Today’s post is by Adiam Asfaha, my guest writer who currently resides in Addis Ababa. He writes about a timely topic as we hear news reports about Muslim protests in Ethiopia’s capital city. His account serves as a backdrop of the Christian/Muslim relationship in the country. My favorite parts of the piece are the last two sentences because they are the truth; people in Ethiopia live in an information, or rather misinformation, bubble. As always, enjoy.
Religious conflict isn’t often associated with Ethiopia. The country is just about divided equally between Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Statistics provided by a professor at Hawassa University indicate the following numbers*: Muslim 38.1%, Orthodox 37.7%,, Protestant 20.2%. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has always had a grip on the country’s internal affairs but I’ve always believed Ethiopia to be an example of how Christians and Muslims could live in harmony; well, at least until recently.
It wasn’t until the past few months when I started hearing some news and noticing certain taboos. The first came at a wedding. I arrived late and I was the last person to get to the buffet. As I walked up and the down the buffet looking into the emptied trays, I noticed the almost-virgin roasted lamb. I walked over and asked if I could have some. The butcher grabbed his knife and said “It’s Muslim meat.” I replied “No problem.” As I was eating my food I noticed that there were at least 300 people. There was a Christian majority present, the “assertive type” and almost all of them didn’t eat the lamb because it was “Muslim meat”.
For those who are not familiar with Ethiopian culture, before livestock are slaughtered they are almost always blessed. A Christian butcher would say, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen” and then slits the animals throat and then you have Christian meat. I’m not exactly sure what a Muslim butcher would say but it’s something along the lines of “Allah bless my food” and there you have Muslim meat. Butcher shops are separate, even between Protestant and Orthodox Christians. It’s blasphemous to eat meat that’s been blessed outside of one’s religion. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my delicious lamb as its molecular structure wasn’t different to that of any other lamb.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a very powerful institution. During fasting season, which adds up to just about half of the year, Christian butcher shops are closed on Wednesdays and Fridays. You’re not supposed to eat meat (or dairy products) on those days so you can’t get any tibs or raw meat almost anywhere. There’s no law preventing them from opening but businesses don’t open out of fear of outrage from their customers. By today’s standards I think this qualifies as somewhat extreme.
I was speaking to a government official the other day and he stated that the Ethiopian government had a “safety valve.” In fact, he assured me that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church will never have “extremist” priests interfere in politics or ascend to a position of power. So I asked him what the “safety valve” was. He said “Gedams,” which are monasteries for Orthodox priests.
These monasteries are secluded and priests go there to spend the rest of their lives praying with almost no contact with the outside world. So what do these monasteries have to do with anything? He then further explained. There is a board at the Ministry of Information that was specifically established to receive complaints from the Orthodox Church. The board consists of government representatives and senior priests. He told me stories of how some priests would come ask the government to ban mini-skirts, lipstick and so on. The board receives these types of grievances and usually gives the complainant one of two choices: accept the way things work or go to the monasteries to spend the rest of your live confined to kolo, bread and water. So if you’re wondering why the Church is not burning people at the stake like 15th century Europe, there’s your answer.
So is Ethiopia a country where Christians and Muslims coexist in peace? It may appear that way from the outside but it’s certainly not the case. There is relative peace in the country but there are bursts of violence every now and then. Most of these acts of religious extremism happen in the outskirts of the country where government has a smaller presence. This kind of news doesn’t get broadcasted, it travels. About four months ago, 39 Christian Amharas were killed by Afar Muslims because they were Christians that chose to settle in a Muslim majority region of Ethiopia. This happened outside of Dire Dawa but it was never reported on the news. The government quickly deployed troops to end the violence.
Until last Friday I believe that these acts of violence were exclusive to the countryside where bandits and hyenas reigned supreme. I was driving to lunch when I saw four police officers smile and wave, which usually translates to “I need a ride.” (I must interject here. Major side eye…) So I pulled over and as we were driving they asked me if I heard what happened last night and I hadn’t. This past Thursday evening there was a riot that was incited by Muslim extremists that were passing out flyers at a mosque in Merkato. Merkato is located in Addis Ababa and is a 10-15 minute drive from downtown. According to the police officers there were no casualties but eight policemen were injured.
Then my aunt calls me the following night to tell me not to leave the house. There were protests in Kera, incited by Muslims once more. Kera is about two miles from my neighborhood and this time it was reported. According to the news, the protesters were terrorists trying to provoke anarchy during the African Union meeting that was taking place last week. The protest was swiftly suppressed and no one was hurt. The African Union meetings concluded and I haven’t heard any news about any religious violence or any other kind of violence since.
I’d like to remain optimistic and finish this article on a good note but I can’t. The simple fact is that I don’t know the everyday events that take place in this country. One thing you learn from living in Ethiopia is that by the time you get the news, it’s usually history.
In case you missed Adiam’s first post on a favorite topic, Ethiopian coffee, check it out here.
*Figures from the 2007 Census indicate the following: Orthodox 43.5%, Muslim 33.9%, Protestant 18.6%, traditional 2.6%, Catholic 0.7%, other 0.7%.