Ethiopian Orthodox Church Urges Action in Human Rights Crisis

Abune Mathias / Getty Images
May 10, 2021

The leader of the largest religious sect in Ethiopia denounced the genocide in Tigray and called for a more aggressive response from the international community.

In a video smuggled out of the war-torn region, Abune Mathias, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, condemned the Ethiopian regime for "the highest brutality and cruelty." The remarks from the high-profile religious leader come as the civil conflict enters its seventh month.

"I am not clear why they want to declare genocide on the people of Tigray," Mathias said, according to a translation from the Associated Press. "It is not the fault of the Tigray people. The whole world should know it."

In the face of criticism from activists, the Biden administration signaled that it is paying increased attention to the region as it recently announced the appointment of Jeffrey Feltman to the newly created position of special envoy for the Horn of Africa. "In terms of an immediate focus, without question, there has to be attention paid to Tigray," Feltman said. At the beginning of May, Feltman embarked on a 10-day trip to Africa to visit four countries, including Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The Biden administration's decision to deemphasize religious freedom abroad has raised concerns about its ability to respond to genocides of religious minorities. In March 2020, the Trump administration issued an executive order that directed federal agencies to take steps to "prioritize international religious freedom in the planning and implementation of United States foreign policy." A little more than a year later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he would "repudiate" the Trump administration's focus on religious freedom in favor of other issues, such as LGBT rights and access to abortion.

Several reports from the region of Tigray, located in northern Ethiopia, have relayed human rights abuses and mass refugee displacement. Footage recorded within the region show pro-government forces shelling and looting churches. Eyewitnesses also reported the massacre of hundreds of people who took refuge inside an Orthodox church. According to a 2007 census, Ethiopian Orthodox believers make up more than 40 percent of the country's population.

Eritrea acknowledged the presence of its troops in the country after months of denying it was involved in the conflict on behalf of Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed's regime. The country announced its intention to withdraw, but lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a bipartisan statement Monday criticizing Eritrea for not honoring its commitment to withdraw and urged the Biden administration to step up to punish Ethiopia's government.

"The appointment of special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, underscores our commitment to finding a solution to this conflict and working with our partners to address other important issues in the Horn," Reps. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) and Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.) said. "As he travels throughout the region to engage key stakeholders on these pressing matters, we urge the administration to urgently use all available tools, including sanctions and other restrictive measures, to hold all perpetrators accountable and bring an end to this conflict."