Monday, June 25, 2018

Ethiopia-Eritrea: Reforms and Resistance

by Elizabeth Kendal

On Saturday 23 June, a man reportedly dressed in police uniform attempted to throw a grenade towards the speaker’s platform during a pro-government rally in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Eyewitnesses report that rally attendees grabbed the would-be assassin, and the grenade exploded in his hand. At the time of writing, two are confirmed dead and around 156 wounded, of whom at least six are critical. The rally in Meskel Square was a show of support for Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali (41), and for his radical reform agenda.

Pro-government rally, Meskel Square, Addis Ababa, 23 June 2018

Elected in late March by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) four-party coalition, and sworn into office on 2 April, Dr Abiy has hit the ground running. But as the grenade attack indicates, not everyone is pleased.

See: Grenade attack caused blast at rally for PM Abiy Ahmed
Al Jazeera English (VIDEO) 23 June 2018

Ethiopia’s New Prime Minister: Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali

On 15 February, after years of escalating civil unrest and political paralysis, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation.

Defense and Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy (D&FA, the magazine of the International Strategic Studies Association), Issue 3/2018, assessed the leadership change as having profound and global significance.

Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali 
“Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF on March 27, 2018, finally, and with much difficulty, voted for what could be a meaningful change in governmental leadership, but that does not mean incoming Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali, 41, will immediately have his hands on all the levers of power. Security and defense controls seem to remain in the hands of the Tigrean minority which has controlled the EPRDF since 1991. Prime Minister Abiy’s maiden speech galvanized the country.”

English transcript of PM Abiy's maiden speech,
courtesy (Oromo Pride is an independent news agency)

In D&FA’s estimation, “The election of Dr Abiy may come to be seen as the most significant strategic shift in the Horn of Africa/Red Sea strategic zone since the coup against Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974 . . .”

The pro-Soviet Dergue (military junta) that seized power in 1974 systematically dismantled Ethiopian national identity in line with Marxist ideology. And as D&FA explains, it is a wound from which Ethiopia has never recovered, causing Ethiopia to remain internally focused and fractured.

However, D&FA believes that, “Dr Abiy has the potential to reassert Ethiopian unity, in part because he is an Oromo leader” and the Oromo – the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia – has long been the most restive and opposed to the Tigrean control of government.

D&FA makes it clear that the EPRDF coalition did not elect Dr Abiy because he is weak and pliable. To the contrary, when it comes to leadership, Dr Abiy is a rising star. He is a former soldier, having served as a colonel in intelligence and communications. He is also a technocrat and cyber warfare expert. He has a PhD (2017) in conflict resolution . . . and more. D&FA describes his career as “intense”, noting that Dr Abiy, despite his youth, has already served as Minister of Science and Technology (2016-2017), Director of the Federal Science and Technology Information Centre (2013-2016), and Director of the Federal Information Network Security Agency (2007-2010).

D&FA continues, “Dr Abiy, for all that his name reveals his Muslim birth, is a Protestant Christian, having – like many Muslims now associating with the ruling elite in Ethiopia – converted from Islam to Protestant Christianity. So it is interesting that, for all that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was seen as often subordinating itself to the Government since, essentially, 1974, the EPRDF leadership has itself associated more with Protestantism.”

Dr Abiy was born in 1976 in the restive, Muslim-majority Jimma region of south-western Ethiopia.  The youngest of 13 children, his father was a polygamous Muslim and his mother (the fourth wife) a Christian. Deutsche Welle (DW) notes that when violent unrest erupted between the region’s Muslim and Christian communities, Abiy “actively engaged in a peace forum for reconciliation”. OPride adds: “Abiy completed his Ph.D. at the Institute of Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University with his doctoral thesis entitled ‘Social Capital and its Role in Traditional Conflict Resolution in Ethiopia: The Case of Inter-Religious Conflict in Jimma Zone.’ His dissertation was built around the work he had done in a government led mission to resolve conflicts between Christian and Muslim communities in his hometown of Beshasha.”

Dr Abiy is married with three daughters.

For a more detailed profile see: 10 quick facts about Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed,

Radical Reforms

Prime Minister Abiy’s reforms are causing alarm among those invested in the status quo; consequently, resistance is to be expected.

