Theology of Crisis: Theological Response to the COVID-19 and Human Rights Violations in Oromia/Ethiopia – Part One

By Wake Jeo Gerbi, April 6, 2020

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians who gathered at Bole Medehanialem Church walk for the immediate smoking Covid-19 out of the patients in Addis Ababa, on 24 Mar 20. [Photo: Minasse Wondimu – Anadolu Agency]
1. Introduction

This article attempts to provide theological response to the COVID-19 and gross human rights violations in Oromia (Oromo’s country incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire in 1890s), with particular focus on exposing the Ethiopian Prosperity Party’s (hereafter EPP) approaches, actions, and processes of destroying Oromo cultural values, indigenous knowledge system, traditional religions, language,  identity, human and natural resources to ensure that the Oromo people will not be able to govern their affairs. The article provides theological responses to the Coronavirus and conceptualizes it within the Oromo socio-political and economic situations under the EPP leadership. There is no particular verse in the Bible that speaks about Coronavirus. However, it is possible to utilize systematic theological approach to give a theological response to the coronavirus crises based on the Biblical narratives about various epidemics. The article depicts that the character of the EPP government may lead it to use the virus as a biological weapon to punish the Oromo people, particularly Wallaggaa, Guji and Borana Oromo as revenge for their political opinions. If the government tries this, it will devastate the whole country and bring the end of EPP.

In a world which is unhurriedly but surely being confounded by Coronavirus, the church needs to get involved in the fight against this horrendous virus which is making a distance between death and human beings only a step. In Ethiopia, some Pentecostal churches, Prophets and Apostles have expediently denied that Coronavirus has anything to do with them. In this paper, I argue for the necessity of thinking theologically about the reality of Coronavirus, including that this virus is not merely a matter of “sinners” or “righteous” or “race” or “class” or “politics” becoming infected with a virus, but that certain conditions are conducive towards the spreading of Coronavirus which necessitate to be spoken if an impact is to be made in the spreading of this horrifying virus. Given the rapid spread of the Coronavirus, many religious leaders, churches and the government itself in a country like Ethiopia are in a reluctant situation to fight the virus as it already landed in the country. To combat this devastating virus, political actors, NGO and faith communities must be transformed in the face of the Coronavirus crisis, in order that they themselves may become a force for bringing healing, hope and accompaniment to all inflicted by the virus.

Although I am reluctant to provide statistics, I can say that one cannot find any country or organization or institution today without Coronavirus. The effect of this virus is noticeable in many counties across continents. There is not a single country in the world, not even highly developed countries like Europe, America, which is not being shocked by Coronavirus. It is not far from the truth to say that we are all aware of the extent of this problem.

Although it is varying daily, it is essential to mention a few statistics to understand the magnitude of the problem which we are faced with. Until now, we have about 711,418 cases, 33,563 deaths and 150,827 recovered. There is very little indication that things will improve within a short period of time.

The church and its leaders, and non-Christian religious actors, have social ground or credibility. Their ground in society gives them the opportunity to make a real difference in combating Coronavirus. To respond to this Coronavirus crisis, the church, African tradition religion leaders, Muslim leaders and other religions leaders must be transformed in the face of Coronavirus crisis, in order that they may become a force for raising people’s awareness about this pandemic virus and teach their followers, and bring healing and hope to those who affected by the virus. While serving those who are affected, the church should create contextual theology to provide theological answers for this contagion virus and those who are faced with a crisis with its merciless arsenal.

2. Need for Theological Reflections on The Coronavirus and Human Rights Violations in Oromia/Ethiopia

We cannot find media all over the world without the talk about Coronavirus. We need to go one step further and say that we can no longer speak about the church without speaking about Coronavirus: Theological reflection on Coronavirus. Why a theological reflection on this virus? Is it justified to formulate a theological reflection of every crisis with which the world is experienced? Clearly not. However, at times a crisis develops which has the potential for such devastating consequences all over the world, which it becomes important for the church to respond to the crisis, not only practically, but also theologically. Throughout history, there have been times when the church has had to respond in a special way to a particular crisis. For instance, although it was slow, the church around the globe had been arranging global ecumenical consultation where massive workshops had been conducted and tremendous articles and books were written on HIV/AIDS.

According to Pocock J. W. (2003), the church has been responding to man-made crises. Before and during the WWII theologians such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer played vital roles in shaping the church to take a theological stand against the National Socialism of Germany. Similarly, in South Africa Church formulated her own theological position against the ideology of Apartheid through different theological documents, of which the Kairos Document was essential. This document attempted to denounce Apartheid. In Ethiopia, the Reverend Gudina Tumsa of Oromo had a clear theological stand against socialism introduced by Derg (Wake Jeo Gerbi, 2016; Magarsaa Guutaa, 2011; Ezekiel Gebissa, 2009). In fact, not all churches and theologians were and are taking a stand against the crisis humanity faced. In South Africa, there were theologians who supported Apartheid and tirelessly worked to keep the poor South African under the brutal hand of Apartheid. In Ethiopia, today we have many churches, theologians, self-proclaimed Major General Prophets, Prophets, and Apostles cross ethnic groups in Ethiopia who support the current Ethiopian Prime-Minister, Colonel Abiy Ahmad Ali, who is destroying federalism to recreate Ethiopia with hegemonic power, which I personally think it will lead to the uncontrollable conflict the Empire and end up in the creation of news states.

