What is tearing Ethiopia apart is not Christian Nationalism. Rather, it is Ethnocentrism that has enshrined exclusionary regional particularism at the expense of national unity, fueling political and religious violence.

Andrew DeCort extensively writes on issues Ethiopia is facing with the expressed interest to be a bridge-builder. I applaud his passion for the love of a neighbor, dialogue, and peace. Nonetheless, I disagree, particularly, with his recent article that has appeared on Foreign Policy with a bold claim that “Christian Nationalism Is Tearing Ethiopia Apart”. I believe his conclusion is based on false, shallow, and highly emotive reading and analysis of Ethiopia’s socio-political history. In his attempt to condemn one kind of violence, he is feeding a monster of violence — ethnocentric radicalism, the biggest threat to Ethiopia’s national unity based on diversity. There is an embedded dismissiveness or bias towards the genuine efforts the country is making, as demonstrated by his idealistic understanding of the evolution of the current complex conflict. I must say that his views are not only misleading but polarizing and dangerously divisive. What is tearing Ethiopia apart is not Christian Nationalism. Rather, it is Ethnocentrism that has enshrined exclusionary regional particularism at the expense of national unity, fueling political and religious violence. I list five reasons to assert my conclusion.

First, a wrong re-reading of Ethiopia’s Imperial past into the current political paradigm

DeCort is correct in his analysis that with the conversion of Ezana around 330, the monarchy and church functioned hand-in-glove until 1974. This makes Ethiopia the longest-surviving Christendom. There are, however, three ungrounded conclusions in his analysis:

  1. He asserts that being “Orthodox defined identity and belonging in imperial Ethiopia for more than 1,000 years”; this is an irrational and dangerous conclusion.

Implicit in the above statement is that non-Orthodox, and therefore the non-Amhara and Tigray were not regarded as Ethiopian citizens until a random past about 1000 years ago. DeCort has failed, however, to substantiate his claim. Ethiopia’s current crisis is fueled by a wrong understanding of its rich, long, complex, socio-political and ecclesiastical history. As the cycle of writing, re-interpreting, and re-writing history goes on, so does the cycle of alienation, mistrust, dominance, and violence. The June 18, 2022 massacre of Amhara in Ghimbi District of East Wollega Zone, Tolle Kebele, in the Oromia region, is a vivid example.

Like any other nation that has a long history, Ethiopia’s rich political history requires an objective reading as a succession of epochs, each shaped both by local and global socio-political events. It is unjust to read the past through the enlightenment of the present. With some risk of oversimplification, Ethiopia’s history (taking King Ezana’s conversion as a turning point) can be classified under four major historical paradigms, each with its own distinct, yet interrelated accents, which emerged out of different local and global socio-political settings. These categorizations should not be taken as neat and exhaustive, but they need to be seen only as a sweeping macro-level view of Ethiopian history.

  1. Imperial Ethiopia, with Ezana as the first king, ended with the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie, the last of the dynasty, in 1974.
  2. The Military Regime (aka the Derg) (1974–1991). The revolution ended the period of Monarchy and Christendom. Initially, the Derg had no clear and fixed ideology. Communism, however, rapidly prevailed due to both internal and external dynamics, culminating in the 1987 establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) under an authoritarian one-party system, the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE).
  3. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was a coalition of ethnic-based rebel forces that ruled from 1991–2018. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had control of the EPRDF and its subsidiary parties and was the principal architect of the Ethno-linguistic Federalism.
  4. That brings us to the current reformation of the EPRDF which the TPLF rejected, retreating to Mekelle, Tigray. The new reform renamed the EPRDF the “Prosperity Party” in December 2019.

In all these paradigms all citizens were considered Ethiopians regardless of their social class. The longest political paradigm was Christian Imperial Ethiopia. The last three paradigms share in common finding a creative way to address the tension between centralism and regional particularism with a credible power share that does justice to the social makeup of Ethiopia as a mosaic nation of 84 ethnic groups.

Ethiopia’s political landscape has significantly changed in the last almost half-century. Nonetheless, the question of a creative and healthy balance between centralism and regional particularism remains a lingering challenge. As this tension reached its climax, it became one of the major reasons for the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie, resulting in the Marxist revolution.

