A can of worms opened by the BBC: What is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s official language?

Friday November 18th 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem

In a news article released a couple of days ago, the BBC made somewhat of a gaffe when it referred to the Amharic language, spoken by over 20 million Ethiopian native speakers, according to the country’s 2007 national consensus, as being the “official” language of (Ethiopia’s) Orthodox Church. The statements have proven controversial, and have sparked a debate with some Ethiopians taking issue with what they felt was a lazily researched description of the Amharic language. The discussion principally revolves around the workings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) institution and its churches. Others have pointed out the church’s infamous inability to serve Ethiopians in a language that isn’t Amharic as making the case for BBC’s statement not straying far from the truth a strong one.

But what is actually true and what does the debate highlight about Ethiopians and about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in general? If anything, the history of the church should reveal that despite what can be at times described as a truly oppressive bureaucracy and the near constant presence of tyrannical personalities, there is grounds for making some maneuvering room and for changing some of the church’s practices to make things much more inclusive and that in regards to the customs and protocol of the church, nothing currently set in stone can be traced to the establishment of the church, hence the room for reform.

Let’s rewind and take a look at what brought about this untimely discussion. Like most of the discussion forums on the country, it was generated online. Ethiopian social media users, specifically those who follow the country’s often contentious social discussions and political issues, will be familiar with the online petition popularized by the hashtag #BBCAfaanOromo.

A little over a year ago, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced its intentions to broaden its horizons and broadcast in more languages to reach an even larger demographic than the one it reaches with their BBC World Service newscasts in over thirty languages. It was clear that they intended to reach Ethiopians and Eritreans, and so it was assumed that the BBC would prioritize Amharic and Tigrigna language broadcasts to the region. Without the BBC’s clarifying its intentions, it was feared that like what has happened in the past, the native Afaan Oromo speaking population of Ethiopia (and Egypt according to the BBC’s article!) would have to settle for subscribing to Amharic language broadcasts. Such is the case with other international radio broadcasters, such as Germany’s Deutsche Welle.

The BBC didn’t specify the languages it planned on including in its extension program. Nevertheless an online petition calling on the BBC to include Afaan Oromo speakers among its new target audiences emerged and circulated Ethiopia’s social media spheres. It ended up collecting the signatures of nearly forty thousand people from Ethiopia and all across the world calling for the BBC to start short range radio programs in Afaan Oromo. In November of 2015, a couple of months after the petition was started, the BBC announced that it had secured funding to go forth with the planned expansion of their services into Africa. BBC journalist Hewete Haileselassie, herself of Ethiopian origin tweeted that “there are concrete plans” for services in Amharic, Afaan Oromo and Tigrigna.

This banner with a message written in four languages (Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Tigrigna and English) calling on people to sign the petition, was widely circulated on Facebook and Twitter

A rare feel good moment, it was seen as a victory and was feted among most Ethiopians. It was confirmation that members of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia could look forward to hearing BBC news reports on the radio in their native tongue. The BBC’s making it clear that the news of the petition’s popularity had reached them gave the general public the perception that the petition may have perhaps played a role in further convincing the BBC production team of the importance of the language’s inclusion. It was considered as a great coup among most Ethiopians. The jury is still out over whether the BBC can produce newsworthy content fit for its targeted demographic. But that is another topic altogether.

A screenshot of the BBC article before its recent edits


So in their article released yesterday, which was subsequently edited titled “BBC World Service announces biggest expansion “since the 1940s”,” the BBC reiterated its intentions to launch eleven new language services, including services in the three Ethiopian languages mentioned. To give their readers an in depth look at the languages they planned on adding to the BBC program, they were listed one by one and given a brief description. The Amharic language description is as follows, “Ethiopia’s other main tongue and the official language of its government and Orthodox Church.”

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a fascinating history entrenched in unique customs and colourful celebrations and traditions that has people from all four corners of the world travelling to partake in the centuries old festivities. Its ancient history combined with Ethiopia’s prevalence in the history of Christianity as a whole means that Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity remains and will remain a revered part of day to day life for its adherents, which were around fifty million according to the church in 2006. The widespread legend of “Prester John,” a ruler of a long lost Christian kingdom had long peaked the curiosity of Europe’s superpowers throughout the Middle Ages, to the point that Portuguese explorers parted on an expedition to modern day Ethiopia to seek out this Christian empire in the 16th century AD. The repeated mentions of “Ethiopia/Cush” in the Bible (believed by some scholars to be referring to parts of modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea), forever seals the links between Ethiopia and the Christian faith as a whole.

