Disregarding the sweltering church, a warehouse-like auditorium partly exposed to the heavens, hundreds of worshippers gather on Palm Sunday in Ethiopia’s capital. Transfixed, some in tears, they sway in unison to uplifting gospel music crooned from a glitzy stage. Mounted cameras pan above the devotees, while lasers crisscross the congregation.
With the crowd warmed up, it’s time for the main act: a sermon delivered by Prophet Jeremiah Hussen, the founder and leader of the Gospel of the Kingdom International Church, who appears to a babble of excitement. Constantly encouraging his followers, Jeremiah urges the believers to keep their faith “rooted, for faith begets miracles and wonders” in their lives. Like many of the increasingly visible fellow Pentecostal preachers in Addis Ababa, he is radiant and youthful. Outside the hall, a billboard with his picture advertises the church’s television channel. The church’s website solicits donations on every page, offers hotel stays, an online store, and a form to fill in if you want ‘to invite Man of God Prophet Jeremiah for a crusade’.
Major cities in Ethiopia, a deeply traditional country steeped in centuries of Orthodox Christian and Islamic history, are witnessing an explosion in such evangelical Protestant churches run by such celebrity preachers that use numerous mediums to spread their self-empowerment message. And that’s during a period when members of the two largest faiths have raised complaints that an iron-fisted, secular government is impinging on their freedom of worship.
On May 27, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) celebrated 26 years in power with predictable fanfare. Once more, coalition leaders identified constitutional recognition of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity as its defining achievement. The legal framework and policies introduced by the EPRDF maintain a sharp division between faith and state. The measures were aimed at counterbalancing the traditionally powerful position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), which has historically often been intimately associated with the Ethiopian state and its emperors.
The EOC, still the dominant religious force with 43.5 per cent of the population adhering to its doctrines, reacted to the loss of political power by underscoring its historical and cultural importance in the formation of national identity. In 1997, the patriarchate published a book that asserts the “church is the symbol of unity and freedom for Ethiopia as a whole and all Ethiopians.”
Oppositional EOC members in the U.S. Diaspora cast the current patriarch, Abuna Matewos, and his predecessor, Abuna Pawlos, as political appointees, partly as they come from Tigray, a stronghold of the ruling coalition. At home, a popular youth association of the church, Mahbere Kidusan, is viewed suspiciously by authorities. The state broadcaster presented them as a group of religious extremists that want to bring the old days of the Christian empire back. That, in turn, made the youth wary of the government’s repressive tendencies. Land disputes between church and government are sometimes viewed by worshippers as official attempts to weaken the institution.
Always a significant, but institutionally disadvantaged, minority, now around a third of the population, the Islamic community initially enjoyed religious plurality, as it offered more space for cultural expressions of their faith. Islam’s growing visibility, however, has been subjected to increasing regulations and limitations, which are partially connected to broader geopolitical developments in the Horn of Africa, such as the rise of violent jihadism in Somalia, argue Jörg Haustein and Terje Østebø in their paper ‘EPRDF’s Revolutionary Democracy and Religious Plurality’.
Historically, Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia have been generally cordial, albeit punctuated by conflict. Ethiopia was the destination of the first Hijra in the 7th Century when the Prophet Mohammed’s followers sought refuge from persecution in Arabia. But there were also destructive Muslim invasions led by Ahmed Gragn from the east in the 16th Century and by Sudan’s Mahdis in the late 1800s. But imperial Ethiopia was intimately identified with the Orthodox Church and Muslims were often persecuted and their rights denied over the centuries. Amid recent generally peaceful coexistence in the EPRDF era, the most serious incident was the burning of churches near the city of Jimma in 2011.
In 2012, some Ethiopian Muslims criticized the government for meddling in their faith by packing the highest religious body, the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, with compliant leaders and using it to try and import their chosen version of Islam. The discontent caused demonstrations at mosques in Addis Ababa and eventually led to 75 arrests. The conviction for radicalism of members of a Muslim arbitration committee formed to deal with these issues worsened relations. Similar complaints of leadership co-option are shared by factions of the EOC.
For Haustein and Østebø, the EPRDF, seeking to maintain its political power, took steps to monitor and control religious communities. Therefore, its rule has been “marked by uneven developments, in which the government’s accommodating attitudes have been interlaced with efforts to curtail the influence of the religious communities.”
But while secularism has brought some problems for the government, it appears to have benefitted the Protestant churches as it grants them, for the first time, official recognition on a par with other faith groups. Securing land for church construction and burial grounds has become easier, for example. Correspondingly, there has been a noticeable increase in Protestants holding senior government positions, the most prominent of whom is Hailemariam Desalegn, a Pentecostal, who became prime minister in 2012. Again evidencing Ethiopia’s largely newfound appreciation of diversity under the EPRDF, he is also from the minority southern ethnic group, the Wolyata.
Pentecostalism emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit and the believer’s direct experience of God. That experience is revealed through practices such as speaking in tongues, ecstatic praise, prophesy, exorcisms and healing prayers. Such beliefs have largely been accommodated by the major Protestant denominations in Ethiopia, helping the religion’s steady demographic growth from 5.5 per cent of the overall population in 1984 to 18.5 per cent in 2007.
For Andrew DeCort, a professor at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa, the appeal of Pentecostal churches, which play a significant role in the growth of Protestantism’s surge, lies in their message. “The basic idea at the heart of Ethiopian Pentecostalism is change,” he says. It is “offering newness, novelty, change, a better life. It rejects any form of fatalism and insists the future can be different from the past; it can be better, bigger, brighter,” an alluring idea in the context of widespread poverty where people are disenchanted with the life chances available to them.
The Orthodox Church’s parochial bureaucracy, which relegates young people into the roles of passive listeners, has created a vacuum in which Pentecostalism is thriving, argues DeCort. While the traditional Ethiopian family doesn’t take the voice of the youth seriously, the Pentecostal churches offer not only “a sense of transcendence” but also offer “personal significance.”
‘The basic idea at the heart of Ethiopian Pentecostalism is change.’
A Pentecostalist who edits a religious magazine agrees, arguing the reason many young people are attracted to the new churches is doctrinal: “They can no longer relate to outdated services in which the teachings are detached from their lives.”
More and more spiritual leaders are breaking away from established sects to start their own churches. There’s conspicuous influence from the American gospel movement in their success-driven teachings. “The prosperity preachers in the US have been extremely successful in broadcasting their TV shows abroad, exporting their books and going themselves for international evangelizing crusades,” DeCort says. “Additionally some of the leaders of Ethiopian Churches often spend time in the US; some of them appearing on successful American TV shows.”
The established Protestant denominations find these popular movements exciting, as they raise the faith’s overall profile, but also concerning, according to DeCort.
Those worries expressed themselves in April when a meeting of mainstream Protestant churches addressed what they called “practices that are not biblical” and a “moral decadence” prevailing in the religion. The summit denounced the health- and wealth-obsessed “heretic prosperity gospel.”
For Tigist Tibebe, who worships at one of the biggest churches in Addis Ababa, The City of Refuge Church, such remarks come from an old guard that is threatened by their dwindling popularity and influence. “They are envious of the churches preferred by the youth,” she explains.
Stretching his gaze into the near future, DeCort expects the continued multiplication of independent churches, and increasing innovation: “We should expect more wild and extreme forms as leaders experiment with what the religion market wants and what it will tolerate.”
The reaction of the religious establishment to those developments is set to be another test of Ethiopia’s resilient, multi-faith society.
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