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Does PM Abiy's Religion Matter?

Recently an article on The Economist, by Tom Gardner circulated on the social media titled, “God wants Ethiopians to prosper.” In that piece, the writer states the influence of Pentecostalism in Ethiopian politics as evidenced in the lives of popular politicians of this time. Some evangelicals/Pentecostals I know found the article to be reliable and informative, while others saw it as inaccurate, contradicting and misinformed. I’m not going to criticize or defend Mr. Gardner’s article. Rather I want to go to the burning question behind: Does PM Abiy’s religion really matter? Should we be concerned with the religion of a politician?

Does Abiy’s Pentecostalism/evangelicalism matter? (for this article I used evangelicalism and Pentecostalism synonymously) Does the religion of a politician matter? People take different sides on this issue. Some say the religion of a politician is not matter for the people. They offer many reasons for saying so. The politician or the authority is in the office to serve the whole people. In a country like Ethiopia where there are diverse ideas and religions, a politician needs to entertain all ideas with equality and tolerance. Hence, they say a politician’s religion is the religion of the people. If the people are of different religions, the politician must act as if he/she belongs to each of the religions.

Again these people state the parallel between ethnicity and religion to seal their argument. A politician although he/she is from a certain ethnicity, in a country like Ethiopia, the politician is expected to serve all ethnicities and regions according to the law of the land. As the politician cannot favor his/her ethnic group, he cannot also favor his/her religion. Hence, they conclude, the religion of the politician doesn’t really matter.

Although the above statements seem all binding and true, on the other hand, however, there are people who still argue that a politician’s religion is necessary for the people to know. According to these people, if a politician is expected to act in a higher moral standard, they need to be accountable to a higher moral belief, and a higher moral belief emanates from a supreme moral law giver – God. Hence, they need to be a believer. This is the starting argument. Why are we expected to swear with our belief systems in a courtroom? It is because higher moral standards originate and are accountable to a supreme moral being. In the same way, a belief in God is expected from the politician to act (at least) with a good moral standard. U.S election has been much influenced by the religious state of the politician than his political beliefs these days.

But the argument goes far beyond this. Proponents of this view ask: Does all religion teach the same moral standard? Does it mean that just a belief in a God or any god or even gods secure a higher moral standard? Will two politicians of different religion display the same moral behavior? The proponents of this belief answer NO! They maintain that the particular belief/religious background of a politician should be of a great concern to the people the politician is serving or representing.

Having seen those two positions, let us come back to our question: Does Abiy’s evangelical/Pentecostal belief matter? PM Abiy is known for his high moral standards calling corrupt leaders as “thieves and robbers”, preaching forgiveness, love and unity among people. Would PM Abiy have acted the same way had he been from another religious background? Can we say Abiy’s evangelical/Pentecostal background had shaped his political belief so much that it wouldn’t have been this way had he been from another religious background?

Does religion a source of good moral standard? Not always!

In September, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guittares made a historic remark on UN summit, when he said, “President Trump needs to learn from PM Abiy’s summation (medemer) philosophy.” Secretary Guitarres was comparing Trump’s anti-immigrant policy with Abiy’s medemer philosophy and concluded Trump should learn from Abiy.

The irony is that both Trump and Abiy are evangelicals. While Trump belongs to Presbyterianism, Abiy is from a Pentecostal church. This tells us moral life depends on not only religious belief but also personal dedication. As not all Muslims are terrorists, not all evangelicals also have a good moral life. For this reason, some say a politician’s belief should not be taken seriously.

While this is one of the evidence that the religion of a politician should be mutually exclusive to his/her political beliefs and actions, I say, the case for PM Abiy is different.

The Case for Abiy’s Religion

Ethiopian evangelicals/Pentecostals have been happy about and sometimes boasting on PM Abiy. He along with the Oromo faction of “Team Lemma”, some of are evangelicals/protestants, are taken to be good representatives of evangelicals in Ethiopia.

But Ethiopians who belong to another religious group, sometimes even few of evangelicals, do not welcome PM Abiy and Team Lemma with that of evangelicalism. This is due to two reasons: One is evangelicals are the minority compared to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Islam; hence, their voice is expected to be less by the other groups. Secondly, some fear that if Abiy/Team Lemma is associated with a single religious group, Pentecostalism/evangelicalism, a tension will arise in the political arena on the matter of religion; hence, people will be divided.

