In a divided Ethiopia, the Orthodox mark Meskel celebrationWed, 27 Sep 2023 19:54:56 GMT

Orthodox Ethiopians on Wednesday marked the beginning of Meskel, one of the holiest celebrations in the Christian tradition followed in this devout nation riven by ethnic and political violence.Among Orthodox believers in Ethiopia and its neighbour Eritrea, Meskel commemorates the discovery by Saint Helena in Palestine in the fourth century of the “true cross” upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. According to legend, Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I, was led to the cross — a fragment of which was believed to have been brought back to Ethiopia — by the smoke from a ceremonial bonfire.On the eve of Meskel, worshippers construct large pyres in streets and church courtyards for a ceremony known as “demera” that signals the start of the festivities.At sunset, after hours of dancing and singing, these bonfires — topped with a cross and covered in indigenous flowers — are set ablaze across the country.The largest, several metres high, is lit in Meskel Square, a vast esplanade in the centre of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, in the presence of tens of thousands of congregants and Orthodox priests and bishops in rich fabrics.”The power of Christianity is bringing back our original unity. It helps us to forget those differences that have shaped us for so many years, and brought us to these conflicts, wars, hate and… atrocities,” said one Orthodox priest in attendance, who did not give his name. – ‘How can we celebrate?’ -A mosaic of 80 different peoples, Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world.The Aksumite Empire, ancestor of present-day Ethiopia, made Christianity a state religion from the 4th century, at the same time as Rome.Short of an official census, it is estimated that roughly two-thirds of Ethiopia’s 120 million people are Christian and another third are Muslim, with a small animist minority.Most Christians are Orthodox, although the share of Protestants has grown significantly recently. In Tigray, the cradle of the Axumite kingdom, this Meskel was the first in peacetime since 2020 when the federal government went to war with rebellious leaders in the northern region.A peace deal in November last year drew a line under the two-year conflict.”I am celebrating Meskel in a better way than in previous years. At least this time there are no gunshots and we are in a more peaceful atmosphere,” said Kalayu Kiros from Mekele, the capital of Tigray.But, he said, there were “so many traumas of war that I cannot fully celebrate this festival”.Meaza Teklemariam, also from Mekele, said Meskel was “not like it was before the war” and that cost of living pressures had made it harder to celebrate. Despite the conflict ending in Tigray, armed violence rages elsewhere in Africa’s second-most populous country, which is divided into states along ethno-linguistic lines.In Amhara, where militias have been clashing with Ethiopia’s army since April, a state of emergency has been declared in the region where accusations of summary executions and arbitrary arrests have been made.”How can we celebrate Meskel when the fear and the curfew make you have to stay home?” said a resident in Debre Markos, a town in Amhara, who asked to remain anonymous.