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By Dr. Syoum Gebregziabher

Since the 1880’s, the Italians had had their eyes on Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, (as it was called) however; Emperor Menelik’s forces decisively deflected their attempts at colonization. The Battle of Adowa of 1896 and its victory brought Ethiopia to international attention. Europe for the first time acknowledged an African nation that had resisted and defeated an European power. By 1923, Ethiopia became a member of the League of Nations.

Graziani (left) is seen here with German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in October 1944
Graziani (left) is seen here with German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in October 1944
Ras Teferi Makonnen, the then Regent of Ethiopia, set out on an international tour, visiting Jerusalem, Cairo, Alexandria, Brussels, Amsterdam, Stockholm, London, Geneva, and Athens. Il Duce Mussolini who felt the humiliation of the Italian defeat by the Ethiopians and the respectful reception that Regent Haile Selassie received, especially by those countries who were allies of Italy and the wide publicity and admiration he was being accorded humiliated Mussolini’s and increased his desire for revenge. But to camouflage the indignity, Il Duce invited Ras Teferi the Regent to stay at the Villa Torlonia, making it appear as if Ethiopia were under the Italian protectorate and that he enjoyed an indirect influence!

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In the meantime the Lateran Pact signed by Mussolini and a Vatican representative on 11 February 1929, had three significant parts: (1) a political advantage (giving the Vatican its own micro-state), (2) a financial convention (giving the Vatican reparations) and (3) a concordat (giving privileges within Italy, letting the Church influence public education). In return for all of this, Mussolini received Vatican recognition over the Kingdom of Italy — of which he happened to be the “dictator.” Mussolini achieved a great diplomatic success; perhaps the greatest of his career to have boosted his future adventure to avenge Italy’s historical humiliation at the battle of Adowa.

By February 1934, Mussolini had indicated to his General De Bono his intentions to conquer Ethiopia and avenge Italy’s defeat at Adowa. The Vatican on the “Day of Faith” in 1935, actively supported the war effort by helping Mussolini in his nation-wide drive to collect financial aid and active support of the Church to colonize Ethiopia. This Pact is a building mortar that gave Mussolini the unfettered license in his colonial venture. It effectively not only silenced the Vatican in condemning the various and continuous atrocities of Fascist Italy; but also the use of the poison gas. The brutal savagery of the Fascist colonizers in Christian Ethiopia was not only condoned but; abated by Vatican leaders. Vatican came to Ethiopia with an evangelizing mission!

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As a recruit seminarian, on my way to Harrer and later to Figan Birra in the training to priesthood my experience of Italian apartheid was tacitly supported and tolerated by the Catholic priest: whom I had considered protector of human rights and my role model. I had assumed my priest had the moral fortitude to defend me . He failed me miserably and injected an early doubt to what I thought the Church its servants ought to have. This impression at a formative age of 9? left its permanent mark in my life.

On 19 February 1937, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani held an outdoor ceremony to honor the birth of Prince Umberto’s son. Two Eritrean patriots threw seven or eight bombs at Graziani and his entourage, wounding the viceroy and thirty others whereupon Graziani’s guards shot down numerous people then and there and the Italian army and police went rampaging all over the city searching the native quarters for hidden arms and killing everyone in sight throughout Addis Ababa. The secretary of the Fascist Party in Addis Ababa, Guido Cortese, called for more drastic action, and for 48 hours the Italians massacred Ethiopians, burning their homes and businesses and looting their property with no restraint whatsoever. I was out with my nanny in search of my father as to his whereabouts. On our way, I saw several dead bodies on the street just before we were imprisoned with other 3000 prisoners. After three days of this traumatic experience, women and children were released. I was one of them As regard to the other prisoners of more than 3000 people what happened to them is a question that is better left to historians. Thousands were killed indiscriminately throughout the city. As someone who professed the Catholic faith and no voice of protest from the Vatican had confirmed my conviction that the Vatican and Mussolini were the same colonizers.

In my later schooling at Akaki Seventh Day Adventist School, the classes were conducted after a prayer and we were assigned to memorize a chapter or a verse from the Bible. But some of us coming from other Christian denominations were not in conformity with the teaching of the Seventh Day Adventist School. This created some confusion, but at the same time enabled me to better evaluate my own religious perspective. The Seventh Day believed the end of the world was approaching, and that the number 666 in the Book of Daniel Revelation referred to the Pope! Although their teaching did not convert me, they did make me less of a zealot and more tolerant and skeptical about religious practices and teaching. My later College and university training and education have enabled me to evaluate my own religion rationally without prejudice.