In power for less than three months, PM Abiy has already removed Ethiopia’s intelligence and military chiefs along with the national security advisor and several other older government officials. “These people have been in the system for far too long and are by and large blamed by the public for the problems,” said Awol Allo, an Ethiopian commentator who teaches law in Britain. “My worry is that he’s moving too fast in a country without the institutional safeguards to implement these policies.”

PM Abiy has also made moves to liberalise the economy, privatizing key state-run industries – among them Ethiopian Airlines and Ethio Telecom – industries in which many EPRDF elites are believed to be entrenched. Such big reforms carry big risks.

Further to this, he has lifted the state of emergency and released thousands of political prisoners.

Peace with Eritrea

One of PM Abiy’s most controversial moves – and the one that would be of the most interest to religious liberty observers and analysts – is his move to make peace with Eritrea.

click on map to enlarge
Between 1998 and 2000, an estimated 80,000 soldiers died fighting over the Ethiopian-Eritrea border. The conflict ended in December 2000 after a peace accord known as the Algiers Agreement was signed by both parties. In 2002 the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) issued its final and binding ruling on the border. The EEBC awarded “Badme” – a town with a population of a little over 1500 – “and its environs” to Eritrea, and ordered Ethiopia to end its occupation, dismantle its illegal settlements and withdraw its troops to Ethiopian territory. Ethiopia rejected the ruling and continued its occupation of the disputed territory. Ever since then, the two states have existed in a state of “no war, no peace”.

On Tuesday 5 June 2018, Stratfor Global Intelligence reported: “After years of bad blood, Ethiopia is taking steps to mend fences and reach an agreement on its shared border with Eritrea. On June 5, Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, opted to accept an agreement that would give Badme, a town on the border, to Eritrea. If Ethiopia follows through, the move could help settle some of the differences between the two archrivals on the Horn of Africa.”

Video reports:
Disputed border to of Badme to be recognised as Eritrean territory
CGTN Africa, 6 Jun 2018

Ethiopia accepts peace deal with longtime rival Eritrea
France 24, 6 June 2018

In announcing the move to pursue peace, PM Abiy explained: “All that we have achieved from the situation of the last 20 years is tension. Neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea benefit from a stalemate. We need to expend all our efforts towards peace and reconciliation and extricate ourselves from petty conflicts and divisions and focus on eliminating poverty.”

PM Abiy rejected the characterisation of relations between the two countries as a “no war no peace” situation, arguing that the psychological burden and the endless antagonism means that the two states are in reality, still in a state of war. “Every Ethiopian should realise,” he said, “that it is expected of us to be a responsible government that ensures stability in our region, one that takes the initiative to connect the brotherly peoples of both countries and expands trains, buses, and economic ties between Asmara [the Eritrean capital] and Addis Ababa.”

But as Ludger Schadomsky, the head of DW’s Amharic Service, observes, Abiy’s reforms have not been welcomed in all corridors of power. In particular, “he has alienated powerful people in the security and military establishment who view his recent peace initiative vis-a-vis Eritrea with great scepticism”.
political map
click on map to enlarge

Indeed, PM Abiy’s peace overture is eliciting strong resistance from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party which forms part of the ruling EPRDF four-party coalition, and which has dominated government for decades. The move is also opposed by Ethiopian veterans of the war and other Tigrayan settlers living in Badme as well as ethnic Tigrayans living in Tigray province, along the Eritrean border.

It goes without saying though, that peace with Eritrea would radically transform the security situation in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, the implications of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea are absolutely enormous. And as Al-Jazeera notes, the ball is now in Eritrea’s court. 

Eritrea and its President, Isaias Afwerki

Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive states and its president, Isaias Afwerki, is one of the world’s cruellest dictators. Eritrea is also one of the world’s most severe persecutors of Christians, in particular Protestant Christians, thousands of whom have suffered appalling abuse and inhumane mistreatment, including torture, in Eritrea’s prisons and desert camps. The state generates thousands of refugees per month, many of whom are Christian [RLPB 235 (6 Nov 2013)].

All secondary school students must complete their compulsory military service in order to graduate. Yet while in military service, these teenagers are abused and mistreated, their Bibles are confiscated, and unrepentant believers (in particular Protestants) are beaten and tortured.