In the time like this, when the Coronavirus already landed in Ethiopia, that means, when there is only a step between death and humanity and the Ethiopian government purposely shot down internet and telephone from more than 16 million of Oromo people in Oromia regional state of Ethiopia, particularly in Wallaggaa and Gujii, there is no single church comes forward to call upon the government to unlock internet and telephone for this people. Many Evangelical Christians and Pentecostals in Ethiopia including the Oromo support Abiy just because he is a Christian from a Pentecostal background. They are unwilling to critically see and understand his political vehicle packed with countless promises but ineffectual. Non-Oromo Evangelical Christians and the devotees of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church (hereafter-EOC), namely, the Neo-Minelikiets support him for political consumption. According to Mohammad Girma (2018), since 1995, the Neo-Minelikiets in the EOC have been claiming that this church should regain the status of its church-state relationships which it lost in 1974.  Jalata (2002) articulates that until 1974, that is, when the era of the Solomonic dynasty was eroded and the Derg, the so-called military junta took power.  Derg declared separation of state and church. Since then, the EOC has been slowly but seriously losing its one-language or hegemonic divine pedagogy (Girma, 2018; Bulcha, 2011).

Wake (2016) uncovers that Pentecostal churches operating in Oromia, namely in Finfinnee (colony name-Addis Ababa) have committed themselves to eliminate, if that is not possible, to stagnate Oromo language and values in their churches. They discourage and humiliate any Oromo who wants to express her/his identity as an Oromo. For instance, they say enya be geta nen. Ye zet ena ye quanqua ena zer neger ayasfeligm (we are in Christ. The issues of language and ethnic identity are unnecessary or irrelevant).  According to them only Amharic language and Amhara identity are relevant in their churches. Many Oromo pastors who were proud of their God given identity have left those churches and started to provide worship service in afaan Oromo to their followers. They were also persecuted by Neo-Minelikiets and accused in the name of Oromo Liberation Front (hereafter-OLF) just because they refused to deny their identity. After Abiy came to power in 2018, the attack against Oromo identity by colonial settlers evolved various forms. Some pastors in Pentecostal churches, and apostles and prophets (as they call themselves) committed themselves to demise Oromo culture, traditional religion, and values. They have been attempting to give spiritual legitimacy to Abiy’s power by prophesying that he is sent by God to redeem Ethiopia, he is Moses of Ethiopia. He also systematically showed them that his government will destroy Oromummaa and restore Ethiopia. Thus they have got political support, and started openly to preach about Ethiopianism and describe Oromo culture and indigenous religion as a demon and misrepresent Oromo nationalists as evil. They are restlessly working to detach Oromo people particularly Qeerroo/qarrree (Oromo youth) from their Oromummaa (Oromo culture, language and national identity).

What makes it ambiguous is that the government provides financial support for their propaganda to destroy Oromummaa by the name of religion. For instance, we have seen the Ethiopian Prime-Minister himself recognize them as good Ethiopians several times and rewarded one of them thousands of Birr. His government committed itself to empower religious teachers and organizations who directly or indirectly show interest to demonize Oromo traditional religion, values and misrepresent Oromo nationalism. On 6 September 2019, Abiy rewarded one of them 25 thousands Euro.

In this footage, we can hear the Prime-Minister tell the multitude that the EOC represents Ethiopian identity at the international level. He forgot that there are so many cultures and religions in Ethiopia that have nothing to do with the EOC. Even within the Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, Oromo Christians have already established their own Wajjira Lubbummaa Oromiyaa which reflects Oromummaa within the context of Orthodox Christianity. We have been watching in social media when many leaders of the EOC and Neo-Minelikiets denounced, defamed and accused the leaders of Wajjira Lubbummaa Oromiyaa with false allegations because they want to keep Oromo down.  Abiy just wanted to satisfy the Neo-Menilikiets who want to reclaim dominant non-Amhara cultures and non-EOC religions in the country. While rewarding and empowering those who attack the Oromo, Abiy’s government persecutes every Oromo intellectual who does not want to support his government. His security forces confiscated and banned huge resources owned by Oromo investors, who are committed to serving their people.

Obbo Dinku Dayyas, an Oromo investor, provided shelter and food for more than 400 Oromo students dismissed from different universities in 2020 by Abiy’s brutal government because of their political views. Dinku has sponsored them to join his university to continue their education. As soon as the Coronavirus manifested in Ethiopia, he provided about 200 tents, and two ambulances and many health workers from his own hospital and planned to send them to Wallaggaa to save life where the government locked down the internet and telephone for months. The government was not happy with the aid Dinku has provided to these isolated people and accused him with false allegations that he is supporting the rebel group in the area, OLF. As a retaliation to his good work for his people, the government illegally closed Sodaree Resort and Hotel owned by this investor in March 20202.  In the same month, two of his bodyguards were killed by security forces (KMN-Kush Media Network, 30.03.2020). Dinku is hated and punished by the government because he loved and helped his people, the Oromo.