The Marxist military regime was highly autocratic but had managed to be far more ethnically even-handed than Imperial Ethiopia ever was. It failed, however, to provide an equitable space for regional autonomy, including denying Eritrea’s desire for self-governance, triggering the needless longest war in Africa. When the TPLF-dominated EPRDF came into power, it moved the country from centralism to the extreme side of regionalism, based on Ethno-linguistic particularity, to the right of secession. In practice, the Tigray political elitists took the upper hand at the center and replaced the Amhara elitism. In the same way that Amhara was equated with the Monarchy, the narrative of equating the TPLF with Tigray continued.

Will the cycle continue with Oromo elitism at the front since 2018? The interpretation of Ethiopian history itself has become a possession, a status game, over which to fight and compete. Each political, social, ethnic, and even religious interest group competes to turn the retrospective prism in the direction that favors their status vis-à-vis the rest of Ethiopia.

  • On one extreme side is a revisionist view that feeds upon excessive ethnic self-consciousness by demonizing the northern aristocracy — predominantly the Amhara rulers, followed by the Tigrayan.
  • The other side does exactly the opposite — re-constructing the contributions of the two dominant ethnic groups, particularly the Amhara elites, in exclusively positive terms as expansionists who championed modernism in Ethiopia.

Regionalism has, wittingly or unwittingly, provided a fertile ground for all forms of ethnic and religious extremism. Class distinction and elitism during the feudal system, communist dictatorship, and ethnic-based authoritarianism are the political profiles of Ethiopia. Contrary to DeCort’s assertion — and this is crucial to understand — none of the above political paradigms denied the “Ethiopian-ness” of any region in the country, nor their ethnolinguistic and religious particular-ness. Ethiopia is a mosaic — a nation inseparably knit together by over 84 ethnolinguistic people groups, each with its unique beauty. As diverse as it is, its people share commonalities across language, culture history, and values. DeCort’s analysis and interpretations are not only divisive and polarizing but dangerously perpetuate violence by feeding false narratives. Unless walls of fear and suspicion based on past history — both true and false narratives — are transcended with genuine conversation and understanding, national reconciliation and unity appear to be more and more elusive.

Second, his negative view of the missionary expansion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

The EOTC indeed grew under the shadow of imperial expansion, new territories either rejected Christendom as an ideological identity imposed by the ruling classes or absorbed it into their religious and cultural milieu. In turn, the EOTC was a highly indigenized and inclusive church that has appropriated various primal religious practices, either by absorbing them or transfiguring them into its version of Christianity (which was already somewhat Hebraic), though the degree varies from place to place. An example is the acceptance of Christianity by the Agew people whose indigenization of the new religion was marked more and more by the residue of Judaic and pagan practices and beliefs. The same can be said of the spread of Christianity in the northern Wollo region, attributed to King Lalibela (1181–1221), the King-Monk. In this way, the EOTC missionary movement was mixed both with indiscriminate indigenization and syncretism. As such, DeCort’s selective reading and interpretations are not only condescending to the missionary efforts of the EOTC but feed the politicized negative sentiments against the Church.

Current geopolitical Ethiopia is a final product of gradual imperial expansion, and in this drama of political expansion, the Church was a major factor. One cannot read Ethiopia’s political history discerningly without paying attention to the role that the church has played in shaping the country’s identity as Africa’s independent nation. Even at its most vulnerable times during the invasion of Somali Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim (r. 1529–1543), widely known as Ahmad Gragň (the left-handed), and the incursion of the Catholic church, both the Emperors and the Ethiopian church defended the territorial and Christian integrity of their kingdom despite an incredible theological pressure on the church to acknowledge Papal authority.

As DeCort acknowledges, the emperors were defenders of both religion and government. This was expected of their era, a natural political phenomenon one should not over-read. British Monarchs were titled: “ . . . by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her/His other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth”. DeCort negatively reads the crown-altar relational dynamic in the light of the 21st century. His critique is anachronistic, a simplistic and shallow analysis.

