Since the global pandemic began over a year ago, religious leaders have sought ways to support the larger community while providing for the needs of members of their congregations. For the next several weeks, we will publish pandemic stories from alumni of the Collegeville Institute’s programs, both in the United States and abroad.
The following post was written by Mersha Megiste, a professor in Addis Ababba, Ethiopia and former resident scholar.
The Covid-19 pandemic has deeply challenged my Ethiopian Orthodox community, as is surely true of every faith-based community in the world. Official news of the virus reached Ethiopia in March 2020, when the government initiated a national lockdown that forced the closure of schools, businesses, and of course, churches.
Churches in Ethiopia are always full of worshipers who attend the continuous services performed by priests 24/7—services comprised of prayers, chants, and other ritual elements. For the Ethiopian Orthodox, churchgoing is not limited to Sunday worship. But when the government introduced the lockdown to control the transmission of the virus, churches fell silent, perhaps for the first time in their history: no chants, no dance, no drums, no clapping, no incense, no candles. Dedicated churchgoers did not accept this ban, however, arguing that without the church they do not have a life. Many people violated the law and marched on their parish churches, where they were met by police officials assigned by the government to guard the church against any “invaders,” including priests. Numerous incidents were reported of arguments, some becoming physical, between the faithful and law enforcement officials.
Churches fell silent, perhaps for the first time in their history: no chants, no dance, no drums, no clapping, no incense, no candles.
The government responded by introducing a national virtual tele-prayers month whereby representatives of all faith traditions in the country, including the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, were allowed to deliver a one-hour prayer and sermon broadcast to the entire nation each day using all government media outlets including Ethiopian Television.
This televangelism was something new for Ethiopia. The introduction to Ethiopia of other technological developments such as the telephone (1894), the automobile (1908), radio (1933), and television (1962), were perceived by a large portion of society as the work of Satan. So, too, the government’s inter-religious virtual prayer initiative was not welcomed by Ethiopians, especially adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith.
In the first few days of the new program, some Orthodox Christians voiced clear and loud opposition to tele-prayers, saying that worshipers of Satan were conspiring through this measure to alienate the Church from its children. To try to dissuade this faction from their suspicions, the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia, the body responsible for planning and coordinating the national tele-prayers, invited top leaders of the churches and Islamic council to lead the prayers. The initiative went forward. The national tele-prayers program was scheduled to broadcast live for one month beginning April 5, 2020, every evening from 8-9 p.m., to help religious communities console their members during the pandemic and promote their churches or mosques. However, some, like the Ethiopian Islamic Council, used the platform to attack Christianity through sermons given by different Muslim intellectuals and radical Islamic scholars, which provoked tensions between the two Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam) that have coexisted peacefully in Ethiopia for millennia. This polemical use of the tele-prayers effort forced the government to halt the program and allow different religious groups to find their own way to broadcast their respective programs through private broadcast agencies.
Tele-prayers, in a country already distrustful of technology, devolved into polemical attacks and were shut down.
Later, the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate allowed parishes to resume daily liturgical services but only with a limited number of priests. Five priests were allowed to enter a church and celebrate Holy Mass in an empty church building. This, too, was not welcomed by some elderly members of the Church, who argued that it is not canonical to celebrate the Mass without the participation of the laity. However, the Patriarchate (church leadership) contended that celebrating Holy Mass in parishes without the laity present would protect the people from the pandemic. The Patriarchate insisted that the services should continue in the absence of the laity.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is responsible for delivering not only food for the soul, but also food for physical nourishment. People in need have long used the church compounds as shelters where they are served food by parishioners. When one visits a parish, they see a crowd of people in need gathered around the church gate waiting for meals. But such charitable work requires church volunteers. The lockout of church members from their parishes also had an effect on such people in need.
The majority of Ethiopian Orthodox Church members believe that Covid-19 is a curse from God. His Holiness Abuna Mathias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church said in the address delivered at the beginning of Lent, “Human life is suffering from Covid-19 because man failed to live according to the Law of God and stands guilty, deserving of punishment. God is talking to us through this pandemic. The only solution that will move us out of this quagmire is to hear His voice, correct our path, re-centering it towards Him and His commandments.” As the pandemic continues to show its ugly face to this poor nation, the sky of Ethiopia is filled with the singing prayers of its people: “May the Lord save and hide us from this wrath by His mercy and by Mary, His Mother.”