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Nun and priests flee, more churches shut amid Ethiopia’s insecurity

Agencies estimate that more than 500,000 people have died due to violence, starvation or lack of medical care

NAIROBI, Kenya — Catholic bishops in Ethiopia have warned that insecurity is shutting down churches and forcing more priests and nuns to flee their monasteries, as insecurity spreads in parts of the Horn of Africa country.

“It is true priests and nuns are leaving their monasteries. It’s a reality, but the statement cannot be specific about any region at this time,” Habtamu Abrdew, the social communications director for the Ethiopian bishops’ conference, told Catholic News Service.

In a statement in late July, Cardinal Souraphiel Berhaneyesus, chairman of the Ethiopian bishops’ conference, said: “The Church is facing a great challenge, especially the lack of peace in our country. … Many of our parishes, including Adigrat Diocese, share the challenge. Priests and sisters have fled their monasteries due to (in)security, and the number of closed chapels and monasteries is increasing.”

For more than 20 months in Tigray, Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhin of Adigrat, his priests and the people of the region have remained cut off from the rest of the country as a government keeps a blockade in place.

While urging the parties in the conflict to focus on peace, dialogue and reconciliation to end the suffering of the people, Cardinal Berhaneyesus said the citizens are still being killed and exiled because of their identity in many places.

In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali ordered military action against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the rulers of the semi-autonomous region. The prime minister accused the TPLF of overrunning a national army base in the Tigray capital city, Mekele. But the operation that was supposed to be a short mission spread to other regions.

Agencies estimate that the deaths in Tigray have reached 500,000 people, due to combined causes that include starvation, direct killings and lack of medical or health care.

The latest report by the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, an international organization that produces data and analysis on internal displacement, said conflict and violence in Tigray have displaced an estimated 5.1 million people. These people need food, and some fear the starvation of millions.

On July 26, Bishop Medhin urged immediate settlement of the conflict to avert a more serious humanitarian crisis and deaths. He pleaded with the federal government and other governments supporting Ethiopia, as well as national and international organizations that could have any role to stop the war, siege and blockade.

The TPLF and government have announced peace negotiating teams, but they have not agreed on the venue, date or unveiled the structure of the negotiations. Also, the two sides continue to differ on the choice of the chief mediator.

Church officials consider the peace talks critical and say they will do their best to make sure the dialogue is successful.

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