By Betre Yacob
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), one of the ancient and the largest of all Oriental Orthodox churches in the world, is to do a controversial vote for a new patriarch to succeed Abune Paulose V, who died on 16 August 2012 leaving behind the church anxious about its unity.
Recently, the holy synod in Ethiopia has appointed the Arssi Diocese Archbishop, Abune Nathaniel as temporary managing archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and has formed an election committee consisted of more than 7 Archbishops.
The holy synod and its supporters say that Abune Nathaniel could manage an election in such a way which compromise the interest of the two rivalry synods, and bring peace in the church. “Abune Nathnael would make a wonderful Patriarch” an Ethiopian Diaspora in America said. “I have met him personally in few occasions. I remember him being involved in mediating a conflict between some Amhara and Gurage split in the Arsi Zone as well as between Muslims and Christians—-during the Arbagugu conflict.” However, the holy synod exiled in North America, which call itself “The Legal Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church” and many followers of the church don’t accept the appointment of the Archbishop, Abune Nathaniel, and the establishment of the electoral committee. They strongly claim that the appointment is not necessary since there is Abune Merkorios IV dethroned illegally by the ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They say that the synod in Ethiopia is to conduct an “illegal election”.
Abune Merkorios was the 4th patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; but, in 1991, after seizing power, the Tigrean People Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant faction in the EPRDF coalition, removed him, violently, and replaced him with Abune Paulose who are supposed to be its most loyal. This incident caused the Ethiopian Orthodox Church patriarchate to be split into two holy synods — one exiled in North America, and the other in Ethiopia. The holy synod exiled in North America is established by the Archbishops and other high ranking members of the clergy spurned the forced removal of the Patriarch and fled the country. Many believe that the forced removal of the patriarch was intended to control and politicaliz the church by placing a government loyal person on the throne.
According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church doctrine the enthronement of a patriarch while another is alive is strictly prohibited. Having this ground, the holy synod exiled in North America and many followers of the church believe that Abune Merkorios has still been the legal Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. According to the founders of the Synod, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church can only have one Synod at a time and that Synod is in exile with the legal Patriarch- Abune Merkorios IV. Following the move of the holy synod in Ethiopia many followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are expressing their trepidation that the move of the synod might widen the difference between the two synods, and severely destruct the long lasting unity of the church.
“It is shameful for those so called fathers in Ethiopia who are rushing to embark on another election of a bogus patriarch while the legitimate patriarch is still alive”, Mr. Hailu said. “Don’t they see the grave danger our church has been mired in for the past 21 years? Because of the division our church has been weakened… Letting the division to continue by talking about a shame election of a bogus patriarch will be yet another grave mistake worse than the one committed 21 years ago. Let Abune Merkorios assume the leadership of a united Orthodox Church for the rest of his life. Election shall be considered after that.”
The holy synod exiled in North America said in its press release issued on November 25, 2012 that: what the members of the synod in Ethiopia doing is absolutely unexpected from them. It is expected from them to respect the doctrine of the church, to work in order to join the two synods, and to bring back the unity of the church… Trying to elect a new patriarch is disgracing the church.”
Following the current tension, a neutral team consisted of religious fathers and public figures is working to negotiate the two synods. Political activists, however, argue that it is totally impossible to bring back Abune Merkorios IV to the throne- since the holy synod in Ethiopia is under the substantial influence of the EPRDF, which dethroned the patriarch 21 years ago. They say that Abune Merkorios has still been considered by the party to be a serious threat to its power.
Since recent years, Abune Merkorios has been known in his strong critics towards the poor human right record of the government. He claims that the ruling party has committed enormous human right violations on law abiding citizens starting from the time it took power from the Dergue regime. In addition to this, he believes that the government has exerted substantial influence on the church, and it is threatening the existence of the church more than ever been. In the press release, the holy synod exiled in North America stressed that in order to join the two synods and bring ultimate peace for the church the synod in Addis Ababa should first accept Abune Merkorios as a patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.