Faith Conflict in Ethiopia

Christians and Muslims in
Ethiopia have

lived in
relative harmony for decades. But conflict with Somalia and the war

Iraq may be creating
tensions that result in violence, according

Slide cursor over map to enlarge.

Christians and Muslims have lived in harmony in Ethiopia, until now. Violence between the two broke out in the town of Jimma and the BBC reports some analysts believe the war in Iraq and conflict with Somalia are contributing to the disputes.

The call by Somalia for jihad against Ethiopia, adds a new form of conflict to longstanding disagreements between the two nations that make up a major part of the Horn of Africa. In the past, Somali insurgents seeking to overthrow the corrupt government of Said Barre operated from the frontier in eastern Ethiopia. But this was a secular conflict, not religious.

Beyond safe haven, the two governments also clashed over the use of the Ogaden rangelands for grazing cattle. Somali nomads did not respect borders written by European colonial powers and used the land as they had for centuries, sometimes crossing into territory inside Ethiopia. (For a look at how European colonizers messed up this region for 100 years look at this timeline by the BBC.)

During the Cold War Somalia was an ally of the Soviet Union but shifted allegiance in 1977 when Ethiopia signed friendship agreements with the Soviets and pushed back the Western Somali Liberation Front, a Somali government-supported militia seeking to claim the Ogaden for Somalia. Until this time, Ethiopia had been aligned with the U.S. but the human rights record of the military junta that overthrew the government of Haile Selassie caused the U.S. to pull back its support. The U.S. and the Soviets traded alliances, the Soviets supporting Ethiopia and the U.S. providing military assistance to Somalia.

Despite the violent history of the region, religious groups have lived together peacefully, if not totally free of tension.

The war has provided a focal point for militants to exploit, and the result is tension and outright violence between Christians and Muslims in places where they lived together peaceably for years. The recent call by Somali militants for jihad against Ethiopia is a case in point.

This is partially the result of the close identification of Christianity with the foreign policy of the United States. On the ground in Arab societies right wing evangelicals are viewed as representative of Christians in the U.S. and, by association, of Christians elsewhere. Michael Scheruer writing in Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, made this point months ago. To see it playing out in Ethiopia now is further confirmation that connecting Christianity with politics is not only bad theology, it’s inflammatory.

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