Ethiopian Orthodox Quest for Unity


Solomon Kibriye (Editor- Ethiopian Affairs) – OCP News Service – 17/3/18

This week, his Holiness Patriarch Abune Matthias I, Patriarch of Ethiopia, Echege of of the See of St. Tekle Haimanot and Archbishop of Aksum, celebrated the 5th anniversary of his enthronement in the midst of unprecedented civil unrest throughout the country. His Holiness released a statement that clergy at every rank have failed in their duty to protect and to mediate for peace between the population and those in authority and must share in the responsibility for the loss of life, peace, and property. Ideally, one would have expected that the institution that leads the largest number of Ethiopian faithful would have played a much larger role in trying to resolve the issues that have arisen between between the political interests that are shaking civil society to it’s core and demanding fundamental change. One of the major factors that has prevented this is the disunity that has shaken the hierarchy and the faithful on several levels.

One of the major factors in the weakening of the role of the church was the circumstances surrounding its disestablishment as the religion of state in 1974 when the monarchy was abolished. From the 4th Century proclamation of Christianity as the faith of the state by the Axumite brother co-Emperors Abreha and Atsbeha (Esana and Sezana), until Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed on September 12, 1974, every single Ethiopian monarch received anointing and coronation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Oaths were taken on the Holy Bible, and a fully equipped traveling tent church accompanied kings and warlords on military campaigns. Church fasts were observed by all, clergy occupied senior posts in the palace, military action was frowned on during Lent (unless invaded by a foreign force), and during Holy Week music was not played on the radio.

Monarchs attended church services in churches amongst their people and displayed their piety, and presided at great feasts, like Mesqel (Finding of the Holy Cross) and Timkat (Theophany). In return for the subjugation of the monarch to the church, and the upholding of piety, the church in turn recognized the monarch as its temporal head, who ensured not only the public adherence to it’s rules and strictures among the faithful public, but also it’s internal discipline. The deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie and the disestablishment of the Church as the faith of state ended all that of course.

The Marxist Derg regime that deposed the Emperor proclaimed “equality of faiths” which actually translated to oppression of all faiths. While the Patriarch and the Head of the Islamic Council of Ethiopia flanked the new head of state at public functions, the role of religion was deliberately attacked and belittled in a very public way. However, while the church lost all ability to influence the state, the state continued to treat the church as if it had inherited the Emperor’s role and directly involved itself in church affairs. Nothing illustrated this more than the imprisonment of Patriarch Abune Theophilos and his subsequent execution at the hands of the Communist regime. The government had nationalized the considerable properties of the church, and made it dependent on its largess. The government extended its authority into every church organ and retained a veto power over all church actions. Two Patriarchs were successively enthroned by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church during this time, and both were enthroned with the approval of the officially atheist regime.

In 1991, the Derg regime fell and the new government of the EPRDF came to power. However the attitude of the State towards the Church as an entity it needed to control did not end. The church had some property returned, but other than that the government continued to exert influence at every level. Patriarch Abune Merkorios abdicated under circumstances that remain under dispute. His followers say he did so under duress while his opponents say he did so of his own free will after his position became untenable having been discredited by his association with the fallen government. Whether his leaving his throne was voluntary or not, and if he was legitimate to begin with consumes many an argument that continue to rage. A new Patriarch, Abune Paulos was enthroned, and Abune Merkorios fled the country and an exile synod was set up by bishops who followed him into exile in 1993 in the United States. The split in the synod took on increasingly serious features as the two groups excommunicated each other following the consecration of new bishops by the exile synod in subsequent years. Sadly, opposition political groupings in exile have tried to exert influence on the exile synod and its churches (mostly through the individual church boards) in the same manner that the government does on the synod in Addis Ababa. This can be seen in the multiple disputes one hears about between the exile synods and recalcitrant boards who act as if the church should be subject to “popular rule”. It shows that there is an alarming trend among the entire political class of regarding the church as a powerful political tool rather than an institution that is entitled to respect. Indeed it shows that all sides in Ethiopia’s political sphere treat the church with a lack of respect.

The influence of pro and anti government politicians and authorities in both synods and churches has served to entrench the split in the church and made reconciliation increasingly difficult. A previous effort at reconciliation came tantalizingly close when heirarchs of both synods joined together to celebrate liturgy in the Washington DC area in 2012. However, Patriarch Abune Paulos died in August of that same year and there were those who advocated allowing Abune Merkorios to resume the Patriarchal throne. The exile synod made it clear that was what it considered the only solution that it would accept. Instead the Addis Ababa synod elected Abune Matthias as Patriarch, and reconciliation efforts ended.

Now Ethiopia is witnessing public unrest at a level it has never seen previously and confrontations between the two sides is increasingly tense. There have been repeated incidents of loss of life. The church ideally should have been the great neutral body that would have stepped in to mediate between the parties and helped to resolve the confrontation. Instead it is split and thus weakened, and because of the influence of politicians over its hierarchy both inside and outside the country, the hierarchy is prevented from exerting the influence that it should have been able to deploy. It shows without a doubt how much the authority of the church has been severely damaged by the fact that it has not been allowed to operate as an independent entity above all political interests.

Additionally a new threat has emerged inside the church in the form of the “Tehadiso” (Renewal) movement which has made efforts to introduce Protestant practices and teachings into the church by way of “modernizing” and “reinterpreting mistaken teachings” etc. When clamped down on in Addis Ababa, many of this movement’s devotees have fled abroad and taken refuge among the exile synod by denouncing the actions of the Ethiopian government and the Addis Ababa synod as its surrogate. However their teachings and practices have caused considerable dispute and conflict among the exile synod itself, and there is a dawning realization that this movement could seriously compromise its doctrinal position. The exile synod had to take the unprecedented step last year, of declaring that it remained fully within the canons and dogma of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church and that in matters of faith there is no difference between it and the synod in Addis Ababa. However there is alarm in both groups that if Tehadiso becomes entrenched in the churches under the exile synod, reconciliation might become impossible.

The need for reconciliation has thus become increasingly urgent. In recognition of this need, a group of the faithful living outside of Ethiopia formed a committee of reconciliation that approached both the exiles and the Addis Ababa synod to appoint delegates to re-start the reconciliation process. This week, while they were assembled in Addis Ababa to celebrate Patriarch Abune Matthias’ enthronement anniversary, the Holy Synod approved three archbishops to lead the delegation that will meet with the exiled fathers and restart the process. They are Abune Qwestos Archbishop of Eastern Shewa, Archbishop Abune Gorgorios, and Abune Abraham Archbishop of Bahir Dar and Eastern Gojjam. The exiled Synod is expected to name its delegates shortly.

May God Almighty grant these church fathers the wisdom and patience to achieve the unity of the Holy Church, and restore our faith to it’s place of greatness in the face of great trials and tribulations. Only then can the church assume its proper place in society and play the role it was meant to.

OCP News Service