Naturally, the imperial expansion meant the spreading of northern, traditional, Christian culture and the Amharic language into recently acquired territories. This is just in the same way Christianization and Westernization have been intertwined. There was sporadic violence, as DeCort points out, especially in resolving theological controversies as exhibited both by Yohannes IV and his successor, Menelik II. Compared to any religious expansions elsewhere, the EOTC’s was relatively peaceful. The Reconquista followed by Spanish Inquisition, in recent years the “C’s of Colonialism: Civilization, Christianity, and Commerce”, and slavery intertwined with violence, as DeCort is well aware, are some examples. He picks some isolated violent incidents and reads his evangelical lens to the self-understandings of Ethiopian Emperors, thus undermining their sincere (although not always effective and even at times forceful by decree) missionary endeavours as best they knew. Keep in mind that the EOTC has suffered from a lack of trained clergy and was under the leadership of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, which was linguistically and culturally indifferent. It was only in 1929 that Alexandria, grudgingly appointed five Bishops, and even then, they remained under Egyptian headship. Finally, in 1959 the church became independent with Basilios as the first Ethiopian Abune.

Even if the Church’s missionary movement were ‘violent’ as DeCort’s analysis indicates, how is that uniquely different from its contemporary religious conquests? Quite frankly, his critical view of Ethiopia’s imperial expansion is hypocritical. Contrary to DeCort’s negative analysis, the Imperial/religious expansion in Ethiopia was far more peaceful and less violent than Western imperialism, which was wedded to Christianity. Slavery, racism, segregation, and the current system of injustice in our world cannot be explained without the violent aspect of “the Christian” Global North’s colonial conquest of the Global South. The long path of democracy in the Global North was bloody and still struggles to maintain its reputation as a credible alternative. A cherry-picked and anachronistic reading of Ethiopia’s story and current difficult chapter — as DeCort has done — is disheartening.

Third, his statement that “in Abiy’s Ethiopia, Christian imperialism is resurgent.”

DeCort has laboured to prove his claim that ancient Christian imperialism is resurging in Ethiopia by drawing parallels between ancient Ethiopian rulers’ “messianic self-understanding” and that of contemporary leaders. This is a far-fetched and deeply misguided argument and that shows his poor understanding of the history of Ethiopian Evangelicalism. Ethiopia’s two largest Evangelical denominations (probably up to 75%) are the Ethiopian Kale Heywot Church, predominantly from the south, and the Ethiopian Mekane Yesus Church, prominent among the Oromo people. It makes no sense that these two large predominantly non-Amhara/non-Tigray Protestant groups want the resurrection of Ethiopia’s imperial past. There is indeed a tendency within Ethiopian Christianity to stretch the meaning of verses like “Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God” (Psalm 68:31). I do not believe that any Gentile nation should read its history into Sacred Scriptures. This temptation is not peculiar to Ethiopia. Some within the American Evangelicalism, Afrikaners, and the “Christian” colonizers in the past have read their stories into the Bible. The tendency toward eisegesis is as Ethiopian as it is human. As DeCort recognizes, more than 97% of Ethiopians are religious. In times of drought and famine, war, and national crisis, Ethiopians pray and seek hope from the sacred texts of the Bible.

Leaders, when they rule justly, are accepted as “sent” by God, and when they are oppressors, they are still “sent by God”, but “to punish,” and people ask God for mercy and their replacement. For instance, the late human rights champion, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, described both Lemma Megeressa and Abiy as “Moses” during the early stages of current change. Leaders within the EOTC and Islam praised Abiy as a “peace-maker sent from God” after he unified factions within EOTC and the Muslim communities. DeCort conveniently ignores that this is in the fabric of the nation.

Certainly, his allegation that the “core belief is that Ethiopia is a Christian nation created and destined by God for greatness under Christian leadership . . . is supercharging enmity and silencing critical voices calling for the end of war, genuine dialogue, and an inclusive Ethiopia where diverse people can belong together,” is a great injustice to the country and overly simplifies its complex crisis. While I agree with him that the government has failed its mandate to uphold justice and build a righteous society, he ignores (at least in this particular article) the genesis and complexities of the current crisis, to which I will come back shortly. The ball is in the TPLF court to cease hostilities and cynically divisive speech and violent acts. The TPLF’s hand is behind its ally with ethnic rebels such as the OLA, responsible for mass killings of Amhara and other selected ethnic groups who live in Oromia region, the militant Gumuz sects in Benishangul-Gumuz and related sporadic violence in the various pocket of the country.

