Project Ethiopia/Eritrea: Peace in the Horn of Africa

Orthodox, Muslim leaders create peace

by Barbra Lukunka

Many people stand in front of one of the many Eastern Orthodox Churches in Addis Ababa.
Many people stand in front of one of the many
Eastern Orthodox Churches in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia and Eritrea share the same religious beliefs — Christianity and Islam. The dominant type of Christianity in Ethiopia is Eastern Orthodox. In Eritrea, the dominant type of Christianity is Coptic Christianity, which is a branch of the Orthodox Church as well. Coptic Christianity started in Egypt; in fact, Copt is an Arabic word that means Egyptian. There are approximately 50 million adherents of Coptic Christianity, many of whom are in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Israel.

There is a significant number of Muslims and Christians in both countries. The ratio of Muslims to Orthodox Christians is one-to-one; however, when you talk to the people and ask them what they believe the ratio is, a Muslim will always tell you that there are more Muslims and an Orthodox Christian will tell you that there are more Orthodox Christians.

Religion is such an important part of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Unlike many African countries that were introduced to Christianity through colonization or missionaries, these two countries have known Christianity all along. Islam also has a significant role in the Ethiopian and Eritrean culture.

I remember growing up in Ethiopia and every day I would hear the call for worship from the nearby mosque as well as from the Orthodox Church.

The streets of Addis Ababa exemplify a city embedded in its religious beliefs. Addis Ababa has some elaborate churches and mosques, built in such grandeur and elegant style. Almost all the streets have street vendors who sell pictures of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and crosses.

It is interesting to watch Orthodox Christian Ethiopians walk by an Orthodox Church. They will take the time to stop walking, turn towards the church and bow a few times and make the sign of the cross.

With religion being such an eminent part of both countries, I realized how significant it would be to hear what the religious leaders thought about the current border dispute. My first interview on the subject was with the head of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church.

His Holiness Abune Paulos is  the patriarch of the Eastern  Orthodox Church in Ethiopia
His Holiness Abune Paulos is
the patriarch of the Eastern
Orthodox Church in Ethiopia.

The Patriarch of Ethiopia is His Holiness Abune Paulos. Many have accused him of being political, especially since he is known to be close to the President of Ethiopia. Nonetheless, Paulos is highly revered by many.

When I first met Paulos, I walked into a well lit, elaborate room and found him seated in a big white chair with a picture of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms behind him. He welcomed me and was willing to give me some insight on the Church's position.

"Ethiopians and Eritreans are one in blood, history and existence," he said. "We are the same people."

Paulos said he thought the Italians were to blame because of their invasion of Eritrea in the late 19th Century.

"Under the Italian rule they (Ethiopians and Eritreans) came into conflict as if they were different ... as if they were not the same people," he said.

I asked Paulos who he believed had started the war in 1998 since both countries refused to admit to it. He said Eritrea was the belligerent force and all along, Ethiopia wanted peace.

"The Ethiopian government has sought for peace as a way to solve the dispute, but for the longest time, the international community ignored their pleas," he said.

Paulos said after being ignored for so long by the international community, the Ethiopians were disappointed. However, the Norwegians came to their help when they recommended peace be sought through religion. The Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Ethiopia were encouraged to speak with their counterparts in Eritrea.

The church leaders from both countries met with the Norwegians in Oslo and initiated the peace talks. Paulos said the negotiations and peace talks were very fruitful in Oslo. The religious leaders became very close; in addition, they met each other in their respective countries. The religious leaders were influencing the peace initiatives, and it seemed as though things were heading toward the right direction until, Paulos said, the border decision was made in The Hague.

" The decision from The Hague was not acceptable to the Ethiopian people ... but Ethiopians still want a peaceful solution," Paulos said.

The Patriarch was quick to share his fear of a possible escalation of war due to the border decision. He said he thinks the Ethiopian government was doing all it could possibly do for long lasting peace.

The Orthodox Church carried out some assessments of the refugee situation and those that were being resettled.

"We wanted to follow the footsteps of the refugees and appeal to the donor nation," Paulos said.

He said money is essential to help abate the humanitarian crises between the two countries, however the other remedy he believes in is reconciling with the people's heart for them to embrace each other as brothers and sisters again.

"Ethiopia and Eritrea don't want war," Paulos said. "They are homesick for each other, and I have seen them crying for each other."

We ended the interview with him telling me that he prayed for the international community to be more generous so more lives could be saved.

It was wonderful hearing those words from him. But at the same time, I wanted to know what the Muslims thought about the situation. I went to speak with, Haji Yesuf Ali Yassin, secretary general of the Islamic Affairs Council for Ethiopia.

The interview was brief but insightful.

"Islam is a universal religion that is driven by peace," Yassin said.

In addition, he said the Islamic Council is a clear advocate for peace. Like Paulos, he pointed out the Eritreans and Ethiopians are the same people that share historical, social and economic relationships. He also made the same point as Paulos that the government of Ethiopia was not willing to use armed force in order to resolve the conflict, but the border dispute had been worsened by the border decision made by the Boundary Commission.

"The only way peace will be seen between the two countries is if there is an implementation of the border that will be just and ensure long lasting peace," Yassin said.

Unlike Paulos, Yassin believes the international community has been helpful. The council has made the effort to learn about what the UNMEE is doing and has held meetings with them.

Yassin said the Islamic Affairs Council formed an executive board to help the peace process. This executive board, along with the Orthodox Church, has been involved in peace negotiations with the religious leaders in Eritrea. They went to Mekelle, the Tigray capital, with the Orthodox Church leaders to discuss the issue of the deportees and refugees.

Like Paulos, Yassin said reconciling with the hearts of the people is vital. The Islamic leaders have preached peace in their prayers. The call for prayer five times a day never neglects to encourage the people to harbor peace in their hearts.