Looking at the Sides of the Tale of Orthodox Church in Gambella

By Tsegaye Hailemariam
Gambella, Ethiopia
August 31, 2010
Posted to the web on August 31, 2010


Big names make big news and so does big news come from sensitive areas Middle East, Horn of Africa and the great lake region in the Africa. Sensitive news breaks from sensitive areas like Gambella region in Ethiopia which attracts attention from all over the world. To cite perfect and timely case in point as big news in Gambella is the construction of Abune Aregay Orthodox Church on the apex of Jejebe Mountain in Gambella town. It would dominate the headlines if there were newspapers and tidbits on the street of Gambella.  Anyway, as a sensitive issue it concerns every person watching the construction of the church on the top of the Jejebe Mountain with suspicion; as s result of human intervention on the Mountain, it is likely to affect the town water supply/pipeline and reservoirs which was previously constructed on the Mountain. Water poisoning by human waste during the rainy season will be likely to occur or the Church goers can intentionally poison the water to kill all the local indigenous people as they have been trying to do so in the last decades. Unequivocally, there will be toilet next to the Church and the toilet as usual in Ethiopian culture will be one source to poison the water tank located beneath the proposed Church.   

Members of Orthodox Church at construction site on top of the Geleth Mountain - this photo was taken on the first week of the construction                             Click on the image for full Size

The purpose of this article, however is not to blindly criticize the construction of the church on the Mountain nor does it opposes the extension of the Orthodox Church hardware elsewhere in Gambella region. It is just to voice the muted resistance concerning inappropriateness of the construction site of the project and come up with possible critical analysis that will not mount the tension that may be caused by the construction of the church on the Mountain. It is not to utter hatred words against Orthodox Church presence in Gambella. The local communities from Gambella do not hate the Orthodox; rather it is unorthodoxy for them to dominantly be members of the Church.

Considering the Constitution of the land as the base for any argument, it is worth seeing the relevant areas that provide all necessary requirements for their respective mandates to administrate themselves through federalism and the aspects which all citizens at regional level deemed to respect the Constitution. Within the regions, there are prototypes of regulatory bodies at federal level which are responsible to execute their respective mandates at regional levels. These regulatory bodies or the so called bureau or line departments ought to execute their daily duties in a transparent to delivery to the citizens. In the Constitution, it is obviously stipulated that the governments shall remain secular and shall there be no religious government at all level.  It goes extra miles to make lives easy to the  extreme that all citizens have the fullest freedom to worship any kind of denomination with some agreed upon matters like no religious institution shall meddle in the governments affairs and vice versa. In a common sense, the nation which is Ethiopia would be the common denomination and shall all religions remain private to the followers. Whenever these religious institutions demand some resources from the government organs, they should follow some bureaucratic procedures to secure say like piece of land for constructions. But, that does not seem to work well with few religious institutions in Gambella. Doing things without proper consultation with local people and city council is unethical or unreligious. Some sort of inequality in treating the religious organizations seems to persist in Gambella region; ignoring the equality of all religions which everybody understood from blue Bible is in the making in Gambella region. 

Coming to the chemistry of the religious institutions in Gambella, out of three hundred thousand total population of the region, you can find some of the majority falling into the denomination of Christianity, but still protestant ranks in the first; Catholic and Orthodox take the second and third places as per the 2007. Muslim comes up with equal magnitude when compared to that of Orthodox Church. There are still people who practice traditional belief.  No one can generalize non existence of traditional brief practitioners among the local community. Being institutions that develop human resources, I would   imagine that their presence in number on the ground could enhance the development and transformation of a given society if handled with good care.

When coming to the drama how the Mountain Jejebe was chosen to be site where Abune Aregay Church could be erected, one of my aids informed me that a vision was seen from Orthodox Church that there shall be fountain on the Mount that shall ooze healing water; (tsebel) which heals the followers. Thus, without securing any construction permit from Gambella town municipality, the Orthodox Church swiftly jumped into construction project on this Mountain, which serves as tower for the reservoirs of the town water. I can better give clear picture of this Mountain if one visits Anyuak Media website where one can view the Mountain and the structure built on it. The municipality was witnessed to have written a letter to the Church and other concerned bodies trying to stop the project. However, no attention was paid and construction goes on from day to day. In reply, the Church was exhibited submitting a letter of warning to silence the underground resistance on the construction project. This’s boldly unconstitutional and unlawful act of instigating conflict among people living in conflict-prone areas like Gambella. In very small town like Gambella whose size is less than one thousand hectare, there are 6 Churches from Orthodox alone, and 3 mosque and good number of protestant churches. Abune Aregay Church could be the seventh Orthodox building which it could be over the Gambella town. No one has ever complained of the sound pollution from those vuvuzela like microphones mounted on Orthodox Churches and mosques uttering continuous sound that disturbs non believers. With all those sound pollution, the victims are still resilient. As per my key informant from in side, this Church tends to make shortcuts when planning to do some extension and two or three out the six elegant Church buildings were constructed without proper procedures from state organs and the best examples are new buildings near Bya Hotel, the second block within Kidanemihrate compound and the one near Gambella Agricultural College.  From the polluter pays principle no case is yet filed against one of them. The regional governor, Mr. Omot Obang Olumo, is also silent for he is one of those puffed leaders who was awarded gold medal by the Pop of Ethiopian Orthodox some years ago. .

