Lest we forget! Aberash Debela and 60 Oromos denied burial ground by the EOTC
By Gurmuu Jabeessaa | September 18, 2019
The ongoing petition by the Oromia Orthodox Tewahido Religion (OOTR) followers submitted to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC) asking Afaan Oromoo to be declared the official language for church services within the Oromia region has generated enormous interest.
Although no ruling has been made yet, it looks like the EOTC is not treating this question with a legitimacy, respect and seriousness it deserves. In fact, EOTC has shown contempt and has taken a very adversarial position to the concept of Afaan Oromoo as a medium of church services in Oromia. This is apparent from the somewhat demeaning manner in which the OOTR followers’ Committee arguing for the case was handled at the recent EOTC meeting: The Committee was asked to vacate the room before it had a chance to air its case.
To insult to injury, the highest official of the Ethiopian government accuses, in public, these courageous and selfless sons of the Oromo people of using the issue for political ends.
I am not surprised at all by the contempt shown by the EOTC and the government, for Oromummaa and everything Oromo. There are no red-lines that they would not cross nor tactics they won’t employ in their zeal to obliterate Oromo identity. Their ferocity in this mission knows no bound. For the Oromo, there is no scaping their persecution, not just in life. Even in death, Oromos are denied a final resting place by the EOTC. If the reader thinks this shameful disregard for humanity is the exception, think again. Or, rather, listen to a recent TV interview given by Obbo Hailemichael Tadesse, one of the OOTR Committee members. Obbo Hailemichael’s narration – which is available via Youtube – revealed that there are close to six dozen documented deceased-Oromo individuals who have been denied burial for being born Oromo or supporting Oromo rights to worship in their God-given language.
Some of you may have heard of the story of the late Adde Aberash Debela, a 21-year old Oromo girl from Salaale, Shoa. Upon her passing in 1994, Aberash Debela was denied a final resting place by the local EOTC in her birthplace. At the time, the main reason given for the denial was that Aberash Debaba had been a member of the OLF as well as a Qubee teacher. When the diaspora Oromo community learned about the news via the internet (Onet), it caused tremendous anger across the board, like no other before, eliciting unprecedented sympathy for this poor Oromo girl as well as rage on how her remains was treated by the EOTC. Many protest letters were sent to various political and philanthropic international institutions from concerned individuals and groups asking the world to condemn this conspicuous contempt the EOTC displayed for Aberash Debela’s remains. One of the institutions to which Aberash Debela’s story was sent was the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, Switzerland. As expected, the WCC released a letter of protest to the EOTC head office immediately.
The EOTC Holy Synod General Secretary responded in writing to the General Secretary of the WCC, Dr. Konrad Raiser, on August 26, 1994 by.
Its response can be summed up simply as disingenuous, at best. It is full of denials, deceptions, lies, insults and, above all, blaming the victim. I will list below a few sentences directly copied from the texts to illustrate the point:
“The EOTC being a religious institution is not and can, by no means, be involved in politics.”
“…. the EOTC believes that…. every nationality is at liberty to develop its language and foster its culture which does not in any way intervene with the activities of the Church.”
“….in fact, the resilience and firm bond that has for ages united the people of our country, the spirit of tolerance, respect and love, taught and practice by the church.”
“….it is clear that ‘friends’ of the deceased are trying to make a political out of what is a tragic human issue … for the purpose of discrediting a venerated church …”
EOTC’s duplicity and skills at hoodwinking might have succeeded at the time. But guess what! Truth never dies and we now have close to 60 other cases of documented deceased-Oromo nationals who have faced the same fate as Aadde Aberash Debela at the hands of the EOTC. The world needs to know their names and hear their story. Humanity must be informed about EOTC’s systematically planned and executed persecution of our compatriots not just in life but in death, lest we, or the world, forget about them.
Going back to the ongoing struggle by Oromo Orthodox church followers for their right to worship in their language, there seems to be no compelling justification(s) whatsoever – either from religious or legal perspective – for the manner in which the EOTC has reacted to what is a legitimate question by every standard. The doctrine of Christian church – which the EOTC professes – grants its followers the full permission to receive religious teachings in their own language for one thing. And for another, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia stipulates that individuals and groups have the right to practice religion in Ethiopia freely in any language of their choice. Based on these two straightforward facts, one finds it very challenging to understand why the OETC chose to drag its feet in making a prompt and amicable ruling on a matter of such importance to its followers.