The government intentionally destroys Oromo political, social and economic institutions to subdue them. It seems that the people became powerless to save each other. Added to the daily killings of hundreds Oromo in Wallagga, Gujii and Borana by Ethiopian army, and the recurrent killings and eviction of the Walloo Oromo by the Amhara regional government supported group have made the Oromo people exasperated. In such conditions, one can say that the Coronavirus has free state sponsored horses to ride in Oromia for free to claim life. In Ethiopia, it is not only individuals, groups or organizations that have direct or indirect Ethiopian state’s support to reduce Oromo but also diseases, viruses and other natural catastrophes have systematized the state’s facility to spread in Oromia to eliminate life. This has been happening since Oromia was incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire in the 1890s.

In the time like this, when the Coronavirus is already grounded in Ethiopia and placed death only one step away from humanity (we were also told that there were many cases of the Coronavirus), the Ethiopian government is still gathering thousands of its supports from Oromia to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the new party, EPP. One the one hand, where there is no internet and telephone the state is killing people, looting and ransacking people’s cattle, homes and crops daily by the name of operation against the OLF. On the other hand, the government gathers its cabinets and supports in a very weary manner where about 60-70 people took training in small school rooms in Illu Abba Boora and Shawa (source: personal conversation). On 26-27.03.2020, hundreds of Oromo who support EPP were taking training in a very teeming house in Buraayyuu around Gafarsa (Source: personal conversation with two of the attendees). This may worsen the spread of this virus in Oromia.

On 28. 03. 2020 Oromo political prisoners were burned in Qillinto, the state’s scandalous prison in the block called zone 3. Some of them were shot dead by police officers and security as they attempted to escape the fire. Those who survived fire and bullets were tortured for hours. Prisoners are denied water and electricity. On 29.03.2020 the security collected many of them from zone 1 and zone 3 and severely tortured them and moved them to other torture chamber in Shawa Roobii (source: personal conversation). According to the information I have got, one of these prisoners or EPP supports were tested whether or not they have Coronavirus positive. Until now internet and telephone are discriminately locked to millions of Oromo. The government didn’t take the issue of Coronavirus seriously and prioritized sustaining political power. One may ask why the government called for a meeting of the Oromo when other regional states officially stopped meeting and public gathering. Is it only the Oromo who needs to be indoctrinated by EPP or is it intentionally to aggravate the spread of the virus Oromia? It seems that the Ethiopian government is going to use the Coronavirus as a biological weapon or an extra bullet to kill the people. In a time like this, the church and all religious communities should break the silence to urge the government to respect the rights of people to live. They should urge the government to stop killing and torturing the Oromo, and to abstain from exposing the people to the virus by the name of OLF.

In order to bring healing and hope for people in a time of Coronavirus disaster in which we are, and to the ear itching human rights violations, killings, rapes and disappearances in Oromia/Ethiopia, it is not enough only to preach and pray for the church. There is a great need of theological reflection on and answers to the situation. Nonetheless, it seems that the church didn’t take it seriously. If the church would have taken it earnestly, it would have urged the government to stop gathering innocent citizens for its political gain at a critical time like this (1). It would have publically called for the government to unlock the internet and telephone for millions of Oromo who were denied to hear information about the Coronavirus (2). If it would have understood the pain of Wallagaa and Gujii Oromo who have been under the command post, who have been killing thousands and devastated the life of children and family, the church would have asked the government not to destroy the life created by God. One of the problems for such failure is that the churches in Ethiopia, including Oromo churches, have no scientifically and contextually developed theology to address this kind of crisis humanity faces. We are more ingenious to pray and preach. That is very important! We should also discipline ourselves to take time to create new knowledge to give theological response when this kind of new experience emerges in the community in which we live and serve. Church should create a kind of knowledge that brings healing and hope for those who are affected by the virus and freedom, peace and justice for those who are under brutal hand of the dictator leaders such as Oromo in general and Wallagga, Gujii and Boorana Oromo in particular. It is a sin to undermine the suffering of our people.

In part two, I will dive in-depth in the discussion about the role of the church in crisis time like this, putting much weight on theological notions of Imago Dei and Missio Dei.


Author: The Reverend Wake Jeo Gerbi has three MPhil, an MA and a BTh. Wake is African scholar from Oromia, a country under Ethiopian colony. His research skills include Theology (systematic theology, liberation theology, missiology, political theology and public theology), Philosophy (Oromo philosophy, African philosophy, moral philosophy and philosophy of religion), Human Rights (focus on Oromia and Ethiopia), International Relations (global economy, international relation theories and peace and security studies), and  History Religions (Antiquity of Christianity and Islam, Waaqeffannaa, African Christianity and African Traditional Religions). Wake is studying his PhD at the University of Humboldt in Berlin Germany.  

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