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Analysis: Tigray Orthodox Church declines call by Synod to normalize relations, blames Synod for endorsing “war of genocide” on people of Tigray. What next?

Members of the Tigray Orthodox Church Council of Bishops (Picture: DW)

By Medihane Ekubamichael @Medihane

Addis Abeba – On 09 February, the Tigray Orthodox Church Council of Bishops held a joint meeting in which they have issued a rejection to an earlier call made by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (EOTC) Holy Synod’s Secretariat requesting for talks of reconciliation and normalization of relations between the Synod in Addis Abeba and Tigray Orthodox Church.

The statement which was jointly signed by members of the the Council of Bishops of Tigray Orthodox Church, including His Holiness Abune Isaias, Archbishop of Tigray’s capital city of Mekelle and Southern Tigray Diocese and Chairperson of the See of Selama Kesate Berhan Orthodox Tewahedo Church Assembly of Tigray; His Holiness Abune Makaryos, Archbishop of Axum Central Tigray Zone Diocese & Member of the Assembly; His Holiness Abune Merha Christos, Archbishop of the Eastern Zone – Archbishop of Adigrat and Southern Tigray Maychew Diocese & Member of the Congregation; and His Holiness Abune Petros, Archbishop of the Holy Trinity Northwest Tigray and West Tigray Setit Humera Diocese, Member of the Assembly, acknowledged receipt of the letter from the Holy Synod Office, which has been dismissed as fake by some local media reports.

In a detailed account that highlighted the outcomes of the devastating two years atrocious war in the Tigray region, the Council of Bishops pulled no punches when blaming the Holy Synod for endorsing what it said was a “war of genocide” that was declared on the people of Tigray, and explaining why it finds it difficult to mend relations with the Synod.

Unlike the letter from the Synod in Addis Abeba which partially blamed the war for the severed relations without explaining how, the letter by the Council of Bishops in Tigray went at length to describe that since November 2020, the governments of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Arab countries as well as other forces have formed a front directly and indirectly that “declared and carried out a clear war of genocide against the people of Tigray” and the Church’s silence. Atrocities committed in Western Tigray, in places like Humera, as well as Debre Damo Abune Ageawi Monastery, Meago Emanuel, Togoga, Bora, Neqsege, Dedebit IDP Center, Adi Daero, Adi Qayeh, Samre, Yechla and Mekelle, are all listed as unprecedented level of massacre and destruction committed against civilians by air, including drones, and on ground.

Civilians who survived death and destruction were evicted from the village where they were born and grew up and where they made their livelihoods; they were subjected to severe abuse including sexual violence of a different level committed on the daughters and mothers of Tigray, and despicable sexual violence were committed against nuns and priests’ wives, the letter said.

A war of siege and prohibition preventing civilians from getting access to food and medicine as well as basic services such as banking, telephone, internet, transport, and media services, were accompanied with the burning, destruction and looting of the people of Tigray, their monasteries, religious heritages and its wealth; they were all in the book of the Tigray Orthodox Church, which “repeatedly asked the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to condemn”, and protect its ancient monasteries and churches as well as their servants, and to put pressure on the governments of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Arab countries to stop the war.

Archbishops of the Tigray Orthodox Church Council of Bishops. Picture: Screenshot/AS

“Unforgivable historical mistake

Instead, the Council of Bishops said, what Tigray received was rhetoric of toxic hate speeches that aggravated the war, acts that saw the burning of Tigrayan civilians, rhetoric advocating for the erasure of Tigrayans from history and people’s conscience, and speeches from bishops who chose Satan over people.

Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church was asked to condemn such inflammatory rhetoric from its monks, priests and deacons and correct their mistakes according to the Church’s canon, or Tigray Church would be forced to break its relationship, the Council of Bishops said, but it was all to no avail.

That was when the Tigray Orthodox Church was compelled to sever its ties with the Holy Synod in Addis Abeba, and to organize the See of Selama Kessate Beharan Archdiocese, Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church. The people of Tigray, who were refered by the Holy Synod’s letter as “the source of the religion and its doctrine” were able to take solace at the newly organized and yet ancient See of Selama Kessate, which has a historical foundation, according to the Council of Bishops, and they have already approved the by-laws and set up a council of experts tasked to correct books that have distorted historical contents, and translating them into Tigrinya language to deliver spiritual and social activities.

