By Peter Kenny*
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Christian Churches, one of Christianity’s oldest and has been in Africa since 330 AD, so there was joy and celebrations when on 27 July it declared an end to a 27-year-old schism that had torn it apart.
The rapprochement took place thousands of kilometres from the north east African country with a ceremony of pomp, jubilation and ululation at Washington D.C.’s Debre Mihret St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed, who played a key role in the reconciliation, was present.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, a member church of the World Council of Churches (WCC), formally declared an end to schism, and recognized one Holy Synod and two Canonical Patriarchs ending a period that was painful for Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora.
WCC programme executive and convener for Africa, Dr Nigussu Legesse, was involved in the reconciliation process between the two synods of the church that split into two in 1991 as a result of the political change that forced the former Patriarch, Abune Merkorios to live in exile in the United States.
The service in Washington assembled hierarchs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church who officially proclaimed an end to the schism. The ceremony afterwards took place in the historic Watergate Hotel.
“After years in which the church was split between an ‘Addis Ababa Synod’, a ‘Synod in Exile’, with two rival patriarchs, the two groups have now united into one single Holy Synod, and the schism is now officially over,” Abune Abraham, Archbishop of Bar Dar and Eastern Gojjam said while reading a declaration, the OCP News Service said on July 27.
According to the laws of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Patriarch Abune Mathias will lead the church by carrying out administrative duties.
Patriarch Abunä Merkorios will return to Ethiopia with the rank and dignity of Patriarch, and resume the patriarchal throne.
“When His Holiness Patriarch Abunä Merkorios returns to his homeland, Ethiopia, an appropriate residence within the Patriarchate shall be prepared for him together with all things that are needed for him to live in dignity,” said the declaration.
From the date of the agreement, the designations of the exiled Synod and native Synod are abolished, “and there is only one Church: the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.”
Prime minister Ahmed was praised for working hard to restore peace in the country and for the unity of the Orthodox Church. He flew in to Washington from Addis Ababa as part of the process and flew back to national celebrations in the Ethiopian capital.
“As long as both holy Patriarchs are alive, our holy Church will regard their patriarchal honour as equal,” said the declaration.
The excommunications of archbishops who were consecrated before the schism are lifted by the Holy Synod, and their names and dignity are defended. “They will be appointed to dioceses as befits their rank.”
The politics of Ethiopia had a role in shaping the earlier and the current destiny of the church.
Explaining the background to the schism, the declaration noted that due to the “change in government in Ethiopia … the one holy Church was divided into two, and from the one Synod, two Synods led by two Patriarchs were formed.”
The split in 1991 came after the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) removed from power the Derg military junta, which had seized power in 1974 after the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I.
A breakaway church based in the United States was formed under the exiled former patriarch.
“Because of this, the fourth Patriarch, His Holiness Abunä Merkorios, lived in exile for more than two decades. Therefore, concerning the status of the two holy Patriarchs, the peacemakers representing both Synods decided the following after much discussion together about the unity and peace of the holy Church.”
The Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, the public broadcaster, reported that Ethiopian Orthodox Church has organized another conference at the millennium hall in Addis Ababa for 4 August to herald the reconciliation.
Attending that ceremony will be members of the diplomatic community and prime minister Ahmed.
Since taking office in April, prime minister Ahmed has prioritized reconciliation between dissidents and the governing EPRDF, which has held power unopposed for 27 years, Agence-France Presse reported.
He has also opened the doors to an historic reconciliation with neighbouring Eritrea over a long-standing border dispute.
The prime minister has released numerous jailed dissidents from Ethiopian jails, and sometimes met them personally upon their release.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is in communion with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria having gained autocephaly in 1959.
Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church hosts WCC delegation (WCC press release of 3 October 2017)
WCC organizes solidarity visit to Ethiopia (WCC press release of 24 October 2016)
*Peter Kenny is a Geneva-based journalist who writes on churches, religion, the United Nations and world trade for publications such as Ecumenicalnews.com, the Johannesburg Star, the Pretoria News, the Cape Times and IP Watch.