For the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Easter comes tomorrow. But the spiritual renewal of the holy season is dampened by political discord that for months has rocked the church here and abroad.

Since the election of a new leader last summer, church members in Washington said, anger and heightened tensions have replaced praise and thanksgiving. Congregations that have been together for years split and new churches started.

Last June, the holy synod convened in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to elect a replacement for Aba Merkorios, ousted leader of the Ethiopian Church.

When the synod concluded, Abune Paulos had been named the new patriarch to the dismay of parishioners and members of the clergy who felt that Merkorios had been removed illegally.

The repercussions of that election still are being felt here, where the Ethiopian community is one of the largest in the country.

"The purpose of having a church is to worship every Sunday, to get the people together in the name of the Lord, which we are doing," said Andargeh Belachew, former president of the board at Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Church on East Capitol Street, who along with other members has formed another church.

"We are not under any particular authority," Belachew said. "We are just a small group of Ethiopians worshiping our denomination, just worshiping the Lord. We don't want any part of . . . religious or political instructions."

Medhane Alem met at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on East Capitol Street until December, when the church split during Sunday services over Pastor Abune Matthias's use of the pulpit to espouse political leanings.

"The other group has a place to worship, and we also have a new place to worship," Belachew said. "We are independent, and neither side has control over us. In terms of the leadership, they can do as they choose."

The Lutheran Church was drawn into the conflict, and after nine years of using the facility, the Ethiopians were asked to find another place to worship.

Church services have been postponed and some congregations completely dissolved because landlords refuse to be in a position of having to choose sides in the dispute. Priests and members who are sympathetic to Matthias have shown up at churches that are unwilling to accept Paulos's authority and disrupted the services, according to members of St. Gabriel Church on 16th Street NW.

Those who are uninvited have attempted to nullify the liturgy and sometimes get into shouting matches with worshipers, said some members of St. Gabriel.

"They want to send us a priest who represents the government, regardless of what we want," said Abeba Fekade, a member of St. Gabriel, which uses Meridian Baptist Church. "The point is to stop us from worshiping wherever we go. They should be spiritual leaders regardless of the government's position."

Ethiopian congregations also are splitting or dissolving in San Diego, Seattle and Boston, said Archbishop Abune Yesehaq.

Shortly after the appointment of the new patriarch, the holy synod assigned Matthias to replace Yesehaq in New York as the new archbishop governing North America and Canada.

Yesehaq was to have become the archbishop of the Caribbean and Latin America, but he has refused to relinquish his authority to Matthias.

"Even the place where {Matthias} was in D.C. will not accept him," Yesehaq said. "He is going around causing the churches to be closed, and the people are left without a place to worship."

A lawsuit has been filed in Montgomery County to settle a dispute over who should get Medhane Alem's money, according to Linda H. Mullenbach, an attorney for Matthias. Courts are expected to hear similar arguments this month in New York, where the newly established leadership in the Ethiopian Church is suing Yesehaq for access to financial accounts, properties and documents.

"The problem is not with the church in Ethiopia. The people in Washington and the U.S. are divided by ethnic and political problems," Matthias said. "The patriarch was elected legally, and when Yesehaq was at the synod, he agreed to abide by their decision. When he returned to the U.S., he opposed Paulos."

Yesehaq said that shortly before the synod concluded, he received word that the former patriarch had been forced out of office and he had no choice but to withdraw his support.

Ethiopian Orthodox congregations, like several other immigrant groups in the area, rent time and space from established congregations of other faiths as they accumulate funds to build their own facilities. Plans by the Medhane Alem congregation and others to build a church are now on hold.

"Even if you are Ethiopian and not religious, you still look to the church for stability and guidance," said Mekbib Michael, a computer specialist in Northeast Washington. "People have been going to church together for years and now all of a sudden everybody is divided along ethnic lines."

The division has caused some West Indians and African Americans who attend the Ethiopian Church to leave permanently or until the matter is resolved.

Among the Ethiopians, the membership is steadfast or increased when the services are held, said Aba Melaku Getaneh, the new pastor of St. Gabriel. "Weddings, funerals and births are not affected by this problem," he said.

"Surely when people come to church to pray, the peace of mind is disturbed, but it is the priest's job to teach the congregation to overcome this difficulty and be strong."

Getaneh said his congregation at St. Gabriel sees the new church administration as a force that has come to destroy the church by stirring up ethnic tensions. He believes that Ethiopians are vigilant defenders of the faith and that in the end, the guilty parties will be exposed and the church will be stronger.

"This is a tremendously disheartening, sad, destructive situation where no one will end up the winner," Mullenbach said. "Friendships have been destroyed, emotions are running high, and the lines have been drawn. So whoever wins, there will be nothing left but losers."