People displaced by fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region wait in line to receive food donations at a temporary shelter in the town of Shire. CNS photo/Baz Ratner, Reuters

Prayers for Ethiopia grow louder

By 
  • November 17, 2021

For the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Canada congregation at St. Mary Cathedral in Toronto, prayer vigils for peace in their homeland have been ongoing for the past 30 years.

Those prayers have only grown louder as the escalating conflict in recent months in Ethiopia has created new waves of refugees in the Amhara, Afar and Tigray regions in the north and has directly impacted several parishioners, says Alemayehu Zenebe, program coordinator and office manager at the cathedral.

St. Mary’s welcomes Ethiopians of all ethnic groups and non-Ethiopian parishioners as well. It has taken a neutral stance on the conflict and focused efforts on supporting those seeking comfort and resources.

“We are always praying for peace,” said Zenebe. “There are so many people who have been imprisoned or exiled, who have been thrown out or had their family killed so we are always in constant vigil. There is no winner in a war, only losers. We have been in this dark era for the last 30 years.”

The most recent developments in the civil war have drawn global attention to challenges that have been impacting congregants for decades. Under the leadership of Fr. Messale Ingeda, the parish has been raising funds to support those with family members who have been displaced or otherwise impacted.

But the work of Catholic organizations with ties to Canada, working on the ground, have been severely impacted due to the conflict. According to reports by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international Catholic organization supporting refugees and internally displaced persons, an estimated 2.1 million people have been displaced in Tigray, the northernmost regional state in the country, over 60,000 people have fled to Sudan and around 5.2 million people of the region are in need of emergency food aid. In Afar, there are over 229,000 internally displaced persons, almost half of them displaced by the ongoing conflict. More than 500,000 people have been displaced in Amhara region.  

 The conflict has severely affected the economy of the country with inflation on food items exceeding 30 per cent. This has worsened the situation of people in regions directly affected by the conflict and in urban areas, including the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Large numbers of refugees have moved south to the capital in search of a safety. JRS has been involved with the registration of these displaced persons.

“Though it is difficult to speak of hope in a region ravaged by violence, conflict and war, we see hope in the solidarity shown by people in Ethiopia who support (displaced persons) and refugees and who welcome them into their own communities in spite of the difficulties these host communities are encountering themselves,” said Canadian Jesuits International in a statement. “The solidarity and support of the international community is also vital in keeping hope alive amidst the turmoil happening in the country.”

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) has been actively involved with several initiatives supporting Catholic schools, providing food to students and their families, helping schools acquire wells and working to ensure girls and boys are able to get an education. That work in the northern zones had to stop abruptly due to the latest conflict. According to reports 1,600 schools, Catholic and non-Catholic, have been destroyed in the Tigray region. Roughly three million children are not attending school, further compounding the impact of COVID-19 on their education.

Programs in Addis Ababa and regions outside the conflict zone have been able to continue but there is no knowing for how long as fighting intensifies. As a religious organization, CNEWA supports several different religious communities, programs that help women learn trades and develop financial autonomy, farming improvement, institutions for the blind and deaf and refugee services. In the war zone, many of these programs have been forced to stop.

Despite the challenges, Carl Hétu executive director of CNEWA,  is finding encouragement in the people across the world who continue to stand in faith and in prayer for Ethiopia. He is hearing amazing stories coming through the Catholic Church in Ethiopia that confirm there are “heroes” working on the ground. He’s learning of priests and other religious faithful who despite the shooting in the villages have continued to minister to the people, bringing food, sacraments and comfort in the turmoil. The actions of the people of God, he says, is a sign of hope that there is light even in the darkness.

“Many priests and those in the religious (community) were bringing food while fighting was taking place, so the hope once again is the hands of the people that are serving God,” said Hétu. “Those that are serving the poor who are afraid and bringing them courage through the sacraments. The Church has also organized to deliver food at the parish level and/or school level when it’s open. The hope is in the Church itself through its calls for peace and also through its actions to minister to the people caught in the middle.”

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