Updated: Aug 9
The abiding mystery of the oldest surviving
Along a pretty, fertile valley in Tigray that feels more like Jordan or southern Morocco, sits a little church hewn out of solid rock. From the outside Maryam Papaseit looks more like a stables set into the rock face that rises vertically more than 2000 ft. Inside it's glorious.
Inside are exquisite, naive paintings several hundred years old depicting scenes from the New Testament with an Ethiopian twist. Faces with almond eyes and lightly coloured skin leap out of the darkness under candlelight. You see the same faces today in the nearby hamlet. We make God in our image.
Why, I asked the old priest who looks after the church, is Ethiopia's Orthodox religion still going strong over 1600 years since it was brought here in the early 4th century possibly from Lebanon?
Ethiopia is one of the world’s most religious countries. Over 95% of the population claim a religious affiliation roughly divided between Orthodox Christian and Muslim. In some respects the Orthodox church is integral to the idea of Ethiopian-ness.
Our driver crosses himself three times when passing a church as the faithful do in rural Greece. It's one of the most impressive pieces of social and cultural penetration in history.
" People especially in the countryside look to us for comfort and protection" he says " It was very hard during the the time of the Derg, the communists. We represent continuity". He pauses before adding in a torrent of Tigrina, the local language which sounds uncannily like Arabic: "But there are new problems."
Indeed there are. Since 2018 over 30 churches have been attacked many burnt to the ground some with their deacons and priests still inside.
These horrific attacks have sent shockwaves through the country. They come as ethnic tensions are running high. Blood has been spilled. Oddly, or perhaps not, these tensions have spiked since the initially much-lauded reforms by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after he became Prime Minister in 2018.
Here in Tigray, in the north, he now seems widely discredited. During the first half of the same year, the number of Ethiopia's internally displaced refugees soared from 1.4m (more than Syria) to 2.4m after ethnic clashes. This doesn't feel like a coincidence. And it doesn't bode well for Dr Ahmed.
One of the abiding mysteries of Ethiopia's religious playing field so far has been the almost total absence of Islamic extremism. Travelling by road you see minarets with crescent finials in most small towns but the Muslim population appears to blend into the landscape. Virtually no burkas or long beards. The old priest didn't seem bothered. "
We have fought off the communists, we'll do the same". Perhaps. But Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are within spitting distance across the Gulf of Aden. On its southern border sits Somalia, breeding ground for Al Shabab the East African-based terrorist group.
I asked senior cleric in Gondar if he thought Saudi Arabia was pouring money into mosques and madrassas here which are radicalising the country large Muslim population. "Yes. But they do it very quietly. They do it for political influence."
Whatever they do it for and whatever the reasons for the attacks on churches the last thing this country needs or deserves is a war of religion.
Tigray Province, Ethiopia