Rock hewn churches built in Lalibela way back in the 12 century attract tourists from all over the globe and have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Image: World Travel)

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was for the near entirety of Ethiopia’s imperial era, a key shareholder in the Ethiopian state. The church’s patriarchs wielded significant influence over the country’s decision making process. Future kings and warlords alike seeking to gain legitimacy for their claims to power couldn’t do so without the blessing of the church and did their uttermost to gain the church’s endorsement. Always politically involved, church leaders would have personally anoint the country’s leaders, who were portrayed as “divinely” appointed to lead what they perceived was the Christian empire of Ethiopia. The conquerors of Ethiopia’s age of war exploited the church’s influence to legitimize their conquests, no matter how barbaric the conquering process may have been, as well as consolidate their own power and discourage inner revolt. When Ethiopia was faced with the threat of foreign invasion, the church called for able bodied men to fight for their country. The role played by the church in times of war as well as the sacrifices made by clergymen during the 1935-1941 Italian occupation are well documented by Ethiopian historians.

With the end of the imperial era, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was no longer a member of the powerful ruling class and no longer enjoyed the influence it had throughout Ethiopian history. But it continued playing a key role in combating illiteracy, with priests and monks doubling as preschool teachers, teaching young pupils how to read and write before they would enroll for regular schooling.

Despite this, in recent times, the numbers of Ethiopians professing to be members of non Orthodox Christian dominions have swelled, while the numbers Orthodox Christian converts may have even dwindled. The Orthodox Church’s staunchly remaining true to some traditions means that many of its leaders haven’t been able to process the increasing changes in thinking and self awareness seen in a generation of young Ethiopians. The EOTC counts Ethiopians from different ethnic backgrounds and every region of the country as believers. Despite this, churches across the country for the most part do not offer sermons in languages other than Amharic. This is also the case with the hundreds of Ethiopian Orthodox Churches based in the diaspora around the world. The Holy Mass and liturgy processions are often conducted in Ethiopia’s ancient Ge’ez language, although they can be held alongside Amharic simultaneously. All in all, the Ethiopian Orthodox ruling hierarchy appears to be extremely hesitant, if not opposed to incorporating the usage of other Ethiopian languages in its religious ceremonies. This is not the case among Protestant Christian churches in the country which have shown a willingness to operate in any language.

Sunday Mass at the Bole Medhanealem Church in Addis Ababa (Image: AP)

One cannot deny that Amharic has long been the de facto official language of the EOTC. The refusal of the institution’s heads to camouflage their churches into the societies they are meant to serves means that in some areas, an Ethiopian Orthodox Church can maintain what can appear to be a somewhat foreign and/or alien presence on Ethiopian soil. There is no one to blame for this but the leadership itself which has been unable to adjust to the many geopolitical changes in the country that have occurred over the past fifty years or so. The EOTC’s influential heyday was during an era when Amharic was the single institutionally accepted working language throughout the country. Since 1991, this has no longer been the case. The EOTC leadership at home and abroad appears to be composed of holy fathers who are yet to get the memo.

So with these facts in mind, it cannot be a stretch to say that Amharic is the language of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church. However, as this isn’t confirmed in writing in any document pertaining to the Ethiopian Orthodox doctrine, it isn’t the case, officially at least. Hence the statement’s being factually incorrect. The BBC is mistaken in this sense. They have made up for their error with a simple edit of the article. Any calls for an apology would be completely unnecessary however. It could easily be an honest mistake. Just as the BBC mistakenly thought the EOTC’s official language was Amharic, many Ethiopians today if asked, may erroneously tell you that the country’s official language is Amharic. The working language of the government may be Amharic, but the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has no official language, according to Article 5 of the Ethiopian Constitution which reads that “all Ethiopian languages shall enjoy equal state recognition.” However, the prevalence of Amharic speaking Ethiopians in every region, crook and nanny in the country could give you the notion that this is due to the country’s official language being Amharic. You would be wrong, but you could hardly be blamed what would be an earnest mistake.