As an evangelical, I understand the fear. However, I believe the case for PM Abiy is different and should not be neglected from the person as it has been for the past leaders as well. I list three reasons for saying so.

Abiy’s personality has been shaped by his religious belief

Tigrai Online, a Tigrai based online media that has been known for its fierce criticism of the PM, called Abiy “The Pastor”. Beside the political game going, one should ask ‘why even his critics label him as a religious person?’ Local residents liken Abiy with that of evangelical preachers. Both his lovers and haters seem certain with his tone and message to be derived from his evangelical belief.

From where did Abiy get the message of love, unity and forgiveness? “Love your enemies” is a biblical command. “Forgive your neighbor seventy times seven” is the Jesus’ moral standard. Beside his visible affiliation with an evangelical church, Abiy has been propagating nothing less than the Biblical message of love and forgiveness as taught by Jesus himself. Hence, one cannot just thank Abiy and pass by without thinking what inspired the man to speak and act the way he does.

Abiy’s presence is the voice of evangelicals against persecution

I had volunteered for International Christian Concern (ICC), an organization that advocates for the rights of Christians for some time and I used to hear so many voices of local evangelicals who are passing through the fire of persecution. It’s a very heartbreaking fact that in the 21st century there is a place where you cannot freely worship whatever you want. Therefore, the other reason that I cannot get silent about Abiy’s religion is: evangelicals’ longtime persecution in Ethiopia.

According to Open Doors International, Ethiopia ranked 22 out of the top 50 countries where Christian persecution is high or living as a Christian is very difficult. The Dergue regime shut down churches, arrested and tortured many believers and killed some. PM Abiy’s church, Mulu Wongel, has been persecuted by the government.

Since the ascension of EPRDF, however, evangelicals have gained a relatively good right to worship. Yet the persecution is still high in the rural areas, especially in highly Muslim or Ethiopian Orthodox-dominated areas. One thing the people of Ethiopian needs to understand is they just cannot love Abiy and persecute their other evangelical brother. This has to stop!

I work with mission agencies and we hear many stories of persecution from the countryside and most stories come from Jimma zone, Oromia, Abiy’s birthplace. I understand that Abiy would have been persecuted in his hometown Agaro, Jimma, had he stayed as a Muslim convert. Many people have no idea how evangelicals live in these regions. That’s why I say Abiy’s presence is the voice of evangelicals and other minorities against persecution.

Abiy is the right person to leave the best example for the next leadership

As noted by Tom Gardner, Abiy doesn’t favor evangelicals/Pentecostals. Everyone is served equally and for the most part, this is what the evangelicals have been demanding. For this reason, I say Abiy can set the best example for the next generation of leaders.

The next leadership might be from Islam or Orthodox or even another religious background. I can say most Ethiopians do not elect their leaders based on the religious affiliation of the parties or the politicians. Most people don’t really care about the religion of the politician unlike the U.S or other North African and Middle East politics.

Wherever the next leadership belongs, one thing is for sure: they have a lot to learn from the personality of PM Abiy. PM Abiy proclaimed equality and lived up to it. PM Abiy preached forgiveness and forgave over 40,000 prisoners and most noted politicians. Abiy preached unity and reconciliation and Ethiopia reconciled with Eritrea and recently, “The Great Horn” is in the making. As the next generation leader, one should look deep at the eyes of PM Abiy, and say “I have to be like Abiy!”

If the next generation Ethiopian leaders have to act like Abiy, they need to set their beliefs like Abiy. Abiy believes in the “love your enemies” and “forgive and you will be forgiven” rules of Jesus. Do you want to be the next Abiy? You need to believe the message of Jesus that inspired the prime minister.

In conclusion, I believe the religion of the politician is an important variable in the making of a leader that has a high moral standard who perceives and serves both the majority and minority groups equally. Moreover, with its uniqueness, Abiy’s evangelical affiliation should not be something the majority antagonizes but respects and learns from it.

Naol Befkadu

Naol Befkadu Kebede (BTh, student of MA in Ministry and Medical Doctorate student at AAU) is the founder and contributor of Lechristian Blog, an online ministry that aims to redeem cultures for the glory of God and to inspire and encourage believers for the completion Great Commission. Naol has authored an Amharic book titled "ተነሺ ፤ አብሪ" (2015) that motivates young believers for a meaningful and radical life.

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