On Sunday 25 August, in Adigrat, in the northern region of Tigray, Ethiopia, 174 people - among them Buddhists, Muslims and Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians, gathered in the main hall of Bruh Tesfa Youth Development Centre, a youth centre run by the Missionaries of Africa, as they do once a year, to break "injera" in an ecumenical ambiance to celebrate the numerous successes of the centre together.
This was the same day car bombs exploded in Baquba, Iraq, killing 47 people as divisions between Sunnis and Shi'ites showed no sign of abating; the same day Buddhists in Burma went on a rampage in the northwest of the country, burning Muslim homes in response to rumours that a Muslim man had sexually assaulted a young woman; the day three were killed in Palestine as Israelis and Palestinians dealt a further blow to negotiations in the area - and another day on which Egypt continued to be torn apart, with Coptic Christians caught in the middle - and the fallout from chemical atrocities in Syria tipped the region a step closer towards military intervention by Western powers, with potentially disastrous consequences for world peace.
At the gathering in Tigray, some of the174 attendees were members of staff, Grade 10 and 12 students who had successfully completed their end of year exams, nine university graduates that Bruh Tesfa has supported in their studies, and a couple of Missionaries of Africa. But the vast majority were Christian Orthodox priests and deacons; and on the high table an Imam, a representative of the Orthodox Bishop, the Orthodox Dean of the Nihibi-Dibla area of Adigrat and the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Adigrat sat next to each other.
Tigray is the home of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia: within the region lies the city of Axum, once the proud capital of an empire that covered the whole of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea and which at the height of its powers stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen. It was here that in around 300 AD Saint Frumentius introduced Christianity and the religion has developed in isolation to other forms of Christianity to such an extent that it is now deeply ingrained into the culture of Tigray and Ethiopia and its traditions are guarded zealously by the Orthodox priests and deacons. A couple of centuries later, Islam also arrived when, with the religion still in its infancy, some Muslims - including the Prophet Mohammed's relatives - sought refuge in Ethiopia from persecution in the Middle East. Today, there are roughly the same number of Muslims and Christians in the country and throughout history the two religions have largely been tolerant of each other.
However, recently there have been worrying signs that the strife and divisions between religions that are prevalent throughout the world are spreading to Ethiopia. Already intolerance and ignorance have resulted in murder, with an Imam recently being murdered in Dessie (between Adigrat and Addis Ababa) for preaching a message of love and respect between religions that went against what some people believed was a betrayal of their mandated faith.
It is in this respect that Bruh Tesfa is more than just a youth centre: it provides a forum for religious dialogue between religions. We have come a long way since we were set up in 2007, when Orthodox priests forbade their faithful to attend our courses and take part in our recreational activities, convinced that they were just facades behind which we would convert the youth. Today, however, with patience, they have realised that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches share a common aim: the development of our young people and the development of society as a whole. And they have realised that this can only be achieved when the various religions in the country - Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant - work together in a spirit of friendship, love and respect.
That is why, despite all the successes we have had in supporting children in their education from elementary school to graduation, in providing the disadvantaged people of Adigrat - especially young, single mothers - with the means to become financially independent, what happened on Sunday 25 August was just as important. We saw Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics walking together, talking together, eating together, and drinking together. It was wonderful to see the newly bought Boys' Hostel house, with funds from Cross Catholic Outreach and the Missionaries of Africa, being blessed and officially opened by the Catholic Bishop, an Orthodox Dean and a Muslim Imam. We heard representatives from all religions talk about the need to ensure that we do not destroy the legacy of tolerance left to us by history and that we move forward together as one for the good of the country.
In a world where religion is ripping countries apart and pitting brother against sister, child against parent, neighbour against neighbour, it is this message of fraternity and mutual respect between different beliefs and cultures that we must spread throughout the rest of Ethiopia and the world, instead of highlighting and reinforcing the differences amongst peoples. Yes, we fight against ignorance, misunderstanding and great anger, but here in Adigrat try to show that, with patience, dialogue and perseverance, it can be done. And then, one day, our descendents can enjoy a world where Sunnis and Shi'ites give lifts to each other, where Buddhists and Muslims build homes together, where Israelis and Palestinians live in harmony, where secular and religious parties share power, and where people live according to our shared Creator's message of Love, Peace and Reconciliation.
Abba Eddie Ndahinda, M Afr
Bruh Tesfa Youth Development Centre
Adigrat - Tigray (Ethiopia)
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