Conflict in Tigray: Catholics Divided

March 21, 2022

The fratricidal war that has bloodied Tigray since November 4, 2020 has been playing out far from the spotlight, especially since the intervention of the Russian army in Ukraine. However, in this part of the Horn of Africa, the conflict that is tearing the country apart is also dividing the Catholic minority.

One war can hide another. Several thousand kilometers from the banks of the Dnieper, in the Horn of Africa, a bloody tragedy unfolds between Ethiopian government forces and rebels in Tigray.

A veritable explosion likely to reshape the Ethiopia of tomorrow, the shock wave of this conflict is also sharply hitting the Catholic Church, which has less than 500,000 members in the country – many of them located in the highlands of Tigray – out of a population of 115 million inhabitants, for the majority of the Orthodox faith.

A division that came to light on February 24, 2022: on this date, in fact, Msgr. Tesfasellassie Medhin, bishop of the Catholic eparchy – the equivalent of a diocese in the East – of Adigrat, Tigray, took up the pen to denounce what he considers to be the “guilty silence” of the Ethiopia Conference of Bishops (CBCE) in the face of the abuses perpetrated in the region.

“The Ethiopian Episcopal Conference, during the last 475 days of the war in Tigray, has failed to raise its voice for the voiceless,” affirms the Tigrayan prelate, and this “while the Catholic institutions and organizations of other countries, in particular the Eritrean Episcopal Conference, … Pope Francis and many others have urged the parties to end the war, resolve it through dialogue and allow humanitarian access to those in need,” he continues.

For Bishop Tesfasellassie Medhin, there is no doubt that “the Ethiopian Episcopal Conference, made up of the Catholic dioceses of the country, (has) the Christian obligation to confirm a spirit of brotherhood towards the Eparchy of Adigrat.”

Finally, the leader of Tigrayan Catholics calls for clarification from his colleagues in the episcopate: “We officially invite you to express your solidarity in favor of the suffering people and to exert peaceful and tangible pressure for the cessation of this genocidal war,” concludes the prelate.

A message in the form of an indictment against the CBCE which published, on March 8, a press release sounding like a justification. Rejecting the accusations brought against them, the Ethiopian bishops have declared that “since the very day when the war broke out, the Catholic Church of Ethiopia has not been silent and has made continuous public statements denouncing the war, loss of life, displacement, loss of property, and all the consequences of war.”

It implicitly appears that CBCE has found itself in a delicate position. They must not remain silent in the face of the atrocities committed in Tigray, but they must also come to the aid of all the regions affected by the civil war, while providing a diplomatic way out of the conflict.

“If war is not eliminated from the history of Ethiopia by us Ethiopians, it will be war that will drive us out of history,” warn the prelates of this part of the Horn of Africa, who renewed their appeal “to all the parties involved in the conflict, to lay down their arms and start a real dialogue in the interest of the people, to allow them to live in peace.”

In a year and a half, the Tigray conflict has caused thousands of deaths, the displacement of more than two million people, and plunged hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians into conditions close to famine, according to information provided by the United Nations.