Ethiopia’s Irob Catholic minority faces extinction

Following decades of persecution and invasions by Eritrea, the Irob, a Catholic minority residing in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, found themselves ensnared in the Tigray War's crossfire, spanning from 2020 to 2022. This conflict left many dead and displaced. Additionally, they endured a harsh and violent occupation by the Eritrean military. Now facing a crisis of internally displaced persons (IDP) and famine, the Irob people are on the brink of extinction.

The Irob, an ethnic group of about 50,000 people, primarily reside in Irobland within Ethiopia's Tigray Region, with a smaller group living in neighboring Eritrea. They largely speak Saho, an Afroasiatic language distinct from Amharic, the federal government's working language. Most Irob people are Catholic, while a minority follow Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity or Islam. Most are farmers. They possess a unique cultural identity and social structure based on clans. In Ethiopia, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity prevails as the main religion, with Catholics constituting about 1% of the population. Within this Catholic minority, the Irob represent an even smaller segment.

The Tigray conflict was fought between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) of the Ethiopian government and militants from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was the dominant armed group in the region. After Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in 2018, tensions rose between the federal government and the TPLF. In November 2020, the TPLF launched attacks on Ethiopian military bases in Tigray, sparking the war. Eritrean forces also entered the war on the side of the ENDF, prompting the US and other Western nations to characterize the war as ethnic cleansing against Tigrayan people, a view echoed by Catholic priests in the region.

When the war finally came to a close, the region, including all of its infrastructure, was laid waste. In total, 600,000 people were killed, at least 2 million were displaced, and 2.3 million were left in need of humanitarian aid. What is more, both sides were accused of committing war crimes, human rights abuses, and targeting civilians.

A peace agreement was reached in November 2022, with a ceasefire in place. The militias that supported the ENDF in fighting the TPLF were absorbed into the national army as a means of taking power away from regional leaders and building unity around the federal government. However, the move backfired, causing a resurgence of clashes. During 2023, the ENDF fought against two powerful regional militias: Amhara’s regional special forces and the Fano, both of which refused to become part of the ENDF. Fighting has also persisted between the ENDF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). As a result, a six-month state of emergency was declared in August of last year.

Until today, the situation in Tigray remains fragile, with ongoing negotiations and concerns about the long-term stability of the region. A fragile peace is holding, but it is estimated that rebuilding the Tigray region will cost approximately US$20 billion. At the same time, many people in Tigray still require humanitarian assistance. Sixteen percent of children under the age of five are suffering from malnutrition. Factories and businesses have been destroyed, and about 200,000 people were left jobless. Roughly one million people remain internally displaced.

The Irob people suffered severely from the war because their homeland lies close to the border with Eritrea, right in the center of the fighting. During the conflict, the region was sealed off, resulting in families being separated and humanitarian aid unable to get in. Eritrean troops, occupying the area, enforced assimilation by issuing ID cards, conscripting civilians, and compelling them to adopt Tigrinya, the predominant language of Eritrea. Additionally, Irob homes were looted, and human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, executions, and disappearances of Irob individuals, were reported.

Catholic priests, in particular, were targeted, given that the majority of the country follows Orthodox Christianity. Catholic churches were destroyed during the war, and the leading Catholic school, once a beacon for scholars nationwide, struggled to regain its former prominence due to the inability to attract qualified foreign teachers.



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Irobland remains a disputed territory, with Eritrea claiming it was granted the region at the conclusion of its border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000) and the signing of the Treaty of Algiers. Many Irob have been displaced from their homes due to the violence and insecurity. Access to humanitarian aid in the Tigray Region has been restricted, making it difficult for the Irob to obtain the food, medicine, and shelter they need. Consequently, many Irob have fledto other countries, becoming refugees. Human trafficking gangs exploit Irob young people, offering them passage to and work opportunities in other countries. However, they often find themselves exploited or held for ransom in the end.

Bright, young, educated Irob who fled expressed their desire to return to their homeland, but improvements in the situation are necessary. Proper management of the region’s resources and economic rebuilding are imperative. Internally displaced people must return to their villages, which require reconstruction. In the immediate term, the people require food aid, security, rehabilitation for the psychological trauma caused by war, and ethnic and social support to reclaim their identity and rebuild their society.

Without action, the small Irob community could face extinction. 

Is it worth noting that while the war in Gaza has dominated headlines for months, hardly anyone has heard of a war which left 600,000 people dead?   

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: Irob women praying in church / BBC screenshot   


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