and tried to protect from an attack by the Eritrean troops.

our primary concern for what is happening in northern Ethiopia … should be the loss of human life.

But there is also a need to speak out against acts of war that seek to destroy the religious and cultural identity of a particular ethnic group. The assault on these sites also destroys our common historical and religious heritage.

Most of all, however, our primary concern for what is happening in northern Ethiopia — or any other place where war crimes continue to be committed — should be the loss of human life and livelihoods. A church without its community is nothing.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.