3 killed in attack on Ethiopian church amid tension over breakaway Orthodox synod

Three people were killed and at least four injured by alleged security forces in an attack on a church in southern Ethiopia Saturday amid growing tensions within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, one of the oldest Christian institutions in the world. 

An archbishop has urged members to wear black during the three-day Fast of Nineveh beginning Monday to protest against a "government-supported coup attempt" to overthrow the Holy Synod.

Two Orthodox Christian youths and a woman were reportedly killed by regional special forces in an attack on St. Michael Church in the Shashamene area of the country's largest geographic region of Oromia, the church-affiliated Tewahedo Media Center said, according to Agence France-Presse

The town lies about 150 miles south of the nation's capital Addis Ababa.

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Local church sources told the Ethiopian news outlet Borkena that Oromia regional special forces opened fire on a crowd protecting the church from being taken over by what they say is an illegally appointed bishop.

In a statement shared by the news outlet, the Holy Synod called the action of the regional forces "public murder."

"The Holy Synod has strongly condemned the illegal arrest and harassment of Archbishops Diocese Managers, Department Heads, Priests, ministers and believers of the church," the statement reads. 

"The church absolutely condemns the illegal human rights violation and the brutal death of the believers who came out to protect the church ... of Saint Michael in Shashemene city, West Arsi diocese; The Holy Synod decided that justice should be done in all localities by making appropriate synodal and religious prayers."

Last month, rebel bishops formed their own synod in Oromia, which was declared illegal by the church. The bishops involved have also been excommunicated. The breakaway bishops claim that the church had been discriminating against them to maintain their linguistic and cultural hegemony, a claim that was rejected by the patriarchate.

About 40% of Ethiopia's 115 million people are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

The church, headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias, has also accused the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of interfering in its affairs and effectively recognizing the "illegitimate group."

The synod said in a statement that the breakaway bishops and their new synod, which now calls itself the "Holy Synod of Oromia and Nations and Nationalities," are causing significant harm by forcibly invading and taking over pontificates and offices belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church with the help of government forces.

The synod also criticized the government for failing to uphold the law and the rights of the church by supporting illegal groups instead of enforcing the law, according to The Addis Standard

The World Council of Churches expressed "deep concern" in a Friday statement about the developments in the Ethiopian institution and called on political leaders in Ethiopia to support the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in its efforts to achieve unity and peace among its members.

"The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the ancient churches whose origins go back to the times of the apostles, a church which has always affirmed and worked for unity and peace even with the price of blood," WCC General Secretary Rev. Jerry Pillay said in the statement. "The World Council of Churches regrets the breaking away of a fraction from the body of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to establish a new synod."

Relations with the government have been tense for Orthodox leaders who have complained about religious persecution. 

Ethiopia is also dealing with the Tigray conflict. Fighting began after the Tigray People's Liberation Front attacked an Army base as part of an uprising in the region, which sparked military responses from Ethiopian forces joined by defense forces from neighboring Eritrea in November 2020.

Organizations, including Amnesty International, CNN and Sky News, have previously published investigations into massacres against civilian populations in the Tigray region.

In June 2021, 56 women from Africa or of African descent wrote an open letter and launched a petition to be delivered to the United Nations Security Council, the African Union and the European Council, calling for urgent action against "cruelty beyond comprehension" in Tigray.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock estimated in 2021 that 30% of all incidents against civilians involved sexual violence used "as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation." 

"Reports continue to emerge from Tigray of wives being raped in front of their husbands; mothers raped in front of their children and vice versa; family members forced to choose between raping female relatives or death, and of women themselves being forced to choose between rape or death," the letter stated.

"Several victims report their assailants boasted of 'cleansing' their bloodline, while others arrive at medical facilities having suffered additional traumatic injuries to their reproductive organs inflicted by attackers to prevent them from bearing children."

The perpetrators, the authors of the letter said, were identified as members of the "Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense forces, Amhara Special Forces and other irregular armed groups or aligned militia," and nearly a quarter of the cases involved gang rape over an extended period of time.

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