Of those who have fled, thousands have become stranded in camps in Sudan or Libya, while others have fallen prey to human traffickers who sell them to terrorists who then hold them in bunkers in the Sinai desert where they are tortured for ransom [RLPB 205 (10 April 2013)].

Survivor: Eritrean Christian refugee, Philemon, tortured in the Sinai desert.
"God brought me out of the deepest darkness . . ."
Philemon's story
For more details on persecution of Christians see:
Religious Liberty Monitoring: Eritrea 
World Watch Monitoring: Eritrea
Morning Star News: Eritrea
Submission to CCPR by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) April 2018

Critically, Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki legitimises his repression and the cruelty on the pretext that the war with Ethiopia never really ended, and as such, Eritrea must remain on a permanent war footing and in a permanent state of emergency.

Unsurprisingly, Afwerki – who has been Eritrea’s president since independence (1993) – is not rushing to embrace PM Abiy’s peace overture.

Marcos Hailemariam (not his real name), an Eritrean refugee living in Addis Ababa told The Ethiopian Herald that he suspects the Eritrean regime will either ignore Abiy’s overture or find an excuse to discount it.“First of all,” he said, “the no war no peace situation is one of the pretexts the regime uses to extend its life span as a dictatorial regime. If the tension between the nations is solved the people would raise various questions against the dictatorial regime.”

The analysts at the ERI platform agree, suggesting that PM Abiy’s move could “pull the rug from under Isaias’ feet”.

“Removing this state of no peace, no war denies him [Afwerki] the pretext of national security and puts Isaias in a dilemma – either way, it could be the beginning of the end of the unravelling of his dictatorship. The fact that he is unable or unwilling to respond in kind is likely a reflection of that concern. . .

“He [Afwerki] is probably afraid that either way would spell his undoing. He is facing a dilemma, because that could be the beginning of the end of his regime. With an end to the state of no war, no peace in sight, there would be no excuse for business as usual for the regime.”

See: The Missing Facts in the Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Debate
ERI Platform, 12 June 2018

It took Afwerki two weeks to respond to Abiy’s offer and to confirm that Eritrea will send officials to Addis Ababa to “gauge current developments directly and in depth”.

On Wednesday 20 June, Stratfor Global Intelligence reported: “Dynamics in East Africa have the potential to change dramatically in the near future. After weeks of silence, Eritrea’s reclusive president, Isaias Afwerki, finally weighed in on June 5 reports that Ethiopia could give disputed territory to its longtime enemy. During Eritrea’s Martyrs Day, Afwerki stated that the recent events in Ethiopia warranted attention and that his country would send a delegation to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, to discuss potential cooperation.

“While seemingly insignificant on the surface, the move from Afwerki is likely borne of desperation. The president has justified his decades long grip on power by claiming that Ethiopia wanted to wipe his Red Sea country off the map. Indeed, Eritrea’s political and economic systems have largely revolved around the need to maintain a huge military apparatus that is capable of going toe-to-toe with Ethiopia. However, Afwerki slowly transformed that system into one that perpetuates his rule, and he has used illicit activities to buy support from military elites.

“Addis Ababa’s decision to flip the script has, at least temporarily, called into question the narrative that Ethiopia presents an existential threat. Because of this, Afwerki is compelled to at least appear willing to hear out the Ethiopians to appease his people and avoid potential protests. But luckily for Afwerki, there are also signs that hard-liners in Addis Ababa may be prepared to fight the reforms that new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is pushing. For example, the key party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front [TPLF], recently voiced its concern over the recent zeal for reform and said more deliberations were necessary. In the context of Ethiopia’s politics, this likely means the hard-liners are preparing to bite back to reassert control and ensure they continue to profit from the regional rivalry.” (emphasis mine)

Resistance Escalates 

PM Abiy (in blue jacket) visits
victims in hospital, 24 June.
(source: Fana)
Biting Back: PM Abiy’s radical reforms and the resistance they are eliciting, provide the context for the 23 June grenade attack in Meskel Square, Addis Ababa. Thirty people have since been arrested over the attack along with nine policemen accused of gross negligence.

