Following the violent protests that rocked the country last month, killing 67 people, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need spoke about it with Father Petros Berga, project partner of ACN and priest of the Diocese of Addis Ababa.
How is the situation in Addis Ababa and in your country? Do demonstrations continue every day?
The socio-political condition of the country in general is a little bit volatile now. Of course there are some ethnic issues in certain areas. But the serious danger is a threat from the Middle East. A certain ethno-religious activist named Jawar Mohammed, with illicit finance from the Middle East, mostly from Egypt, has become a serious threat for Christians in Ethiopia. In several areas Churches, priests and Christians were attacked. He has a satellite TV and a social media network with a large number of followers. The activists use the Oromo youth as an instrument to cause conflict. The young people are provided with cell phones donated by the Gulf countries etc.
What are the claims of demonstrators?
There were intermittent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Addis Ababa and in different cities and towns. Now it is ebbing away. However, the situation is still uncertain. There is a problem of law enforcement. Radical politicians and self-acclaimed activists are invoking violence. Both the regional and federal governments are not taking (legal) action even if people are being attacked, displaced, robbed, threatened and molested. On the outskirts of Addis Ababa there were incidents of regular violence by supporters of Jawar Mohammed affecting residents and those who moved to the outskirts a couple of years ago due to the re-development of the inner-city. The residents, particularly the youth, are already disenchanted due to scarcity of work and employment and now they are exposed to violence due to the turmoil. As we are working on pastoral and skill development and capacity building of the youth in the periphery, the situation has made it even more urgent to work on empowering the young people.
Media have spoken about “inter-ethnic and religious” conflict; do you agree with this? Could you explain the situation? It seems that Christians and Muslims are suffering violence…
The violence is currently directed towards Christians, mainly the Orthodox Church. The main protagonists are Jawar Mohammed (a self-acclaimed activist) and Dawed Ibsa (leader of the Oromo Liberation Front). Both are Oromo Muslims. They use ethnicity to mobilize the young people easily but the violence and attacks have more of a religious than ethnic dimension. The traditional Sufi form of Islam, characterized by tolerance and syncretism with indigenous ethnic culture, is being replaced by more militant fundamentalist Muslims.
Do you think situation will improve soon?
Even if it is difficult to predict how the situation will evolve, we are optimistic that things will improve over time. In general, Ethiopians have lived sided-by-side for centuries, we are confident the values they share will keep them united to face these difficult situations. Above all, Ethiopians are very religious people and the prayers of the faithful will be answered. God will protect Ethiopia from the danger of disintegration.
What is the message and the role of the Catholic Church?
Though a tiny minority, the Catholic Church is playing a big role in promoting peaceful co-existence. His Eminence Archbishop Berhaneyesus Cardinal Souraphiel has been appointed by the Prime Minister as head of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. The Church has officially expressed her solidarity with our Orthodox brothers. The Catholic Church is also organizing workshops on peace building and dialogue. Yet there is a great need to work in depth and breadth with local, regional and federal government entities as well as civil society organizations. As a minority Church serving society without any ethnic or religious distinction, the Catholic Church is in the best position to play a role in mediation work.