Dr. Nigussu Legesse shared in the joy a year ago when the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church declared an end to a 27-year-old schism that had torn it apart. That rapprochement set in motion a series of events that are taking him back to his homeland.
Legesse was then World Council of Churches (WCC) programme executive and convener for Africa.
After more than 10 years at the council, he is moving back to Addis Ababa as executive director of the Consortium of Christian Relief and Development Associations.
He already leads the consortium, which can have a significant impact in bringing about peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia after years of authoritarian rule.
“I am so happy to be doing this now,” said Legesse in an interview.
“I think my WCC work will stand me in good stead for my new job because I was working with peace and reconciliation, accompanying churches in crisis, for example, in South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea and working closely with churches there.”
The consortium is a network of over 400 non-governmental, civil society, faith-based, and community-based organisations, as well as professional bodies.
“It’s a national organisation. But the members of these national organisations include international non-governmental organisations, over 100 of them, including Oxfam, Care, Save the Children -- big ones -- World Vision, are members,” said Legesse.
Legesse worked tirelessly for the reconciliation process between the previously estranged synods of the church that split into two in 1991 after the political change that forced the former patriarch, Abune Merkorios to live in exile in the United States. The schism was healed in July 2018.
Ethiopian prime minister Dr Abiy Ahmed opened his country to the outside after the years of repressive rule under his predecessor. He introduced political and economic reforms, restoring relations with neighbour Eritrea, and he played a vital role in the church reconciliation.
“That reconciliation is very helpful from the Ethiopian side,” said Legesse.
Eritreans still cannot, however, easily travel to Ethiopia as they wish as they require authorization from immigration authorities in Asmara before traveling.
Christianity came to Ethiopia around 330 AD and Christians account for some 63 percent of the northeast African nation’s 107 million people. The majority of Ethiopian Christians are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, a WCC founding member and the biggest Oriental Orthodox church.
A violent attempt in late June to subvert the new changes in Ethiopia underlined the fragility of the country’s new-found status. It also showed the important role civil society organisations could play in building up democratic institutions, long neglected.
“Now, civil society organisations can work on advocacy, rights-based approaches to development, on human rights issues and also peacebuilding and conflict resolution, which was not allowed until about a year ago,” Legesse observed.
“The law has been changed, and the law that’s governing the civil code of conduct has also been improved. We want to build on that change and make use of the opportunity that the new set-up offers,” he said.
“We want to continue to work on democratization. Also, there is the election taking place in May 2020, and we have already started training our members across the country to get them involved in monitoring and observing the election.”
He said his group wants to work with the WCC in many ways. “Both the Orthodox and the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus are also members of the World Council of Churches and they are founder members of the consortium, along with the Catholics and other protestant churches operating in the country. So, they are all on the same platform,” said Legesse.
The consortium is both ecumenical and interfaith. It works closely with all the churches in Ethiopia. Some of its members are members of the WCC and the ACT Alliance, and it also includes groups such as Catholic Relief Services, Bread for the World, Christian Aid, Dan Church Aid, Lutheran World Federation, World Vision and Norwegian Church Aid.