The blast has sent shock-waves through the country. Mohammed Ademo, political commentator and founder of, told Al-Jazeera, “Abiy’s effort to move the country forward has angered those who for a very long time maintained a stronghold on the country’s politics and economy. They are trying to scare people and undermine the prime minister so they can send a signal that he is not capable of stabilizing the country. Many Ethiopians are shocked that people would go to such lengths to stop what they [many Ethiopians] see as a really positive move – the reforms they say this country really needs.”

Reasserting Control: Further to this, on 24 April, World Watch Monitor reported that, “Ethiopia’s northern Tigray State is considering adopting a new law that would restrict Christian activities to within official [Ethiopian Orthodox] church compounds. . .

“A similar law was recently ratified in neighbouring Amhara State which, together with Tigray, is home to most members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and local church leaders fear other states will copy the move.”

PM Abiy's radical reforms -- especially his peace overture with Eritrea -- are infuriating Tigrayans, (especially those in the TPLF) and threatening powerful people who profit from the status quo. In this context, it is highly likely that this move by the governing authorities in Tigray and Amhara regions is not religious policy so much as it is reactionary politics. It would be interesting to know what the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's position is on such an unconstitutional law (see Article 11), one that in some ways mimics Eritrean policy. It is a move the central government will surely challenge, hopefully before too many Ethiopian Protestants are negatively impacted.



Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Turkey: Christian Vulnerability Escalates Yet Again

The following post is essentially an extended version of:
 Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 460,
Turkey: Christian Vulnerability Escalates Yet Again, 20 June 2018


General Elections: Sunday 24 June

On Sunday 24 June, Turkish citizens at home and abroad will vote to elect both a president and a parliament. If none of the presidential candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, then the two leading contenders will face a second round of voting on 8 July. This will be the first general election since the April 2017 referendum in which Turks voted (51.3 percent in favour) to shift from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system [see RLPB 401 (5 April 2017)].  Originally slated for 3 November 2019, rumour has it that the polls were brought forward precisely so voting would take place before the looming economic crisis kicks in. According to economist David Goldman,
Turkey’s economic crisis has just begun, and ‘a 10%-20% overall economic contraction is quite possible. The political consequences of an economic disaster of that magnitude are hard to fathom.’

President Erdogan gestures support for
 the MHP's far-right ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves;
while Deputy PM Lufti Elvan gestures
support for Muslim Brotherhood. (source)
AKP-MHP alliance

Concerning the parliamentary elections: Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has entered an alliance with the Islamo-fascist, far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); together they expect to win a majority. Furthermore, Erdogan (now with MHP support) is confident he will win the presidential race in the first round. That said, a look at the opinion polls reveals a very tight race. Indeed, on 13 June, neither Erdogan nor the AKP-MHP coalition had a majority.

Losing power is not an option

Erdogan aspires to be a great Islamic leader, reminiscent of an Ottoman Sultan or a Caliph. For Erdogan and his supporters, losing power is unthinkable. It is already being mooted that if Erdogan wins the presidency but the AKP-MHP coalition fails to secure a majority in parliament, then he may simply demand fresh polls. 

One academic recently stated on air that if the AKP loses power, then Turks will ‘take to the streets in the name of Allah’, adding that he had a weapons cache buried in Istanbul’s Belgrad Forest, ready for such a time. Criticised for threatening civil war, the academic backed down, clarifying (supposedly) that the only thing he actually had buried in the forest was his ‘anger’ [over the July 2016 attempted coup  -- see RLPB 367 (20 July 2016)]. His back-flip however, has done nothing to ease people’s fears of unrest should the polls not consolidate Erdogan’s power.

Erdogan in Afrin

Afrin's Church of the Good Shepherd:
emptied, shuttered and tagged with graffiti
naming the jihadist groups that now claim it. (
For a glimpse of Erdogan’s ambition, one only needs to look at his actions in northern Syria. On 18 March, Afrin, in Aleppo Governorate, fell to Turkish forces. Since then, Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army allies have ethnically cleansed Afrin of over 200,000 Sunni Muslim Kurds, some 35,000 Yezidi Kurds and some 3,000 Christians (Kurds, Assyrians and Armenians). Hundreds of civilians were killed in what has been described as some of the worst fighting of the war [see RLPB 447 (20 March)].