In fairness to DeCort, it is incontestable that Ethiopian Evangelicalism has fallen prey to the “prosperity gospel”. The few proponents of “dominion theology” who skillfully use the media do not speak for Ethiopian Evangelicalism. As a matter of fact, DeCort has served as an assistant pastor at Beza International Church, founded by Dr. Betta Mengistu whom he claims to be “a founding father of Ethiopian Pentecostalism.” Not sure if this is accurate, but ironically he is one of the people DeCort mentions as a leading architect in resurrecting “Christian Imperialism”. He left Beza for not theological reasons that its founder is “a champion of dominion theology in Ethiopia”, but, in his own words: “ because of my relationship with Lily [his wife], who was not a member of the church. They said Lily had a ‘foreign spirit,’ and I was cut out of the church and its leadership. I continue to bless them every time I think of them to this day.” I find this very puzzling.

The overwhelming majority of Evangelical leaders reject these teachings and their claims. Despite its many weaknesses, Ethiopian Evangelicalism has many decent leaders. DeCort’s over-reaching claim does not do justice to this reality. Abiy may have acted in good faith to unify the divided Evangelical community in the same way that he did within both the EOTC and the Muslim communities. The schism in both of those was due to the effect of ethnocentrism. In my opinion, his direct involvement in the Evangelical churches and the steps taken were serious mistakes for many reasons; and unlike the other two faith communities, the Evangelicals are highly autonomous, making unity a very arduous task.

DeCort must know that even if there is an “imperial nostalgia”, as he boldly claims, there is not a remote possibility for its realization for four reasons:

a) Evangelicals are still minorities and have been persecuted both by the EOTC and governments until 1991libeled as “un-Ethiopian”, as DeCort writes. They still experience rejection and in some cases violence. It is unthinkable that they will ally with the EOTC to resurrect “Christian Imperialism”.

b) Islam, as the second-largest, religion will not allow this without a bloody fight; of course, the vast majority of Ethiopians do not wish for such a conflict. This is not a risk Ethiopian Christianity will take, especially given a relatively peaceful co-existence between these two faith groups.

c) The political landscape of Ethiopia has radically and unalterably changed to make a return to the imperial Christian era impossible. DeCort is aware of how religiously and ethnically diverse the ruling party and its current cabinet are, even having three from opposition parties. His claim and Ethiopia’s political face do not correspond; there is no warrant to the prospect of a Christian imperial surge! DeCort’s over-reading of the ideas of “prosperity gospel” into the current cabinet as an “Evangelical takeover” is emotive and unsubstantiated.

d) Arguing that the role Abiy played corresponds to the powerful theological idea of ‘symphony’ between church and state, the past Emperors being the head [of both], does not hold water. It is true that the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia — with seven leaders of major faiths sitting on its board, representing approximately 97% of Ethiopia’s religious population, has an influence on Ethiopia’s current political paradigm. But the crucial point is that it is inter-religious. Abiy has consistently injected some good religious values into the Ethiopian path of democracy on the occasion of major events, whether Christian, Muslim, or even the Oromo Irecha. Unlike DeCort’s assumptions, this is quite the opposite of the practices of Ethiopia’s past Emperors!

Yes, there has been silence within faith communities (see my article) in the face of injustice, particularly within the Evangelicals. But DeCort’s generalization of the Evangelicals as “complacent” is simplistic. There are three factors he has failed to see. First, under the first two political paradigms mentioned above, the Evangelicals were marginalized and severely persecuted. Second, in the last two paradigms, the “religious freedom” they received became a political trap, and finally, otherworldly-oriented self-understanding focused on ‘things above’ rather than things of the earth.

