Crisis in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

Crisis in Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

Ethiopians dressed in black attending services for the three-day Fast of Nineveh due to government persecution of their Orthodox Church.

Deacon Solomon Kibriye and Archdeacon Tesfa Mikael Williams (Ethiopian Affairs)OCP News Service – 07/02/2023

Ethiopia: On Sunday, January 22, 2023, in a small rural church of the Nativity of Christ outside the town of Woliso, three Archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, without authority from the Holy Synod, and without the presence of His Holiness Patriarch Abune Mathias I, uncanonically consecrated 26 monks as “bishops” and proclaimed a new and separate “Orthodox Synod” for the Oromia regional state and other areas of Ethiopia’s south along ethnic lines.  The reaction across Ethiopian society was one of shock, as the ethnicism which has led to division and war in recent years had thus far eluded the houses of worship. The renegade group threatened that they would name their own Patriarch, and demanded a division of church properties unless the Holy Synod agreed to negotiate and recognize the newly consecrated “bishops”.  His Holiness the Patriarch summoned the entire Holy Synod into emergency session and on Thursday the 26th of January, the Holy Synod pronounced an ex-communication against the three former Archbishops, and 25 of the so-called “bishops” they had named.  All of them were defrocked, stripped all their church ranks and episcopal names, and reduced to the rank of “Mr.” One of the 26  newly consecrated “bishops”, Abba Tsegazeab Adugna, repented and came to the Patriarchate to apologize in person.  He was forgiven and not included on the list of excommunicated and defrocked ex-clerics.

The renegade group then issued a defiant and false statement that the people of the Oromia region were prevented from receiving services in the Orthodox Church and instruction from their clergy in their native language.  The Holy Bible was translated into the Oromo language in the 1870s.  Since the early 1990s, the Holy Liturgy has been translated into the Oromo language and is widely celebrated in that language in addition to several other languages of Ethiopia across the various regions.  More theological colleges and seminaries have been established to teach in the Oromo language than in Amharic or Tigrigna.  Several Oromo Archbishops serve on the Holy Synod and indeed have served in leadership positions of the Patriarchate Administration and the Holy Synod Secretariate. The renegade group tried to justify their un-canonical consecration by falsely alleging that Emperor Haile Selassie I had unilaterally broken ties with the Coptic Orthodox Church and created the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Synod by naming his own bishops. This of course was patently false, as the Coptic Orthodox Church granted the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church autocephalous status in 1948, and the rank of Patriarch to its primate in 1959, after many years of negotiation and agreements that maintained apostolic succession and adhered to canon law.  The renegade group also declared that unless the Holy Synod accepted their new “bishops”, they would elect their own Patriarch.  They then proceeded to issue “ex-communications” of some of the senior members of the Holy Synod and demanded a division of property.

There was alarm in church circles from the beginning of the crisis over the government’s attitude towards the renegades.  The police guards of the Patriarchate in Addis Ababa were removed, and the renegade bishops were reported to be under security forces protection in a hotel in Addis Ababa. It was also noted that a prominent Evangelical Protestant pastor with close ties to the Prime Minister had, just days before the un-canonical consecration, said that he had experienced a vision of Christ in which the Lord promised him that He was about to split the Orthodox Church in two and destroy her “false teachings”.  It was widely suspected that not only did he have foreknowledge of what was to take place, but that the government was supportive.  On January 28th, several Archbishops were scheduled to be in the city of Jimma to dedicate the new Cathedral of St. Mary there, on the eve of the Feast of the Dormition of Our Lady. They were informed by Oromia regional authorities that they were not welcome in Jimma. To make matters worse, the Archbishop of Jimma, Abune Estifanos, was detained by police and then expelled from the city and sent to Addis Ababa.  Angry parishioners refuse to allow the new church to be dedicated without the presence of the canonical bishop and there were protests throughout the Feast of the Dormition.  Subsequently, Archbishop Abune Yared was expelled from his diocese of Eastern Arsi. The following week, the renegade “bishops” escorted by armed Oromia regional security forces, forcibly took over various churches, monasteries, and diocesan offices in parts of the region. An unknown number of faithful, clergy, and lay staff have been jailed and interrogated, and others threatened.  The monk who had repented and left the renegade group was seized at the gates of the Patriarchate and taken for questioning by security forces in Addis Ababa for some hours before being freed. The perception that the government was heavily involved in this attempt to split the Orthodox Church was taking firm hold.

The Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed on January 28 held a half-hour televised seminar that was given to members of his cabinet in which he unequivocally stated his recognition of the renegades, saying that “both sides have truths, both sides are our fathers” and pushed for the Holy Synod to negotiate with the renegades. He seemingly violated the constitution under which he serves by saying that the Church “could not refuse demands that instruction be given in native languages”. He also expressed wonderment at why the Church would excommunicate the Oromo clerics when they failed to excommunicate the Tigrean Archbishops during the Tigrean war. While it is false that the Church has denied instruction in native languages, what was even more shocking than this false claim was that the Prime Minister was violating the separation of Church and state by telling the Synod what to do, and attempting to coerce it into dealing with a group of defrocked and excommunicated persons who had expressed no regret.  The Prime Minister then boasted that, since the fall of the monarchy, no government had done more for the Orthodox Church than his. He reminded his audience of his role in ending the 28-year schism of the Church after which two Patriarchs had governed the Church, and also his return of two buildings seized form the Church by the Derg regime in 1974. He also claimed that in Addis Ababa, the government had granted land to the Orthodox Church three times more than the grants given to all other faiths combined. He ended with a demand that none of his ministers involve themselves in church matters, which was seen as a veiled threat against Orthodox officials that might attempt to find a way out of the confrontation.

The Holy Synod immediately issued a terse response to the Prime Minister’s statement, line by line. They decried his taking the side of a renegade group and the government’s failure to protect the church from being invaded and occupied by them.  They also decried his open endorsement of the false claims by the renegades. The Church also acknowledged his role in ending the schism, but denied his claim that two Patriarchs had run the Church. His late Holiness Abune Merkorios I had returned to Ethiopia with his patriarchal dignity and had presided over the Church in prayer, but that the governing of the Church was held by Patriarch Abune Mathias I, who remains to this day as the canonical Patriarch.  The Synod also noted that, in the case of the two buildings, return of illegally seized property should not be regarded as a government grant.  They also dismissed the claims that the government had granted the Church three times the amount of land than all other faiths in Addis Ababa. The government was dishonestly including the re-confirmation of old title deeds to existing churches and other properties that the Church had held for decades as new “grants of land”. The Church also decried the government’s attempt to coerce it into dealing with people it had defrocked and excommunicated. As to the Prime Minister’s point about the ex-communication of the Oromo clerics but failing to excommunicate the Tigrean Archbishops, the Holy Synod statement noted that the Archbishops of Tigray had done nothing that violated canon law, nor had they named uncanonical bishops, or declared a parallel “synod”.  They had therefore done nothing to warrant ex-communication. The Synod noted that the government could not insert itself into internal church matters, but should instead be protecting the institution from attacks. It had become clear to the Holy Synod that the government was wholly on the side of the renegades.  The Church declared that on the three days of the Fast of Nineveh (February 6-8) all Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo churches worldwide would hold special Meḥella Prayers (Prayer of Rogation) and the faithful were instructed to wear black.

The government’s response has been to dig in further. Almost immediately people noticed a shortage of black clothes in stores and there were signs that the government was behind the shortage. Government offices have posted notices that wearing black to work was strictly forbidden, and university students have been turned away from classes for wearing black.

Most horrifically, in the town of Shashemene on February 4th, snipers opened fire on a large crowd of the faithful who had assembled on the grounds of St. Michael’s Church there to prevent the renegades from taking over. An unknown number of people were wounded, and so far the death toll stands at 23. The Holy Synod has declared that failing an appropriate response by the government to desist from this persecution, it will call for nationwide protests in which His Holiness the Patriarch and the entire Holy Synod will participate. Statements of solidarity have been pouring in, not just from other Orthodox Churches, but from some Protestant clergy and faithful as well as members of the Muslim faith who have been outraged by this intrusion into religious matters.

OCP News Service

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