The Role of Regional Political Leaders in such Contentious Issues 

From nature of the tension the political leaders in region should proactively act on matter without favoring the church just because they are members.  Of course, top political leader including the Regional Governor were once baptized in the hand of the Pop. If Orthodox Church breaches the law under the noses of the political leaders, completely it does not make sense, and it is the business of the Mr. Governor to neutralize intervention in such controversial issue in the region. The objection from the majority non-Orthodox carries lot more signals which would erode the peace co-existence of citizens. They should critically think of any political solution that could transform the conflict in mutual understanding. So far as I know, no segment from the local community turned out to oppose the freedom of worship of other Ethiopians coming from elsewhere within the country. No resistance was voiced since it was utilized for common usage. As per the site plan, such historic area symbolizes common and the leaders would thoroughly investigate whose interest is best served in this regards. From any perspective, no religion institution would have claimed such heritable scenery, where from that particular landscape one can view and/or control the whole town of Gambella. The local communities persistently keep suggesting the stoppage of the construction of the church on the Mountain. This Mountain is everything for the locals and some settlers like those Orthodox Church followers may not understand the meanings the locals attach to Jejebe Mountain.

North-South Relation in term of Religion Affiliation

Gambella region is inhibited by unique communities whose scant of their portion attached Orthodox Church denomination. In fact, all religions are imported from outside and no one is assembled in Gambella. In the early time, the Imperial government takes the credit of hand carry the Orthodox religion to Gambella and the same is true for the American missionaries to preach gospel to local communities in Gambella in 1960s. Emergency of Orthodox Church in Gambella dated back to 1900s. Throughout the time, it replicated meagerly to Anywaa Township like Itang, Abobo and Gog. In 1970s when the derg regime uprooted the settlers from north and highland part of Ethiopia Orthodox Church was massively intensified throughout different places selected for resettlement. With all the intrusion of large number of settlers to Gambella, the local people still used to stick either to their traditional beliefs or converted to protestant wing of Christianity. Sizable numbers of local population are members of the Church. The speed of trust that pulled the locals into protestant wing of Christianity might have been shaped by the form of relationship the local and highlanders represented in the region revolved over timeline.  This is the area that should be left open for debate as to what could be the paradox behind the number of Orthodox believers from local community stagnantly remains at lower lever for such long period of time. The dissimilarities in cultural aspects of the two communities could have caused the de-motivating factors for the locals to become renowned believers of Orthodox Church and/or the highlanders to easily preach the gospel inclusively. Of course, either of the two is what another is not or this seems to portrait the relationship among highlanders and the local even today. It is the speed of trust that could have changed everything in this regards. 

Not who is right and who is wrong?   

Resources including power could be potential source of conflict. Thus, from the five stages of conflict management, this tension seems to have reached the fourth stage which is conflict resolution. The negations in the conflict should be transformed into developmental aspects of social responsibility whose center is national interest of the all citizens. It’s imperative, however, to revisit the request from Orthodox Church and be relocated elsewhere as the land for construction is ample in Gambella town. The site plan which is binding guidance as per the town master plan and it should be respected and those violating it need to be held accountable. Some sources confided that there was a sort of oral instruction or reprimand from the Mr. President’s office to zip up the team in the Gambella municipality. The intention is to back up the Orthodox Church to go ahead with the construction. In black or white, no local people want to hurt the spirit of Orthodox followers, instead warning the Church which intended to silence the local community and non- Orthodox does not go anywhere. The regional government on its part should not remain silent until a problem erupts among the local and highlander. In this defining moment, all parties should mutually respect the regulatory measures which the line departments put in place to stop the construction. Anyone feels that it is souring to accept the decision passed by the municipality to stop construction, but in the interest of avoiding any serious conflict, it is time to appreciate what has happened as a challenge and move forward without saying who is right and who is wrong. Enough is enough!! No more suffering should be endured as a result of tension between Highlanders and locals like that of the December 13/ 2003. I am confident that if the problems erupt between the two communities again, the local, especially the Anywaa are the people who will suffer the most in the hand of state apparatus.

 The Fear of Unknown

Mountain Jejebe/ Gelet serves as heritage site for Gambella town. The town water supply comes all the way from the top of the Mountain where the reservoir is located. Any danger of contamination with the water system as a result of uncontrolled human intervention could cause tragedy to entire town human population. Secondly, from biodiversity point of view, it would make sense if the Mountain is left untouched to maintain the existing biodiversity on the mountain. Orthodox Church might be known for conserving the forest, but in the different situation like that of Gambella, it will not preserve the biodiversities. Third, if  the Church is built on the top of the mountain, it gives wrong message showing the dominance of Orthodox Church in Gambella region. It may be true in other parts of the Ethiopia, but not the case in Gambella. Orthodoxy is no-man religion for Gambella local population, and it looks like imposing the religion to be dominant religion in the region. Fourth, from mountain whose height is about 1000 meter above the sea level, an institution built on it can control the entire Gambella scenery. It would be appropriate for the local government to have a camp over there than a religious organization which has nothing to do with protection/security of citizens. Ethnicity and religion are the two eclectic issues that easily pull things apart. Therefore, the Gambella Orthodox Church should refrained itself from passing such decisions since the construction of the Church stir the violence. I would comment that any party has nothing to lose if the Church is not constructed on the Mountain than any skirmish that will result from the pulling and pushing of the parties. The Church can secure any site as per the Gambella town master plan.           


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