Four a utopian reading of Ethiopia’s current complex war and the need for peace

DeCort has photographs of himself with almost every radical opposition leader with an idealistic hope for human cooperation. He wants to show that bridge-building is possible; but at the same time, he is very dismissive of the positive efforts of the current regime to the point of hostility, despite knowing that it is mandated to rule by an overwhelming majority. While building bridges at the fringes, has he burned bridges with those who represent the majority? How is dialogue possible with double standards? He demonizes people like Daniel Kiberet while at the same time going the extra mile to find the good and praise-worthy in Jawar Mohammed. I appreciate the growth in Mohammed’s recent views, but he is also known for proposing the beheading of Christians to defend Muslims’ rights in Ethiopia, identifying the aspiration of the Oromo and Islam as being the same.

The same can be said of Eleni Z. Gabre-Madhin who attended proactively a secret meeting that discussed a proposed plot by a coalition of parties formed in the USA with an expressed intent to make a regime change at any cost, including violence. Bekele Gerba along with Merara Gudina presided over a hate speech in which one of the participants argued that the “Oromo should not marry with the Amhara and those who are married must divorce and marry from within the Oromo ethnic group. A worse hate statement was made by Alula Solomon of the Tigray Media House. I could go on listing more, but these are sufficient to point out that DeCort cannot subscribe to “bridge-building and dialogue” while being selective in his critique to the exclusion of the other hurting parties in the nations. There are many centrists who vehemently disagree with his analysis, but share his critique of the government and passion for justice. In a country such as Ethiopia where cynicism and emotional politics are intensified, DeCort’s article is counterproductive.

War is ugly. The question of peace is the most pressing of all at this moment — particularly in Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz. When any region suffers, we all suffer. As I have said several times in the past, my heart again goes out to all victims of the current crisis.

As far as the crisis in Tigray is concerned, there are five extreme views that we must resist: first, the view that sees the peaceful people of Tigray through the lens of the TPLF oppressors. Second, is the view that demands blind ethnic loyalty to the elite TPLF’s oppressors. It is unjust and immoral to deny the historical reality of the TPLF’s major share in human suffering in the nation. The people of Tigray are included as many of the victims. The euphoria of the proclaimed ‘unity and democracy’ under the TPLF-led EPRDF did not last very long. Rather, it was soon replaced by the resentment that the elites of the TPLF brought upon the party and its government by open dominance, ethnocentric nepotism, and repression. Third, is the view that exclusively holds the TPLF accountable while overlooking the proportional responsibility of other members under the EPDRF political umbrella. In the reform that emerged from the EPRDF, a public apology described its rule as “state terrorism.” Fourth, is the view that denies the fact that the TPLF launched this avoidable war, including provoking Eritrea into joining. On the evolution and analysis of the events that led to the war, please see my article. Fifth, is the view that denies the proportional responsibilities of all parties involved in the war.

Atrocities, war crimes, mass killings, and violent rapes have been committed by all parties involved — the federal government, the TPLF, and the Eritrean troops. This was confirmed by the Joint Report (JR) of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and by various human rights groups such as Amnesty International. A report of worse human tragedy followed the second war, July-December 2021. This was when the TPLF invaded the regions of Amhara and Afar after the June 2021 federal government’s declaration of unilateral ceasefire, which forced the government to respond forcing the TPLF back to Mekelle. The UN estimates that 7 million people are in dire need. Eritrea and the TPLF have yet to take responsibility for their part in war crimes.

The TPLF’s early manifesto (1976), though eventually abandoned, had a vision of an independent republic. That ambition to create a Tigrayan nation remains today in the subconscious of the TPLF and feeds resentment against the Amhara people in Ethiopia. There is a need for honest conversation, to unmask this ethnocentric narrative and heal wounds between these two great people: Tigray and Amhara.

As painful as it is, it is in the best interests of Tigray to engage in an honest and open dialogue with the people of Eritrea and talk through past historical animosity, bitterness, and mistrust. These two great peoples are intertwined in culture, language, and heritage. One has to keep in mind the historical evolution that caused an inevitable drift between these two brother nations, resulting, in more than 100,000 lives lost (1998–2000) in war. How is peace possible without engaging Eritrea? DeCort must re-examine his reading of the conflict in Ethiopia toward a more objective and balanced view. Undue pressure and partiality only worsen human suffering in the country. The right way forward is collaborative dialogue towards peace, reconciliation, and healing.