In “The Symphony of my life” published May 2012, I have clearly indicated: as a Catholic Seminarian I was and I am a living witness of the close social, political and economical relations and collaboration of the Catholic Church with the Fascist government that had occupied Ethiopia. The allegation that Ambassador Zewde, in his journalistic investigation, did not find any concrete evidence that Pius 11 personally blessed Mussolini’s army does not expunge the Holy See from moral and religious responsibility .

I understand that Zewde wrote his remarkable book as a historian with his journalist and diplomat background and experiences. Zewde’s statement that there are no evidences that Pope Pius 11 personally and actively collaborated with or blessed the invading Mussolini’s army, does not necessarily relieve him from His high Vatican position and responsibility for the action of His Cardinals, Bishops, and priests. It appears to me that Pius the 11, may have not personally, blessed Mussolini’s invading army; but did collaborate in implementing his irredentism and his colonial ventures.

Ambassador and Journalist Zewde has in my opinion erred. His acceptance of the historical facts so far presented, should convince him to stand up with his fellow Ethiopians in demanding justice. The Vatican should apologize for the Fascist atrocities perpetrated on innocent Ethiopians as it did for the Nazi holocaust on the Jewish people.

His book is a monumental contribution to the Ethiopian history of the period covered. Yet his attempt to immunize the Holy City from such responsibility, not only devalues his book but it also defuses the contents of his book.

The present Pope (Pope Francis I) is the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church having been elected bishop of Rome and absolute sovereign of the Vatican City State. Indeed the Pontiff has reinvigorated the Church around the world and is bringing redemption to the Catholic Faith. Yes, redemption will ultimately depend on the rediscovery of a moral authority by accepting the spiritual lapses of the Vatican.

It is time for Pope Francis I who has made clear his aim to restore the church’s original evangelical passion for “a clarion call for a decisive shift in the Catholic Church’s self-understanding in full continuity with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council” to recognize and acknowledge the moral lapses of Pope Pius 11. It is a duty and a privilege to give my timely eyewitness account of the various atrocities perpetrated on the Ethiopian population during the brief occupation of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s regime.


  1. God bless Dr. Syoum. This is a great piece testifying to the role the Catholic church played in the Italian invasion and massacre of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. During the times of Atse Susuneos, the Catholic church also directly invaded the Ethiopian Orthodox Church using spies disguised as missionaries and massacred many…many Ethiopians. Ambassador Zewde knows this precedence and the naked fact of the church’s collaboration in the later invasion, but he decided to fabricate a new story and stand with and defend the criminals .

    Even if I appreciate Ambassador Zewde’s attempt to document our history and share his perspective, in this book that he wrote the Ambassador not only distorted material facts but also committed a serious treason against the people of Ethiopia. I am not sure what connection the Amb has with the Vatican and what he benefited by doing great injustice to the victims of fascist Italy and defending the Vatican.

    Ambassador Zewde, please know that the Italy/Vatican victims are still crying. You need to apologize for your mistake and stand with the victim fellow Ethiopians. No one buys your distorted analysis of this important historical fact except perhaps the Vatican. You have already lost your credibility on this topic and you need to do some damage control. Otherwise, your continued distortion of this important fact not only will uproot you from the heart of Ethiopians and all justice seeking people, but also will bring you condemnation in heaven. I hope you don’t want to face both consequences. Good luck!

    • Dear readers and Dr.Syum,

      thank you for your contribution on the issue of the vatican and its relation to the fascist regime in connection to ambassador Zewde Reta’s research.

      even if I needs a long and deep research to refute or agree with Zewde, I appriciate his presentation. it is an invitation for us and also a challenge. because it helps us to see things in different perspective. I think if we are really studiouse, we need to open up to other opinions and studies so that we may have different views on the same subject. The argument on the Pope Pius XI raised by Amabassador is correct or not, that is is not my interest here. My opinion here is that expressing one’s opinion basing on credible sources is like expressing his accadamic freedom. it is not a matter of being patriotic or not. it is all about being rationable and going beyond emotions. what is education if not searching the truth in different fields we are interested in. History is written basing on credible documents regardless any favoure or prejudices of culture or nation. history is all about revealing the truth without any fear.
      I want to mention just two books among many others concerning the fascist italian war on Ethiopia, which are written by italians and they are very recent and I recommend all Ethiopians who are interested to deepen their knowlege on this matter, to read them. the books are written 1. by Angelo Del Boca entitled: La guerra d’Etopia”, 2010, ‘the war in ethiopia’ and 2. by Lucia Ceci: ” il papa non deve Parlare”, 2010.’ The pope should not speak’, 2010. These book are in Italian languages. they speak the brutallity of fascist regime more than any patriotic Ethiopian could speak. They expose the ignorance and arrogance of the italian people. they accuse the catholic church in Italy with its shameful acts and the big silence of the pope infront of such barbaric act. these distinguished professors have gone beyond nationalistic sentiments. what is important for them is not their being italian. what is important for them is KNOWING the TRUTH. their books are widly read by italians and those who read their language. they are not worried about the scandal they may cause against their citisens. their concern is that their citisen should know the truth about fascist italian – educating the truth without distorting it. that is what they did and still doing. history is revealing the truth even at times it may be bitter.
      we Ethiopians need to learn to break the so call ” we are special people mentality”. what i want to say here is that we need to purify and question our past history with scientific criteria which contemporary historical methodology asks us to do? why do we fear to raise some questions like: was it true? what evidence do I have not to say that ethiopian christianity, how ancient it may be, is not born in Ethiopia? am I strong enough to control my sentiment and ask myself some of sensitive questions regarding our countries, be it religious or social or ethical or political issues?
      These two historians and university professors tell us all what has happened in between the two world wars. Angelo Del Boca, in fact, participated in anti fascist movment in the early 40s. so in order to answer the question of pope pius XI it is necessary to understand the whole historical set up of the time.

