Ethiopia — January 2010

Sociopolitical Situation

National elections are scheduled for 23 May–21 June. A Code of Conduct was developed concerning the mechanics of the electoral process; the government and most opposition parties signed it; one of the opposition coalitions refused on grounds that their complaints about government intimidation and harassment are not being addressed. Many observers expect the well organized and resourced incumbent administration to sweep the polls.

Erratic rainfall threatens to bring about significant food shortages. Though the country’s traditional breadbasket regions—Gojjam and Arsi—seem secure, other lowland communities are in danger of great hardship. An estimated six million people are in need of emergency food and it is not certain that this demand can be fully met by purchase or donations.

The government’s steps to control rampaging inflation seem to have been effective. The international financial crisis has hurt both exports and remittances; thus hard currency reserves, already depleted by last year’s run-up in fuel prices, remains in short supply. The frequent electricity blackouts that dogged urban areas have ended and several massive hydroelectric construction projects are poised to make the country an exporter of surplus power. Impressive road building and housing projects continue throughout the country.

The oversight agency mandated by the Charities and Societies Organizations Act, passed by parliament in December 2008, is now staffed and functioning. All organizations covered by this controversial legislation should now be registered, and most report that the process went smoothly. As religions qua religions have no legal existence in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat’s Social and Development Commission has used its legal status as a recognized development agency to provide status to many church-related organizations working throughout the country. Hopefully this will not be challenged.

Throughout the Horn of Africa poverty and conflict remain entrenched. With no one country positioned to craft a stable status quo, conflicts simmer without resolution and poverty festers. Still, Ethiopia continues to post impressive growth and to make significant gains in education and health sectors. War would threaten these advances so Ethiopia devotes considerable efforts to strengthening its diplomatic representation within the U.N. and the Africa Union. Ethiopian troops have ostensibly withdrawn from its chaotic Somali neighbor, though the government prudently keeps a watchful eye on the advances of Islamic fundamentalist forces there. A state of “no war/no peace” persists with Eritrea, necessitating a costly military presence on that border. A secessionist movement in Ethiopia’s own Somali populated Ogaden region also requires a significant military presence.

Religious Situation

Great turmoil roiled the Ethiopian Orthodox Church throughout much of the year. Serious disagreements flared up between the patriarch and the synod. These were widely reported in the media. The patriarch was accused of a counter-productive intransigence vis-à-vis the schismatic church in North America, of nepotism, poor management and overstepping his authority by attempting to remove some bishops while unilaterally planning to create more eparchies and appoint new bishops. At one point, he was reported as relieved of any administrative role, with these responsibilities being assumed by a committee of the synod. At the request of several hierarchs, though with the greatest reluctance, the emphatically secular government was forced to intervene; it demanded that some reconciliation take place and that all involved stop leaking stories to the media. A quiet truce seems in effect, with neither the patriarch nor the synod having achieved their initial goals.

Holy Trinity Theological College has had to rethink its campus building project. The original plan was to construct two buildings, with one serving a revenue generation role and a second building providing much-needed academic facilities (classrooms, meeting rooms, faculty office space). However, upon completion of the first structure, financial constraints have required that this facility be rented out to pay the mortgage and other expenses. The college continues to endure inadequate facilities for staff and students, unless donors can be found.

The patriarch and synod continue to promote an expansion of the Clergy Training Centers to upgrade the religious and secular training of the rural parish clergy. This is badly-needed in view of the expansion of education to the general population who now want priests who are more aware of the modern world.

The Orthodox Church’s Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission appointed a new Commissioner, Ato Aregew Tiruneh. He has established a working group to study the situation of Orthodox monasteries. Although an essential element of the church here, the monasteries have faced great challenges since the former Communist government stripped them of their economic base and deprived them of their traditional community role. On the positive side, the Orthodox Church continues to place a new emphasis on its outreach to youth, including a robust Sunday school program in each parish and new roles for youth groups.

The Ethiopian Catholic Church continues to reflect upon its disappointing demographics, as reported in the most recent national census released last year. Two apostolic prefectures were raised to apostolic vicariates and bishops appointed: Lazarist Abba Marcos Ghebremedhin to Jimma-Bonga and Salesian Abba Angelo Moreschi to Gambella.

St. Ephraim’s Major Seminary moved from its quarters within the Catholic Cathedral Compound in the old city center and merged with the Meki Catholic Seminary. Now located in a more suburban environment of Addis Ababa and closer to the St. Francis Capuchin Institute of Philosophy & Theology, the new residence is much larger with better facilities. It houses approximately 24 seminarians, who come from the Archeparchy of Addis Ababa, the Eparchy of Emdibir and the Vicariates of Harar and of Meki. St. Ephraim’s continues under the administration of the Vincentians. The residential seminaries of Nekemte, Soddo-Hosanna and Awassa are now nearby and it is hoped that this proximity will foster comity among seminarians from different rites and regions.

The Ethiopian Catholic University of St. Thomas Aquinas moved from its rented quarters at the Capuchin Institute and into the space at the Catholic Cathedral Compound vacated by St. Ephraim’s. This central location now houses approximately 20 students enrolled in a diploma-granting “Institute” that offers technical courses. The future of the university is still evolving.

The Catholic Bishops have appointed a three-person committee to explore the establishment of a charities endowment fund that seeks to put the Catholic Church in Ethiopia on a more financially secure and sustainable basis. Resources (such as land and/or facilities) that might be better exploited for revenue generation are being investigated.

A recent church initiative is the offering of a four-year diploma program in theology for the laity evenings. With ten courses, all offered in Amharic (rather than usual reliance on English), and with a very modest tuition, this program already has over 50 very diverse students who attend classes four evenings a week for almost two hours each night; seven local Catholic priests and one lay person teach the courses. The course’s popularity has been a surprise and further growth is anticipated. The possibility of offering it in regional centers is being discussed. This outreach effort has been implemented through the Addis Ababa Catholic Secretariat’s Pastoral Department, with assistance from the rector of the Capuchin Institute.

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