We live in a time where truth and media worthiness is decided by the power of money, politics, and sensationalism. The genesis and the complexities of Ethiopia’s current crisis are poorly analyzed, even misleadingly interpreted by media powers in the Global north. This has made human suffering in the country even worse. DeCort is immerging as yet another Western misleading opinion maker, and his article masks the real problem: the rise of radical ethnolinguistic regionalism — the main fountainhead of human suffering: socio-political, economic, and religious in the country. I cannot hide my disappointment with Abiy’s government, and our heart bleeds with what is happening in the nation. He is losing his popularity. Nonetheless, there is hope and what Ethiopia needs is numerous leaders who are sincere bridge-builders.

Fifth, his hypocritical reading and expectations

DeCort’s analysis has completely missed the point that the current government has both inherent and inherited systemic problems. His utopian view of Ethiopian politics has not been afforded the same grace as his world, the Global North, which has indulged itself to the point of abuse in its bloody path of “democracy”. Ethiopia still has a long way to go, and there is every sincere concern and fear about whether Abiy will live up to his initial vision.

Compared to any election in the majority of the “democratic” Global North, including the USA, Ethiopia held a relatively fair and transparent election, despite the fact that it was pre-judged and de-legitimatized by the U.S. and the E.U. Observers for the African Union, a body of members from 55 African nations, testified:

“The pre-election and Election Day processes were conducted in an orderly, peaceful and credible manner . . . The Mission, therefore, commends all Ethiopians for the demonstrated commitment to the democratic development of the country.”

Democracy is a journey, a never-ending process towards an ideal. The Western world (most notably the United States), while promoting democracy internationally, nevertheless struggles to live up to its ideals. Its hypocrisies are in plain sight for the peoples of Ethiopia and other Majority World nations: Systemic racism, record income inequality, environmental abuses, corruption, and allegations of a “stolen election” — all of these comprise the so-called superior “human development” of Western democracy.

The fact that DeCort can write critically of the government, an unthinkable right if the TPLF was still in power, is a light of hope that dialogue is possible. As he admits, “the EPRDF was a brutally authoritarian regime, and it forcefully intimidated, arrested, and attacked anyone who criticized it.” How about attempting to “echo” the voice of Saudi Shiites or writing against Saudi's role in human tragedies in Yemen, right from Saudi Arabia, a necessary geopolitical evil for the Global North’s interest? Democracy is a relative concept, even a subtle convenience, most of the time. In the words of Paul II “[it] cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality.”

DeCort needs to re-examine his reading of Ethiopia’s complex political problems entangled with Ethno-centric politics enthroned by the TPLF-dominated EPDRF. Authentic dialogue peace, reconciliation and healing, and justice are intertwined. Selective reading, outrage, and preferential ‘justice’ do not help at all. I want to reiterate: What is tearing Ethiopia apart is not Christian Nationalism. Rather, it is Ethnocentrism that has enshrined exclusionary regional particularism at the expense of national unity, fueling political and religious violence.

All Ethiopians must choose to transcend the country’s recent legacy of bitterness and mistrust, fear of domination and paternalism, revenge, and “ethnic otherness” fueled by misleading and false narratives. We have the opportunity to learn from history — both its dark and bright sides. The most important question is whether or not we choose to move from historical imprisonment to a vision of hope. Unless walls of fear and suspicion are transcended with genuine conversation, reconciliation, and healing, national unity will be difficult. This, in turn, will make federalism very superficial, diminishing the ground for mutual flourishing and creating a highly insecure society made up of ethnic groups that refuse to see each other except through the keyholes in ethnic walls. As a nation, we are at a crossroads. We must choose the way of truth and love; peace and justice; forgiveness and tolerance without which we cannot break free from the cycle of appalling poverty and violence. We have suffered enough from self-inflicted wounds.

We can overcome! May peace reign!

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A consultant in Christian Mission Studies and Visiting Professor of Missional Leadership in Postmodern World Tyndale University College & Seminary, Toronto

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Girma Bekele, PhD

A consultant in Christian Mission Studies and Visiting Professor of Missional Leadership in Postmodern World Tyndale University College & Seminary, Toronto