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For peace in Ethiopian conflict, church leaders say diplomatic process must be fair

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Children play in front of a hotel damaged by mortar shelling, in Humera, Ethiopia, on November 22, 2020. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, announced military operations in Tigray on November 4, 2020, saying they came in response to attacks on federal army camps by the party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Hundreds have died in nearly three weeks of hostilities that analysts worry could draw in the broader Horn of Africa region, though Abiy has kept a lid on the details, cutting phone and internet connections in Tigray and restricting reporting. |

As tensions continue to mount in the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia that has left thousands dead and some 2 million people displaced, leaders in the North American Dioceses of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church urged the Biden administration and Congress this week to intensify efforts to bring an end to the conflict in Tigray.

Ten archbishops attended meetings this week with the U.S. State Department, Congress and the White House, calling for a “fair” diplomatic process that will hold the Tigray People’s Liberation Front accountable for atrocities they have committed.

“The atrocities that have been done by this terrorist organization is untold," Archbishop Abune Fanuel of Washington D.C. and chairperson for the Ethiopian Religious Council told The Christian Post in an interview Thursday. "Millions have been destabilized from their property and the kind of damage they do to the people takes different forms.” 

He was also joined by Archbishop Abune Nathanael, who oversees the archdioceses of Colorado, Utah, Kansas and Nebraska.

The current conflict in Ethiopia erupted last November when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a left-wing rebel group that led Ethiopia from 1991 until Abiy became prime minister in 2018, The New York Times reported.

Abiy reportedly preached a message of hope and unity and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. He has accused TPLF of attacking a federal military base and attempting to steal weapons.

The conflict has since escalated and militia fighters from the Amhara region to the south and Eritrean troops from the north joined the Ethiopian military in opposing the Tigrayan rebels who have also captured Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray.

In May, President Joe Biden expressed concern over the escalating violence and noted that his administration was working with the Ethiopian Government, the African Union, the United Nations and other international partners to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis. He also urged Ethiopian officials to “promote reconciliation, human rights, and respect for pluralism.”

“Doing so will preserve the unity and territorial integrity of the state and ensure the protection of the Ethiopian people and the delivery of urgently needed assistance," Biden said. "The Government of Ethiopia and other stakeholders across the political spectrum should commit to an inclusive dialogue. Working together, the people of Ethiopia can build a shared vision for the country’s political future and lay the foundation for sustainable and equitable economic growth and prosperity."

The church leaders who met with senators and members of Congress about the situation in Washington Thursday argued that the international partners need to hold TPLF accountable if a peaceful solution is to be reached.

The religious leaders were scheduled to meet with Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., according to a source with knowledge of the arrangements. 

“Lasting solution can come only when it’s based on fairness and truth,” Archbishop Nathanael said, noting that the analysis of the conflict by American government and media has been “biased.”

“That may be the policy of the American government to invite diplomats, but what has actually [been happening] is a very biased part of the terrorist groups even when it is clearly seen that these terrorist groups have been killing thousands and violating every [law] on the books,” Fanuel added.

“Even before this war began, there had been a lot of attempts by the Ethiopian government and the Ethiopian people for a peaceful resolution to the problem. But they started the war and they have done a lot of damage," he added. "Even when the government has taken a unilateral ceasefire, they wage war in Amhara and the Afar regions. That’s the reason for millions fleeing those places."

Abiy had called for a ceasefire in June.

“How could negotiations go with a terrorist organization when they are not willing to take a ceasefire? When they are not willing to negotiate with the people in the Ethiopian government?” Fanuel asked. “If it could be balanced in terms of holding both parties accountable, then that is how [it can work].”

He further added: “As spiritual leaders, our primary responsibility is to pray to the Lord to bring solutions. But what we also say at the same time, the process has to be fair for the Ethiopian people and the Ethiopian government. There is an elected government that is putting conditions on the terrorists to respect the Ethiopian sovereignty.”

Nathanael said spiritual leaders have been to the Tigray and pleaded for peace many times, but TPLF has “refused to come to the table.”

“As the saying goes, it takes two to tango," he said. "It takes two parties to bring peace."

A source with knowledge of the meetings said that the archbishops sought to encourage the U.S. to "work more constructively with the Ethiopian Government to ensure aid is made available to the vulnerable and those who have committed atrocities are prosecuted."

There was much international media focus at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 surrounding the military offensive carried out in the Tigray region. Reports had circulated about atrocities committed against civilians in the Tigray region by suspected Eritrean troops. Among the dead were said to be priests, women, entire families and even a group of Sunday school children. 

Some witnesses claimed that Eritrean soldiers went from door-to-door to kill Tigrayan men and boys as young as 7 years old.

Reports indicate that the Tigray forces retook their home region in June. Since then, the conflict has crept into the Amhara region. 

While much international attention was placed on the actions of the Eritrean and Ethiopian military in Tigray, Tigray militants are facing growing allegations that they have attacked civilians in retaliation for the atrocities committed in Tigray.

A dozen witnesses told The Associated Press about how Tigray forces have attacked communities and religious sites with artillery. Witnesses say that civilians were killed while schools and health centers were looted, leading to thousands of people fleeing from their homes in the past two months. 

Additionally, a Human Rights Watch report released this week details that both Eritrean government forces and Tigrayan militias have committed killings, rape and other grave human rights abuses against Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region. 

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