      what makes history more credible or less credible is its sources. It is not acceptable to tell a story without tangible sources becasue there is a risck of misleading others to error.
      that is why we need to be carful not to rash to tell history just we inherited it from others. we need to verify it. we need to examin it.
      with due respect to every body who interested in reading or knowing history, we need to underline where our passion of research lies. Medical doctor is not necessarily a historian. a doctory in economics is not necessarily a historian. everybody specialises in his perspective. But this doesn’t mean that only historians should write or speak about the history of ethiopia or any otherissues for that matter. I am trying to say that the way historians see about one issue is different from the way one wel respected, person who is realy patriotic to his country, sees.
      history is not probability. it is tangibility. It must base itself on rliable sorces. if you don’t have relaiable sources then you history still remains in progress waiting for support from trust worthy document.
      if there are no historians to write what has happened in the past, then the next person is journallist becasue he is near to the reality. to documentation, near to information.

      Zewde Reta, tells us nothing new but what he found so far from his research. he is very clear from the very begining that there were many italian bishops who hailed the war and even organised the faithfull to contribute to sustain the soliders. there were many bishops who even gave their presious gold to support Mussolini. There was also Cardinal shuster wo was one of the high officials in the vatican. But how can I vrify all my arguments? should I speak all these accusation like statements becasue I am an Ethiopian? no. I speak this because my arguments are based on reliable documents which are found all over the world especially in different archives in italy. the work of the above mentioned scholars are fruits of such research, including the vatican secret archives. one of the bigest and ancient archieves in the world os the vatican archieves. there are many parts of it still remains secret, for different reasons which is not necessary to mention them here. with pope John Paul II, the archieve which covers the time of Pius 11, that is roughly from the I world war up to 1939 has been opened in 2006. the above writers benefits from these archieves. Zewde also made use of it when he was in italy for his research.
      that is just one part of it. we have Journalists from Sweden who were reporting the war from inside of ethiopia. we have English writers and so and so forth.

      to conclude, Zewde didn’t say that what he has written about the position of the vatican is the last say, he simply says that from the research he made so far he has arrivedto the point that he didn’t find any sources which say that the pope blessed the warriers and their arms or allowed indirectly the war agaisnt ethiopia.
      in fact, in my opinion, has opened a new horizon for ethiopians by breaking the tabbos of untouchable and unspeakable facts.
      I hope to present to you historical facts and historical falers don against and for ethiopinas in the name of religion; be it by ethiopia northodox religion or by the catholics even by the muslims. But that needs a sober and less emotional environment. which I hope will come soon.
      the benefit of history is to learn from our past in order to build our future. not to be a slave of it but master of it. We need to learn from the so called “developed countries”, they know how to over come their past history. They learn from it and at times lough on what has happened in the past. the history of europe is visible example of how to overcome past irreconsilable history among european nations. not because they forget but the learn from it. they let go their ego instead of letting it to consume them.

      Dear Ethiopians expressing once though should be part of us. it helps us to grow. then instead of rushing for counter attac let us take time reflect on the new idea positively in doing that we enrich ourselves with different ideas and open up to accomodate different ideologies. Then we can come up with another educative and constructive arguments which even can be contrary to the other. But expressing ones thought after a long time of research on a certain argument in my opinion can not be a treason in any measure. other wiseit would sound llimmiting once freedom of expression and scholarly findings. if it were treason the above two eminent italian scholars could have been in prison for life.

