Holy Synod Questions the ‘Purposeful Discrimination’ of Orthodox Faithful and Planned Attacks on Churches

Deacon Solomon Kibriye (Chief Editor – Ethiopian Affairs) – 14/9/19

Addis Ababa- Ethiopia: The emergency plenary session of the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church took place between September 5 and September 6th to discuss serious recent developments.

On the first day, the Synod discussed several serious issues faced by the Ethiopian Church (in recent months). The President of the Oromia Federal State Mr. Shimelis Abdisa appeared before the session at their request. Deacon Daniel Kibret as representative of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was also present during the Synod session.

Burning Churches, Political Turmoil and Ethnic Conflicts – A New Year with New Challenges for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

His Holiness Patriarch Abune Mathias I began the session by questioning the Oromia regional President. The Patriarch asked the reasons why all administrative positions in his Federal State from state-wide to the local level were being given only to non-Orthodox people, and thus Orthodox Christians are being systematically excluded and the concerns and complaints of the Ethiopian Church are ignored. Other Bishops from Oromia region pointed out that while travelling through the regional state, leaders and faithful of other faiths are routinely waved through security check points, while Orthodox Christian Prelates and believers are searched thoroughly and aggressively on regular basis.

The Archbishops asked ‘what weapons are they suspected of carrying other that the Cross of Christ’? Questions were also directed to Deacon Daniel Kibret (representative of the Prime Ministers) asking why the government ignored the Standing Synod’s request to prevent the illegal meeting of the Oromo Betekehenet group, and why Church concerns and complaints have been consistently ignored and why government officials and emissaries have deceived Church officials and the Patriarch. The burning of Churches, the killing of clergy and laity, the widespread looting and destruction of property and displacement of the faithful were raised to the officials in strident terms.

Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate Slams Relentless Attack on Churches and the Faithful

Mr. Shimelis Abdisa and Deacon Daniel Kibret responded promising that these complaints would be considered and that every effort would be made to address the concerns. The Oromia Regional President took responsibility for handling the problems in his region, but pointed out that he had only recently appointed to his position. He requested the Synod to appoint a liaison to serve as a conduit between his administration and the Patriarchate (for the purpose of hearing and handling complaints from the Church in future). The Holy Synod duly appointed Abune Natnael, Archbishop of Wellega-Qallem as liaisons to the office of the Oromia Presidents office. Initial reports from the session indicated that the Oromia President had also stated categorically that his administration would forbid further unlawful acts by the “Oromia Betekehenet” group, but asked that the Synod continue to expand its use of the Oromo language in teaching and hymns. However after the meeting Mr. Shimelis Abdisa released a statement denying that he had promised to curtail the activities of the “Oromia Betekehenet” and only that he hoped to mediate between the Synod and the group.

On the second day, the entire Holy Synod (led by the Patriarch) was invited by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to the Menelik Palace to meet him. The Prime Minister’s office issued a statement after the meeting calling it a success and extolling the importance of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia. However, other reports indicate that the meeting did not go well; that the Prime Minister refused the request for financial compensation for the burned Churches or for the families of the murdered priests and laity.

The Synod returned to the Patriarchate where members of the “Oromia Betekehenet” organizing committee had been summoned to explain themselves. Fr. Belay Makonnen, (leader of the group), was questioned about the ‘authority’ by which he issued announcements on letterhead purporting to be from the Patriarchate, and used seals made to look as if they were those of the Patriarchate. They were asked under what canonical authority they presumed to issue an ultimatum to the Holy Synod. The answers they provided at first appeared conciliatory tone, but upon being asked to apologize for their acts, Fr. Belay stated that they needed to consult with those members of their committee (who were not present at the Synod meeting). The Holy Synod gave them until 8 AM the following morning to appear before the Synod and apologize.

On the third and final day, the Holy Synod assembled and awaited the response of the group, but was kept waiting for two hours. After two hours two members of the “Oromia Betekehenet” group arrive and announced that they would refuse to apologize and defiantly stated the represented millions of faithful and would not back down. After the open defiance, His Holiness Abune Mathias I, Patriarch of Ethiopia, Archbishop of Axum and Echege of the See of St. Tekle Haimanot read out the statement to assembled press underlining the troubles and tribulations of this ancient, historic and apostolic Church in recent months. The Patriarch underlined the contributions of the Orthodox Church to Ethiopian civilization and statehood and categorically rejected any effort to divide it along ethnic lines.

In the aftermath of this historic emergency session, tensions between the Church and state have escalated. A demonstration called in Addis Ababa on September 15th to protest the attacks on Orthodox Christianity in recent months has drawn renewed attention and vigour amid escalating anger at the treatment of the Church by the concerned authorities. The demonstration has now expanded dramatically and virtually to all major urban centres in the country. Orthodox faithful plans to organize protests, along with several Ethiopian communities abroad. The government has voiced their concerns over the planned demonstrations. While permits have yet to be issued, authorities are trying to persuade organizers to change the format to a rally inside Addis Ababa’s huge Millennium Hall.

Current plans call for Addis Ababa’s Churches to ring their bells and for vested clergy to lead columns of white clad faithful in procession to Maskal Square, and then a march to the Arat Kilo government District. In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister has invited the organizing committee to meet him and the Presidents of the Federal States where the abuses are taking place. The government perhaps realizes the very negative optics of Ethiopia’s largest faith (claiming over 57 million members) calling its children to the streets. However, latest reports state that the demonstration has been postponed by two months as the government has entered negotiations with the organizing committee in order to resolve the problems raised by the Ethiopian Church.

In an ominous development, on September 10, reports from the southern city of Jimma in Oromia (Federal State) states that an attempt to burn down the Orthodox Churches of the Virgin Mary and Medhane Alem (Savior of the Word) were thwarted by members of the public. Photos of the beer bottles containing flammable fluids that were allegedly to be used to ignite Medhane Alem Church have been shared extensively on social media. As a result, civil unrest spread rapidly in the city and resulted in the municipal authorities calling Federal forces to restore order. Mass arrests are said to be taking place, and faithful have assembled in their Churches overnight to protect them.

OCP News Service