Afrin has since been repopulated with Arab Syrians, including tens of thousands of jihadists and their families, many of whom were recently evacuated from Eastern Ghouta (the former al-Qaeda stronghold, east of Damascus). On 20 April, Al-Monitor commented that the areas of northern Syria under Turkish control ‘have become jihadi reserves’.  Afrin's  Church of the Good Shepherd has been looted, desecrated and occupied by jihadists. Sharia law is being enforced. [See on-the-ground report by Free Burma Ranges (13 June)].

Erdogan versus Kurz

On Friday 8 June 2018 the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (31) announced his government’s decision to close seven foreign-funded mosques. Six mosques belong to the Arab Religious Community and were said to be promoting hardline Salafi/Wahhabi Islam. The other mosque is a hardline Turkish nationalist mosque in the capital, Vienna, said to be linked to Turkey’s far-right, Islamo-fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), in particular to the MHP’s fascist youth wing, the Grey Wolves. The mosque is run by the Austrian Turkish-Islamic Union and funded by the Cologne-based Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations (ATIB), a branch of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). The move could result in some 60 ATIB imams being deported.

April 2018: Children dressed in military uniforms reenact the
Battle of Canakkale in a Turkish nationalist mosque in Vienna.
(image source)
The closures are the result of a government investigation into images that emerged in April of young boys at an ATIB mosque in Vienna wearing Turkish military uniforms, marching, saluting, playing dead and waving Turkish flags as they re-enacted the Battle of Çanakkale (known to the Allies as the Gallipoli Campaign, April 1915).

Rene Tebel reports:  “These nationalist war games, performed in a mosque, raised the discussion about a ‘Turkish religious nationalist parallel society’ rising inside the country.

“This was also interpreted by the population and parts of the political establishment as an expression of ‘disloyalty’ inside Austria’s Muslim communities.”

Defending his government's decision Kurz said, “There is no space in our country for parallel societies, political Islam and radical tendencies.”

Kurz meets Erdogan (note the body language)
Erdogan slammed the move as “anti-Islamic” and vowed to take action against the Austrian government. In a speech in Istanbul the very next day he declared that Chancellor Kurz’s “amateurish attitude” would cost him a lot, and ominously raised the specter of a war between “the cross and the crescent” for which Kurz would be responsible.

On Monday 11 June, Kurz – while on a visit to Israel – spoke to the Jerusalem Post. “It is nonsense,” Kurz said of Erdogan’s reaction. “We have religious freedom – which is important. But we want everyone in our country to respect our laws, and our laws on Islam say it is not acceptable to have influence abroad on the Muslim community in Austria, and it is not acceptable that Islamic organizations or imams are financed from abroad.”

Kurz continued: “President Erdogan will have to respect our laws,” adding that his threats will “not change our opinion and will not change our decisions.”

See also: Turkey: Glorification of Murder, Martyrdom and Child Soldiers
by Uzay Bulut , Gatestone Institute, 19 June 2018

And Youtube news clips:

Austria crackdown government to shutdown mosques
Al JAzeera English, 9 June 2018

Turkish President Erdogan’s reaction to Austria’s mosque and imam ban
TRT 12 June 2018

Concern for Turkey’s Christians

As noted in the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB), while Erdogan might dream of breaching the “Gates of Vienna” and leading a jihad or an anti-Christian Islamic intifada in Europe, the Christians most vulnerable to Islamo-Turkish retaliation are in reality those close at hand: i.e. Turkey’s own Christians.

In recent years government-sponsored anti-Christian and anti-ethnic-religious minority hate speech has escalated to extreme levels. It is not only pervasive in the media, but also in the school curriculum.

See: Turkey Turns On Its Christians
by Anne-Christine Hoff, Middle East Quarterly Summer 2018, 1 June 2018

Turkish Education: Jihad In, Evolution Out
by Burak Bekdil , Gatestone Institute, August 17, 2017 at 4:30 am

Turkish Textbooks and the Armenian Genocide
by Turkish historian and author Taner Akcam, published in the Armenian Weekly, 4 Dec 2014

Turkey is a tinderbox!

Its Christians are exceedingly vulnerable.

Unfinished business ever looms.

Consequently, we must remain vigilant; ever watchful and ever prayerful.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).