  2. Dear Dr. Syoum and all,

    Thank you for your piece. It is very timely. Any pope before he gets that position has been a bishop, cardinal or any of the position from the hierarchy of the church. As history is witnessed, some of the Catholic church authorities had been blessing Mussoloni’s army.
    An engineer from Addis Ababa, (forgot his name) challenged Amb Zewdie’s assumption that the Pope did not blessed the army a while ago. Amb. Zewdi’s response to his article was so rude, as far as I am concerned; he was a little bit inconsiderate, even to hear any opposing historical correction from others. I am afraid here also he may not take it kindly and positively of such true and correct argument of Dr. Siyoum’s article. In any structured institution the leader at the top should be responsible when his immediate subordinates are doing gross mistakes. That is in fact what we are witnessing in political life leave alone spiritual entity.
    After all whom should an Ethiopian historian should side when evidences are as
    clear as day and night when it comes to Vatican support of Mussoloni in 1930s?
    “wusha beqededew jib yigebal” is in order when I read an article from some Ethiopian Bishop of Catholic in Addis as if Vatican is clean from any of the sin
    done by the fascist Italy to Ethiopians. It is shame of him to try switch the historical facts to cover up the Vatican. No way!! Please ambassador Zewdie,
    lets correct the historical err and say Sorry and lets move on. We have lots of
    things we should do on such grave danger time for Ethiopia,

    wey gud

  3. I just had quite not short comment on this article after I submitted it did not show up.
    What is going on Zehabesha?

  4. Dear Haile,

    You state that you appreciate what Zewde has alleged and that’s your privilege especially if your admiration is not constrained by pure fabrications and lies. If your conscience does not bother you when you’re confronted with the unavoidable truth that Pope Pius XI and Mussolini were working hands in glove for their mutual interests and that their diabolic collaboration resulted in the massacre of one million Ethiopians including 30,000 in only three days in Addis Ababa alone and, if all this war crime, does not affect your humanity, however inhuman, you may join the false allegation.

    However, even you and the illustrious author, Zewde, cannot hide the following facts:

    1. Zewde does not mince words when he tries to advocate for Pope Pius XI. For example, on page 314 of his book, 2nd para, he states: “…..the talk that Pope Pius XI and Mussolini were complicit in the removal of Ethiopia’s independence is without foundation and something that requires evidence.”

    2. What’s truly extraordinary is the fact that Zewde is Ethiopia’s ex-Ambassador but feels no shame in advocating against his own country. And Haile supports him in his cause despite the undeniable truth. The example quoted by Haile about two Italian authors who wrote against the Fascists does not apply to Zewde as what the Italians did was evidence based, unlike Zewde’ fabrications.

    3. If you care an iota for the truth and if you’re genuinely open minded to consider the evidence, then you don’t need to go farther than the following five easily available sources:

    (a) Alber Sbacchi, “Ethiopia Under Mussolini” in which you will find the evidence that Emp. Haile Selassie I was offered one million sterling pounds by Pope Pius XI to recognize Italian sovereignty;
    (b) New York Times (Feb 1937) which reported that Pope Pius XI blessed the Italian King Umberto as “the King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia”;
    (c) Avro Manhattan, “The Vatican in World Politics” in which a substantial evidence is provided showing, beyond any doubt, that Mussolini and his Fascist party would have not succeeded without the support of Pope Pius XI;
    (d) Eng. Tadele Betul’s recent article regarding the complicity between Mussolini and the Pope and calling on Zewde to own up for his gross and shameful mistake; and
    (e) Dr. Syoum Gebregziabher, providing a unique eyewitness account about the collusion between Mussolini and the Pope and calling, again, on Zewde to correct his error.

    Haile: I’m writing to you because I believe that, as a human being, you’re a man of conscience. Unless you also have any vested interest (pecuniary or otherwise) in the issue, I trust you’ll side with the truth.

  5. Thanks. It was a duty and an opportunity to give an eye witness, what my generation was subjected under the boots of Mussolin’s Italy.
    I am now aware that the Vatican archives is, or will soon be opened for historian. If so I would like to suggest that Vatican be amenable to admit Ethiopian historian in its archives as soon as possible.

  6. Dr. Seyoum. Ethiopia was always Ethiopia. Ethiopia was never called “abisinia”. The word “abisinia” was given to us by catholic missionaries who were deported from Ethiopia in the 18th century. The arabs call us “habesh”. We must reject both foreign stupid words. We are ETHIOPIANS!!!

  7. Minilik did not fight a single war .the Fighters were Ras Mikael Walo and Tigray people.
    Anyway the war were between UK and itaklia.UK and france armed Ethiopian rullers as mercenaries to do what uk and france needed.Thus the battle of Adwa has nothing to do with Africxans or Ethiopians,its between Europeanbs.
    Minilik ii as a fasciust by himself never said iam an ethiopian,he cliamed he is cacian and lion of juda.So,where are bringing such false histry describing Minilik as Ethiopian ?a histry contary to his words and deeds.

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