Abiy Ahmed in trying to manipulate and coerce extremist religious leaders of Ethiopia as well as diaspora has created havoc. Although many Ethiopians have for years presented Ethiopia as an example of religious harmony between Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews the reality is there have always been undertones of conflict. For the most part until recently cooler heads prevailed with many religious leaders being united in calling for peaceful co-existence that recognized each group had an appropriate and respected place in Ethiopian society.
This stability began to change with the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed. It was hoped with his mixed ethnic and religious ancestry a new era of harmony would come. He claimed a new state of medemer alleging a united national identity. However the largest part of his power base has been Amharic expansionist Orthodox as well as evangelical protestants. To some extent he tried to make the Tigray a “straw man” enemy against which various ethnic groups and religious views could unite. He has often rather falsely claimed the Tegaru, the people of Tigray, are a godless people forgetting the the Orthodox Church had its origins there. It also has longstanding albeit small but significant populations of Muslims and Catholics.
What he did not predict is how a new struggle would emerge for power in Ethiopia between these groups based upon old wounds. Between Muslims and Christians there are some major differences for example in how important historical events played out. For example Christians believe that Christian King Negas welcomed Muslim refugees fleeing the pagan Saudi rulers. Many Ethiopian Muslims believe that the monarch was converted to Islam.
The struggle for dominance between Islam and Christianity continued until the nineteenth century when the Tigrayan monarch Yohannes compelled Muslims to convert to Christianity. The Muslim ruler Mohammed is claimed by many to have converted to Christianity changing his name to Mikael. However many in the Wollo region of Amhara belief this was not a true conversion but a temporary act. After Yohannes was killed in battle, the Amharic emperor, Menelik II carried out vicious atrocities against Muslims and pagan worshipers especially the Oromo.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church until the twentieth century did not consider Oromos or the people of Southern Ethiopia who were of Cushitic origin unlike the Semitic peoples of the north to be fully human. Slavery of Oromo and southern nationalities was common by Amhara interests in response to the religious determination. This ultimately lead to the introduction evangelical Protestant movements.
There are major diaspora supporters of Abiy Ahmed especially in the United States who feel strongly that God intended for Ethiopia to be a Christian country. They oppose the pantheist traditional beliefs of many Oromos as well as Islam. Traditionally under the Amharic monarchy, Muslims, Oromo pantheists, and Jews were often not allowed to own land. By aligning himself with those holding extremist views in the exiled synods of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and evangelical protestants Abiy Ahmed has given new voice to their claims that Ethiopia is a “Christian” nation. Yet even among them there is now fighting over who has rights to traditional religious areas such as Meskel square in Addis Ababa. In recent years there have been increasing attacks on mosques and churches throughout Ethiopia. Abiy Ahmed’s ally, Eritrea, has defaced and ransacked both Christian and Muslim places of worship as well as killing innocent worshippers.
Meanwhile although the “official” census states the population divide between Christians and Muslims is about 60% vs 40% there are many areas where Muslims predominate such as in Harar and the traditional regions of the Afar and Somali people. It is well documented that the population growth of Muslims is likely increasing faster then the Christians. Many outspoken Muslims believe they are undercounted.
There is little doubt now that Abiy Ahmed rather then bringing unity is fomenting division and distrust in Ethiopia. Whereas Christianity and Islam preach peaceful co-existence and civil society the regime of Abiy Ahmed has been exactly the opposite.