The top leadership, or synod, of Ethiopia’s Orthodox church, the largest religious denomination in the country, has threatened to call nationwide rallies to be led by its patriarch, Abuna Mathias.
The church has criticised Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent statements regarding rogue clergy involved in the appointment of bishops without its knowledge.
Mr Abiy’s lengthy remarks, broadcast on national television on Tuesday, came after the church’s synod excommunicated the breakaway clergy, who are from the country’s Oromia region.
He warned his cabinet members against getting involved in the church’s affairs. However, he said both sides “have truths.”
The synod said the PM’s remarks disregarded its decisions, challenged its authority and gave recognition to an “illegitimate power-hungry” group.
Some of Mr Abiy’s statements were “misleading”, it added.
The breakaway clergy accuse the church of maintaining a system of linguistic and cultural hegemony in which congregations in Oromia are not served in their native languages. The church denies the accusation.
The breakaway clergy said they had “overwhelming” public support after touring some areas in the conflict-prone western Oromia.
The synod’s statement comes amid accusations among the faithful that authorities are supporting the breakaway clergy.
It accuses the government of harassing and detaining its senior figures. It vows to continue to speak out even if they [senior religious leaders] have to “sacrifice their lives.”
Relationships between Mr Abiy’s administration and the church – which boasts nearly half of Ethiopia’s 110 million population as its adherents – were positive in the early days of his tenure.
However, in recent years members of the faith group have reported being targeted.
Relations became particularly strained during the heights of the Tigray war after Abuna Mathias spoke against what he called genocide in the region.