One would think this simple and legitimate human rights demand can and should be resolved based on its merit. However, it has not turned out to be.
Why? There are many factors at play here.
First, it has to do with the well-documented innate psyche of most Abyssinians (including EOTC leaders) which makes them feel superior to everyone around them. This false self-grandiosity can always be toxic and unproductive. It does not foster an honest give-and-take negotiation environment between to competing parties that is key for conflict resolution, and this is a concern for the case at hand. Over the years, Oromos have dearly paid for the apparent scarcity of this critical element from the Abyssinian system of governance, which, historically, has drawn its blessings from the OETC. The way the OOTR Committee was dealt with at the last meeting could be explained from this sort of character flaw behavior, which promotes the ‘my way or the highway’ principle.
Secondly, Oromos have been receiving church services in Geez – an archaic ancient language understood only by the top echelon of the EOTC clergy and comprehended by 0% the OOTR followers. This has been the case ever since Oromos fell under Abyssinian rule – some 14 decades ago. In addition, various church administrative businesses have been conducted in Amharic to this day, again, in a language the great majority of OOTR observers don’t understand or speak. At the same time, very few of the EOTC clergy have learned or care to learn Afaan Oromo, even when they have lived their entire life conducting religious service in Oromia among Afaan Oromo speaking society. This is bizarre to rationalize for a 21st century church or society, to say the least. When, after these many years of ‘forced’ silence, the OOTR faith followers have finally said “enough is enough” to the status quo and demanded the right to conduct religious services in their churches in their own language – Afaan Oromo, the EOTC considered the demand a threat to its Amharic language hegemony in Oromia and livelihood of its non-Oromo-speaking clergy.
Many observers believe it may be politics, NOT religion, that is driving the EOTC position on this issue. The EOTC is considered an Abyssinian (Amharas & Tigres) controlled-and-run institution. The overwhelming majority of church leaders and clergy come from the Amhara and Tigray regions. Yes, a handful of Oromo individuals have managed to attain limited high positions in that institutional leadership during the last 140 years, but their representation within the rank and file, as a group, has been very dismal. This is purposeful and systematic discrimination against the Oromo and their language, practiced by the church for close to a century and a half, is making credible the notion that race politics propels the EOTC’s lack of cooperation in addressing the issue on its merit . Abyssinian clergies have historically been adversarial to Oromo culture, religion, language, use of “qubee” – Oromo alphabet – etc. largely because they consider these matters a threat to Abyssinian domination. For instance, very few of the clergy care to learn Afaan Oromo, even when they have lived their entire life conduction religious service in Oromia among Afaan Oromo speaking society.
It is not the scope of this piece to review all the injustices perpetrated against Oromos by the EOTC or the government of Ethiopia. It is still important, however, to bring up a few recent developments just to hone the point. Just in the last 12 to 15 months, more than two million innocent Oromos have been forcefully displaced from their ancestral land either while the government conveniently looked the other way, or with its unofficial involvement. These victims are currently languishing in humanitarian shelters in and outside the country. The western and southern regions of Oromia have been placed under direct military administration emergence rules. This has resulted in hundreds of deaths, in tens of thousands of incarcerations, mostly involving ‘qeeros/qarees’ (youth) and supporters of legitimate political parties. The EOTC, as a major religious institution, enjoys some influence with the government. It is not apparent if such influence is being put to good use to try and bring some sort of sanity to the carnage taking place in Oromia and other places in the country.
The extent to which anti-Oromo elements, like the EOTC administration, can go in order to undermine/subvert Oromo interests at large is mind boggling. Since ‘old habits die hard’ – as the saying goes – it is probably difficult to predict what will come out of the upcoming EOTC meeting pertaining to the anticipated ruling on the petition. If the outcome is going to be positive, Oromos will have some overdue justice at the end and this is NOT because of the EOTC’s benevolence but because of the courageous action taken by some Oromo followers of the church. On the other hand, if the outcome fails to live up to expectation, it should NOT be the end. We hope the well-schooled OOTC Committee has, by now, devised contingency plans to move on.
This Committee is made up of very able and committed individuals. They are fearless and selfless people who are sticking their necks and taking risks in order to right the wrong that has had unimaginable bearing on the day to day Oromo life for a very long time. If there is any entity that will put to rest ones and for good this monumental Oromo issue, this group comes up at the top on that list. The stake cannot be higher; and failure is NOT an option!!
All Oromos – OOTR follower or not – MUST stand by this Committee!