Ethiopia Grants Autonomy to Evangelical Heartland

After historic and nearly unanimous referendum, Sidama declared 10th regional state.

In a widely anticipated referendum held in Ethiopia’s Sidama zone last month, an overwhelming 98 percent of voters chose autonomous self-rule.

Across the highland region famed for its flavorful coffee exports, voters lined up as early as 4 a.m. on November 20, smiling and waving their green identification cards.

“For the last two months, the church was praying and fasting daily,” said Tessema Tadesse, pastor of a Kale Heywet church in Hawassa, the capital of Sidama. “And on Sunday, the preaching was around peace, love, and embracing others.”

Kale Heywet (Word of Life) is one of Ethiopia’s largest “Pente” or evangelical denominations, with approximately 1,000 congregations in Sidama alone. (Though Pente, pronounced Pent-ay, originated as an Ethiopian term for Pentecostals, it has come to refer to most non-Orthodox Christians, with the closest US equivalent being evangelical.)

Evangelicalism in Ethiopia originated in Sidama, where 87 percent of the population self-identified as Protestants in the 2007 census. Overall, in Africa’s second-most populous nation, evangelicals only comprise about 19 percent of Ethiopia’s 112 million people, while the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church comprises about 40 percent, according to the World Christian Database.

Tsedaku Ablo Alema, president of the Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia (ECFE), thinks Sidama’s desire for autonomy could stem from the evangelical anti-authoritarian mindset.

“We believe we can understand the Bible, in the priesthood of all believers,” he told CT. “That narrative might have made them think more about the individual.”

Even so, religion was not the source of this political …

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