Who are the Two Patriarchs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

Solomon Kibriye (Editor – Ethiopian Affairs) – OCP News Service – 03/08/18
Special Courtesy – Archdeacon Tesfa Mikael Williams (News Editor – Ethiopian Affairs)

His Holiness Patriarch Abune Mathias gave a moving speech yesterday August 1, 2018, welcoming home Patriarch Abune Merkorios home after two and a half decades in exile. Their ‘Holinesses’ will now share the See of Saint Tekle Haimanot.

Faithful Welcome Patriarch Abune Merkorios to Ethiopia

Among the things Patriarch Abune Mathias said in regard to his happiness at the great reconciliation of the church- His Holiness noted that both of Ethiopia’s Patriarchs had been elevated to the episcopal rank on the same day and in the same ceremony. They were elevated by His Holiness, the late Patriarch Abune Tekle Haimanot on January 21, 1979 at Holy Trinity Cathedral, when 14 new Bishops were consecrated at the same time. This had been made necessary by the then Marxist Derg regime insisting that all the existing Bishops and Archbishops be retired from office due to their ties to the deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and his regime. Patriarch Abune Mathias also mentioned that they had both served for a time at Holy Trinity Cathedral where the welcoming ceremony  took place.

Departure of Patriarch Abune Merkorios from Dulles International Airport

This invites the question of who exactly these primates are, and what their backgrounds are. Here is what we know of them.

Patriarch Abune Merkorios (previously known as Abba Ze Libanos Fanta) was born during the Fascist Italian occupation into the lower nobility of the then Beghemidir province in 1937 in the district of Mar Midir near Debre Tabor. His parents were Blata Fanta Tessema and Woizero Lemlem Gesese. He studied as a child at the monasteries of Aregit Kidane Meheret (near his birthplace), and Atchitan Kidane Meheret in Beghemidir, and then travelled to Gojjam province to further his traditonal church education and studied first at Gonj Tewodros Monastery, and then the great Washera Monastery. He then returned to Beghemidir/Gondar to study at Agat Debre Tsion, Meneguazer, and Qut Abune Aregawi. At all of these locations His Holiness studied specialized categories of traditional church education and liturgical practice, namely poetry (qine) and various forms of liturgical chant (Diggua, Tsome Diggua, Meraf, Aquaquam, and Zimare Mewasit). He became a noted expert of Diggua in particular and qualified to teach it after being examined by the expert scholars at Bethlehem in Gayint district. He then returned to his first Monastery Aregit Kidane Meheret to teach what he had learned to novices for the next 7 years. He entered the island Monastery of Daga Estifanos and became a monk in 1968, and was ordained a monk-priest by Abune Markos, Archbishop of Gojjam, in that same year. He later moved to the Gashola Monastery to study the monastic rule there for two years. The then Abba Ze Libanos Fanta moved to Addis Ababa where he served at Holy Trinity Cathedral and also studied modern subjects in the Holy Trinity Cathedral School earning his secondary school diploma. He went on to serve as the administrator of the Bisrate Gabriel Church and was in that position when he was elevated to the position of Bishop of the Ogaden by Patriarch Abune Tekle Haimanot in 1979. He was later further elevated as Archbishop of Gondar in 1980. Following the death of Patriarch Abune Tekle Haimanot, Patriarch Abune Merkorios was enthroned as Ethiopia’s fourth Patriarch in August 1988. Following the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, Patriarch Abune Merkorios was forced down from the Patriarchal throne under duress from the new ruling authorities. He fled the country in 1993, followed by several Archbishops and set up the Synod in Exile.

Patriarch Abune Mathias (previously known as Abba Tekle Mariam Asrat) was born in 1941, during the Liberation of Ethiopia from Fascist Italian rule. He was born in Tigray Province, in the district of Agame, to his parents Ato Wolde Giorgis Wolde Mariam and Woizero Kelela Gebre Meskel. After first studying the Ge’ez language as a small child under his great-uncle Memher Wolde Gerima Wainey (a prominent Ge’ez scholar), he went on to study at the Mekane Hiwot Chih Monastery in the district of Tembien where he trained as a Deacon and then as a priest, and studied the computus (Bahre hasab). He then studied the Divine Liturgy and became a liturgical scholar. He also studied the other major ecclesiastical and liturgical categories of poetry (qine) and liturgical chant (Meraf and Tsome Digua), and the exegesis of various holy texts. The Abbot of Chih Monastery, Abba Asrate Tsion Kokebu, tonsured him a monk in 1959, whereupon the young Abba Tekle Mariam, the future Patriarch, began using the Abbot’s name of Asrat as his own surname. That same year he was ordained as a Priest by Abune Yohannes, Archbishop of Tigray. The then Abba Tekle Mariam Asrat moved to the great Monastery of St. Mary of Zion at Axum to study the traditional exegesis of the New Testament. After four years he went on to study this topic at a higher level in Gondar, while at the same time enrolling to study modern subjects at the Emperor Yohannes the Saintly High School there. In 1973, he moved to Addis Ababa and began serving at Holy Trinity Cathedral, while completing his secondary education at Emperor Menelik II School on the eve of the Ethiopian Revolution that toppled the monarchy. In 1975 following the removal (and eventual execution) of Patriarch Abune Theophilos by the Derg regime, Abba Tekle Mariam Asrat was appointed as the Chaplian of His Holiness (Abune Qesis) and personal assistant to the new Patriarch Abune Tekle Haimanot. He was then soon after consecrated as Abune Mathias Archbishop of Jerusalem and all Ethiopian Monasteries and Churches in the Holy Land. In 1982 Archbishop Abune Mathias issued a denunciation of the brutal communist government in Ethiopia and took political asylum in the United States where he established a church in Washington DC. He became a prominent voice in the exiled Ethiopian community speaking out against the Derg regime. After the fall of the Derg in 1991, the then reigning fourth Patriarch Abune Merkorios was forced to step down from the Patriarchal throne and then fled the country. The new Patriarch Abune Paulos appointed Abune Mathias as Archbishop of North America. This happened at the same time that the exiled Patriarch Abune Merkorios and those Archbishops that had followed him out of the country were forming the Exile Synod in the United States. Abune Mathias initiated the first contacts and started the first effort to heal the split with the exiled Patriarch and hierarchs but was unsuccessful. In 2007 he was re-appointed as Archbishop of Jerusalem and returned to the Holy Land. Following the death of the 5th Patriarch Abune Paulos in July 2012, Abuna Mathias was enthroned as the 6th Patriarch in March 2013.

Under the remarkable reconciliation agreement reached in Washington D.C. in recent weeks, the two Synods have become a single Synod once again, and these two primates will share the patriarchal throne equally. Both their names will be said in the Divine Liturgy. These men have spent a lifetime building vast religious knowledge in service to their church. They now preside over a newly re-united flock which is the largest by population of all the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and the second largest of both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions exceeded only by Russian Orthodoxy. With unity and greater focus of purpose, the Ethiopian Church can be expected to take on a greater international role than it has in the past.

May God Almighty bless the reunited Orthodox Church of Ethiopia and all her primates and their flock.

OCP News Service