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from issue no. 11 - 2006

Interview with the President of the Episcopal Conference of Ethiopia and Eritrea

Awaiting the gifts of the New Year

For the Julian calendar in use in Ethiopia, 2007 will be the year of the Jubilee. Not of the war in Somalia. The poverty and the hopes of a country with a millennial history and peace between Christians and Islam. Berhaneyesus Souraphiel, archbishop of Addis Ababa, speaks

Interview with the Archbishop of Addis Ababa Berhaneyesus Souraphiel by Giovanni Cubeddu

Adoration of the Magi, icon of the XIX century originating from Ethiopia, private collection, Paris

Adoration of the Magi, icon of the XIX century originating from Ethiopia, private collection, Paris

The last meeting of the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Ethiopia and Eritrea was held in Rome in October, while the Horn of Africa continues to emit emergency signals. Between Ethiopia and the “Islamic Courts”, who in fact govern neighboring Somalia, the clash seems on the horizon; with Eritrea that “non war-non peace” that followed the end of the armed conflict of 2000 is in force, because of the dispute about the borders. As if that wasn’t enough strong internal tensions between Zenawi’s government and the opposition forces are registered. 30Days met the archbishop of Addis Ababa, Berhaneyesus Souraphiel, on the eve of the New Year in which the beginning of the Jubilee in Ethiopia will be celebrated. A country in which 50 per cent of the population lives beneath the threshold of necessity.

Your Excellency, your Episcopal Conference, despite being composed by prelates of two countries in latent and enduring conflict with each other for many years, is unified. How did you draw up the order of the day for the meeting of your Roman assembly and how in fact did the works proceed?
BERHANEYESUS SOURAPHIEL: First of all I wish to thank 30Days for this opportunity, because I receive and read each number of your magazine, which is very interesting and offers informative points on the universal Church and on the more recent developments in the Vatican, with well informed articles. And I am now happy that 30Days is devoting more space to the countries in the Southern world, such as South America, Asia and Africa. It is right because we are all part of the universal Church.
Thank you, Your Excellency.
SOURAPHIEL: Ethiopia and Eritrea were one country in the past, and Eritrea became independent about fifteen years ago. To have maintained a single Episcopal Conference – that I for the moment am president of – not only expresses a sign of unity of the Church, but also gives hope to the people of both our countries. Unfortunately it is impossible for us to meet in Asmara or in Addis Ababa, at least up until today, this is why we come to Rome, usually to the Vatican. In the last Plenary Assembly there were questions to be discussed that arose in Ethiopia and Eritrea about the common Alexandrine liturgy, then events concerning justice and peace, and finally we needed to provide for the joint editing of a message of hope. It is good for us to meet in Rome, because the actual situation of Ethiopia and Eritrea is “forgotten” by the great powers (as the rest of sub-Saharan Africa I would dare say, with exceptions for the Sudan). We hope to maintain the unitariness of our Episcopal Conference and, the question of the borders between our two countries resolved, we can move freely between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Given the political division, on what points in your Assembly was greater unity among the participants registered?
SOURAPHIEL: On the Christian tradition. All we bishops were in Rome October 27, which in the Latin rite is the feastday of Saint Frumentius, first bishop of Ethiopia, he who consolidated Christianity both in Eritrea and in Ethiopia and was ordained bishop by Saint Athanasius: with us the path of Christianity is most ancient. And the Ethiopian rite ge’ez is something that unites us. What divides is the declarations of the government institutions on both sides.
You have spoken about unity through rite.
SOURAPHIEL: It is indeed like that. The rite keeps us united, past history and culture brings us together, as, naturally, the fact that in some areas the same language is spoken on one side and the other of the border. And above all, we are part of the universal Church, which has met the same problem already elsewhere. In this way we could learn from the experience of others to help our people.
Berhaneyesus Souraphiel