This being said, the EOTC’s current predicament is said to be due to a narrow doctrine with no avenues for discussion. This reality has precipitated the departures of many from the Orthodox Christian faith, typically those who don’t speak Amharic as a first language. The truth however is that there is nothing in Orthodox Christian dogma that solidifies the religion’s status as a tool of oppression used to maintain the hegemony of certain groups and languages over others.

The EOTC is the only African church that predates the colonial scramble for Africa. Its origins are debatable, but most will place the emergence of Christianity in Ethiopia somewhere between the first and second century AD. This means that Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia clearly predates the idea of Amharic language supremacy which was fostered centuries, nearly millenniums later by the conquering emperors of the country’s imperial era. It also predates modern day Ethiopia, as well as the emblems and colours defined to be belonging to the Ethiopian nation. 16th century Belgian cartographer Abraham Ortelius drew depictions of people he described as Ethiopians wearing green yellow and red clothing, documenting evidence that Ethiopia’s national colours may have been around for at least five hundred years if not more. But the EOTC predates those colours by at least a millennium.

john evangelist habesha.jpg
Illustration of John the Baptist in an Ethiopian Orthodox Gospel script dating back to the 16th century (Image: Wikimedia)

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church existed before modern day Ethiopia, before the Ethiopian flag, before the idea of cultural supremacy across the Horn of Africa, before the idea of one entity conquering others and stamping its authority over the rest. This shows us that with the constant changes that have given the region total facelifts over the past millennium, the EOTC has willingly adapted to the political, economical and ideological changes that have gone on all around it. Today’s Ethiopian churches are known for their themes of nationalism, with the green yellow and red colours adorning places of worship in the country and around the world. This was something adopted by Ethiopian Orthodox patriarchs long after the establishment of the church in the country. The de facto working language of the church being Amharic was also something that was brought on much later, as the ancient Ge’ez language would later face extinction and would no longer be the most widely spoken language of the Ethiopian empire’s predecessor, the Kingdom of Axum.

Indeed the EOTC has gone through numerous changes throughout the Middle Ages to serve the forever changing demographics of the region. The EOTC predates a lot of the cultural uniquities that Ethiopians have endeared themselves to.

The gates at the entry of the Lideta Maryam Church in Addis Ababa are painted in Ethiopian colours (Image: Solomon Kibriye)

The history of the church proves that it has been a shape shifting institution adapting to the needs of the Ethiopian state, especially over the past five centuries or so. Since this is the case, there is nothing in the Ethiopian Orthodox doctrine that would suggest that further adapting to the most current needs of the Ethiopian state, the multicultural multi-ethnic mosaic it has become since the late 19th century, is ideologically wrong. There is nothing protocol wise that is standing between the church and the integration of Orthodox Christian services in the Afaan Oromo, Sidama, Gurage or Agew languages, for instance.

The only roadblock that appears to be halting the EOTC’s opening of doors to a large sector of the Ethiopian public at large appears to be in the shape of the papal authorities. They have proven to be prone to resisting innovation despite the high likelihood of a positive outcome by the EOTC’s modifying of some of its methods. For the most part, Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church fathers based at home and abroad, are religious men instructed with politically right wing overtones. Ethiopia’s political right can be sometimes described as stubborn and unwilling to compromise on age old virtues despite their serving to divide rather than unite. The EOTC has proven extremely slow in this regard, when compared to other Ethiopian Christian institutions. In a country where civil rights movements demanding equal language rights have garnered enough momentum to spark a revolution, the EOTC administration is out of place and needs fresh ideas, fresh thinking and perhaps even fresh minds. Because while the Ethiopian Orthodox church has willingly changed for the sake of the Ethiopian people and nation, today’s Ethiopian Orthodox fathers appear to be unwilling to go the lengths despite the pleas of their compatriots.

The headquarters of the EOTC in Addis Ababa. It’s lack of reform may have also closed its gates to potential converts

Amharic isn’t the official language of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church. The BBC got it wrong on that one. They appear to have conceded that argument too, as they have since removed the mention from the article.

But isn’t it somewhat mesmerizing that the BBC is much more flexible and open to serving the various peoples of Ethiopia than the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church?

This is much more than just a gaffe, says this Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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