What message is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church sending out to the indigenous peoples of Gambella?

By Ojullu Ojullu
Nairobi, Kenya
September 10, 2010
Posted to the web on September 10, 2010

Let me begin by acknowledging Tsegaye Hailemariam’s article on the same issue posted on Anyuak media on 31 August 2010. I fully endorse his position and would like to thank him for his well articulated article with compelling arguments as to why the Ethiopian Orthodox Church should reconsider its position for the sake of peace, harmony and unity among all the people of Gambella.

The ongoing construction of Orthodox Church on top of the mountain which is illegal and controversial                                   Image full size ==>>

In this article, without repeating what has already been voiced, I would like to present the palpable message that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is conveying to the indigenous peoples of Gambella through the construction of a Church on Jejebe Mountain, the embodiment of Gambella identity and symbol of its uniqueness. This is not to romanticize the cultural significance of the mountain or its symbolism to the indigenous peoples of Gambella. Of course, apart from their historical value and architectural uniqueness, the historic rock-hewn churches in Lalibela or the obelisks in Axum are not only curved rocks for the people of Lalibela or Axum; they carry a profound meaning for the local people. The Odaa tree is not just a tree for the Oromo people; its meaning goes beyond a mere tree. So does the Jejebe Mountain for the people of Gambella. Indeed, the Jejebe Mountain does not carry a divine meaning or seen as Holy Mountain by the native peoples, but its historic symbolism is truly undeniable to the native peoples of Gambella and all those who grew up in Gambella. We would love to have it as it is without an alien Church on top.

Then what message does the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is sending out to the indigenous peoples of Gambella by erecting a seventh church on top of this mountain? To answer this question, one has to place the issue into the broader context. For someone familiar with the political landscape of Gambella, the construction of a seventh Ethiopian Orthodox Church on top of Jejebe Mountain (whether the Church does it wittingly or unwittingly) does not come as a surprise, but only a commencement of a new phase of the bigger project of ethnic cleansing.

It has not been a decade yet when the Ethiopian government committed genocide against the people of Gambella. As a result, thousands of the indigenous peoples left the country in search of refuge to neighboring countries Sudan and Kenya. Due to the horrors they have seen and the traumatization plus the absence of justice that could have at least concealed the perpetrators from the streets, many of these people until today decided to remain as refugees in foreign lands. On top of that, since then the government has been engaged in systematic extinction of any credible leadership of the indigenous peoples. The complete absence of any opposition voice in the region in the 2005 national election and subsequently the recent 2010 election is a proof of absolute control and repression of the indigenous people by the government. This is the first phase of ethnic cleansing in Gambella; the physical genocide, tangible annihilation of a group by killing its members directly or systematically.

Secondly, as it is well documented by the international human rights organizations, one of the impetuses behind the ethnic cleansing was to clear the fertile land from the indigenous peoples of Gambella. Recently, we have witnessed an influx of both domestic and foreign large scale agricultural companies into Gambella grabbing land and displacing a considerable number of the indigenous peoples of Gambella. Of course this is a countrywide trend but its long term implications in places like Gambella could amount to systematic genocide. The demographic change that will be brought about by these farms will not only exacerbate the powerlessness of the indigenous peoples at the national level, but will also relegate them into powerless position within their own backyards. This is the second phase of ethnic cleansing in Gambella; economic genocide, elimination of an ethnic group livelihood and entire economic base.

Against this background, the erection of an Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the top of symbolic mountain of Gambella could represent a kick-off of the third phase of ethnic cleansing in Gambella namely, the cultural genocide, abolition of a group’s wider institutions, cultural practices… and confiscation of their traditional objects and symbols. If the Ethiopian Orthodox Church goes ahead with its construction, in addition to claiming monopoly of the communal mountain in the short term, in the medium term it will have the right to charge admission fees from the indigenous people who might want to climb the mountain that originally belongs to them, and in the long term, the name JEJEBE MOUNTAIN will gradually erode and replaced by ABUNE AREGAY MOUNTAIN, may God of justice forbids it!!!

Some might think that I am confusing politics with religion as already suggested in the comment of Dechasa Debele posted on Anyuak media on 26 August 2010. But for those of us with a bit grasp of the Ethiopian political history in particular and world history in general, the wedding of religion and politics is not a new phenomenon. Historically, the traditional world religious institutions (such as Judaism, Catholicism and Islam, just to mention few) have carried at least three faces namely, the religious face, the political face and the cultural face. Judaism for the Jews and Islam for the Arab world in general, are not only religions but also political and cultural institutions. This is also true with the historical role of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church within the political history of Ethiopia. As a matter of fact, when the expansionist emperors of Ethiopia subjugated new territories and peoples to secure the contemporary Ethiopia, the Orthodox Church played both the political role (providing ideological justification for the emperors and symbolism of conquest) and religious role (spreading Christianity). Although we are now in an era where at least on papers, the separation of the state and religion is constitutionally entrenched, the triple faces of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are far from waning. 

So if one could ask which face is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is trying to divulge by constructing a seventh church on the symbolic mountain of Gambella, truly the answer could not be the religious face. Has it been only for religious intentions, i.e. place of worship for the members, the Church already has more than enough places in the town and it could have secured more easily accessible places than top of a mountain. By whatever criteria, the selection of such a symbolic site is a political one motivated by the Church’s aspiration to deconstruct what it perceives as pagan cultural identity and construct new religious identity on the indigenous peoples of Gambella. Simultaneously, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church wants to compensate its lack of membership among the indigenous peoples by erecting a church on this symbolic mountain so at least it could politically claim a de facto state religion position in the regional state of Gambella. Unfortunately, we are in the 21st century and religious imperialism is a dinosaur ideology.

In a nutshell, whether the Ethiopian Orthodox Church does is deliberately or indeliberately, the illegal and aggressive construction of this church on Jejebe Mountain is conveying a very painful message to the indigenous peoples of Gambella and all justice loving human beings around the world. If the motivation behind the construction of this church on the communal mountain is purely religious, then the Church should reconsider its position given the sensitivity of the matter. But if the Church goes on with the construction, then the motivation is clearly a political one to dismantle the symbols and cultures of the indigenous peoples of Gambella and replace them with highland symbols and cultures. This will be very unfortunate that a Church which should have been preaching justice, is on the contrary not only condoning as it has been doing but also actively taking part in ethnic cleansing project by spearheading the ‘cultural genocide’ component of the project. But sooner or later justice will be served in Ethiopia in general and Gambella in particular.







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