But the deafening silence and the direct complacency of the EOTC stated in the letter of the Council of Bishops was not the only reason the Tigray Orthodox Church declined the call; it also criticized the Synod’s attempts to separately send the letter to five bishops of the Orthodox Church in Tigray, instead of addressing it to the See of Selama Kessate Beharan Archdiocese, Tigray Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which was seen as an attempt to undermine its authority.

To the Synod’s excuses that the break up of ties was due partly to “political conspiracy”, the Council of Bishops said the EOTC itself supported the escalation of the war instead condemning it as it wrecked civilians.

It didn’t spare mentioning the silencing of Abune Mathias, Patriarch of the EOTC, from his apostolic fatherhood even as he expressed his sorrows in tears. Instead of supporting the Patriarch’s statement the Synod distanced itself from his remarks. The Council of Bishops said this was “an unforgivable historical mistake.”

Cardinal sin

Professor Getachew Assefa is a renowned scholar of Sustainable Design at University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, who closely follows the social and political developments in the Tigray region and is attentive about the dynamics within the EOTC and its Holy Synod. He shared his insights with Addis Standard on the impacts of the response from the Tigray Orthodox Church to the Synod.

Getachew said that he found their response to be measured and focused in terms of explaining why they decided in the past to establish Tigray-wide High Administration, bringing together the different dioceses that were directly accountable to the Synod in Addis Abeba, and why they see no reason to change that in responding line by line to the 08 February letter of the Synod that was addressed to each archbishop.

“Despite my prior expectation that the Tigray Orthodox Tewahdo Church would follow suit of the politics of Mekelle-Addis Abeba relations after Pretoria, in this response they have shown that they would heed what the faithful in Tigray to a large extent think,” he said.

When asked what needs to happen next if the Synod wants to redeem itself and mend its relations with Tigray, Getachew asserts that from the response, it was clear that Tigray Orthodox Church expected the Holy Synod to make those bishops, monks, priests, and deacons who had their hands in supporting the war and in propagating hate speech to apologize and correct their ways. If they were not willing to do that, to excommunicate them.

“One of the cardinal sins that come to mind is the distance the Holy Synod went to silence its own Patriarch from speaking up about what was happening to his children in faith and the people at large in Tigray”

Professor Getachew

Despite his views, however, Getachew is skeptical if the Tigray Orthodox Church’s expectations would be met by the Holly Synod anytime soon. “Will the Holy Synod does now what it was not able to do then? If it does, will the Council of Archbishops of Tigray accept that? It is hard to tell,” said Getachew.

Seeing a reverse into the old order anytime soon is not a pragmatic analysis for Getachew, “There is always room for doing that as I believe in miracles. Short of miracles, I don’t know what could be possible.”

Although “for His Holiness the Patriarch, reaching out to the Tigray archbishops would be considered business as usual,” as to why the Synod wanted to reach out to Tigray Bishops in the midst its own schism and instability, Getachew says he believes that there are many in Tigray who consider the timing of the letter as an instrument to galvanize support against the breakaway archbishops in Oromia.

But that too was not going to cut it for Tigray. “Some of the archbishops who were at the forefront of advocating for the unity of the Church since 22 January, the day of the appointment of bishops, were actively advocating for the war without showing an iota of thought for what might unfold in terms of threats to the Church,” he said, adding that “It is therefore no surprise that the letter was seen with some level of suspicion by many in Tigray.”

Getachew also agrees with the concerns raised by the Tigray Bishops Council questioning the letter from the Holy Synod and its casual approach as compared to the level of damage caused by the war which was “endorsed” by the Church.

“As is well articulated in the response letter from Tigray, the Holy Synod’s letter is not only too little too late, it undermines the magnitude of crimes [committed against] the servants of the church by commission and omission,” he said. “One of the cardinal sins that come to mind is the distance the Holy Synod went to silence its own Patriarch from speaking up about what was happening to his children in faith and the people at large in Tigray,” Getachew said. “What the letter does is to sweep all these and more under the rug.”

In pursuit of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s comment to the response from Tigray Orthodox Church, Addis Standard approached Liqe Tiguhan Eskidre Gebrekiristos, Public Communication Directorate Head of the Church. He said that Tigray Bishops Council’s response was addressed to the Holy Synod and that comments can only be given on the matter after the assembly of the Holy Synod is held.

Much may depend on the response from the Holy Synod when it convenes on the matter, but certainly not all. AS

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