Berhaneyesus Souraphiel

How does rite succeed in bringing together two peoples on the brink of war?
SOURAPHIEL: There is a common worship, a very positive thing, and we have celebrations, feastdays and periods of shared penitence. Additionally, as far as the Ethiopian part is concerned, we have our own calendar – first used in both countries, whereas now Eritrea follows the Gregorian calendar – and precisely from the calendar a hope arises today.
What does this mean?
SOURAPHIEL: According to our calendar, in Ethiopia we will celebrate the Jubilee next year, when we will be in 2000. This puts us in a particular position, because ours is a country rich in history, culture, spirituality, art... With the New Year we want to show the world that we are not famous only because of the drought and the famines, but because of a history that goes back three thousand years, and which has a Christian tradition of two thousand years. The Christianity is so incarnated in Ethiopia that the line between culture and religion can almost not be distinguished. We have invited the Holy Father Benedict XVI also and we hope to have him at our Jubilee.
Do you hope that the occasion of the Jubilee could also favor political peace in the region?
SOURAPHIEL: Yes. The new millennium that Ethiopia will celebrate will begin in September of next year and will finish the following September. We hope it will be the occasion of great celebrations and initiatives: some Ministries could intensify their efforts to reduce poverty, others favor reafforestation and fight desertification – which would be a great thing – and we as Church will participate in these and other programs for the common good… But what interests our Church is to say precisely what a Jubilee is: a rare event that cannot be wasted. Beginning with each of us. It is a special year, an occasion of grace from God, and therefore to pray for peace and reconciliation.
In Somalia the “Islamic Courts” and the transition government are in conflict, and the tension between the Courts and Ethiopia, considered sponsor of the transition government, is very strong.
SOURAPHIEL: A great quantity of armaments passes through Somalia, there is an enormous trade. Probably many countries from Eastern Europe, America and perhaps also South America draw profit from it, but then these arms arrive as far as Ethiopia, the north of Kenya, the north of Uganda… It is a destabilizing factor. And now Islamic fundamentalism also begins to infiltrate these regions. Somalia has been abandoned in the last sixteen years and this has been a disaster for which the account will be paid. We pray for peace and stability in Somalia. And also for the Sudan, our other neighbor.
How do the different religious families coexist in Ethiopia?
SOURAPHIEL: Christians and Muslims have always lived in peace, in mutual respect, at least until today. This is why Ethiopia is a unique country of its kind. It received the faith very early. Christianity was there already at the time of the apostles. The same happened with Islam, arrived in Ethiopia at the time of the Ègira [622 A.D.], when the prophet Mohammed, persecuted in Mecca, emigrated to Medina, and sent his family to Ethiopia, where there was a good and peaceful king, so that they would be given protection, and they were received as refugees. Thus Islam arrived in Ethiopia in the very years in which it itself was beginning: this is why the Muslims consider us a country that received them in peace and in which they have always lived in peace. The only time in which there was an Islamic raid in Ethiopia was during the epoch of the great Ottoman Empire, but that is something different.
This is the history. Today, instead?
SOURAPHIEL: We want the peaceful coexistence to continue. And that depends on the work of the religious authorities in Ethiopia, who in fact meet periodically. In these assemblies the Orthodox Patriarch Abuna Paulos – who is also president of these interreligious councils – the president of the Evangelical Church Mekanyeyesus and the Muslim shaykh participate regularly. We see each other not only in Ethiopia, but also with the Eritrean religious authorities, something made possible by the Norwegian Church Aid. We meet both in Asmara and in Addis Ababa, and also elsewhere, with exchanges of visits that were not even interrupted during the conflict.
What is Ethiopia’s most serious problem ?
SOURAPHIEL: Poverty. It is the real problem. The population is on the increase, there is a great deal of unemployment and infrastructures are lacking: we are still one of the poorest countries in the world, as is the whole Horn of Africa also. The government does its best, but, in the meantime, many Ethiopians who don’t find employment emigrate to the Arab Countries, especially to the Gulf area – in Saudi Arabia – and to the Middle East, as far as Lebanon. In these Muslim countries the majority of our women are constrained to change their own Christian names to a Muslim one, to dress accordingly, and up to here… But when whoever emigrates is not solid in the Christian faith, he becomes Muslim. Maybe for the first time in the history of Ethiopia the people, because of poverty, see their own Christian dignity undermined. The roots and the Christian heritage have been placed in crisis by poverty.
Ethiopians soldiers guard the border with Eritrea

Ethiopians soldiers guard the border with Eritrea

In what way does the Church respond to this?
SOURAPHIEL: In agreement with the other Churches and with the support of the government we want to change the situation through education which is the key to development. Thanks be to God, our Catholic schools are for the most part good, because there are many missionaries who work in the rural areas, without any salary, only with their love and commitment, and we are able to get good results. This is why the local bishops have begun to project a Catholic university for Ethiopia. Whoever is constrained to go to work in the Arab Countries, if he does so with a certificate or a degree, will get work and a good salary, and will be able to send money to his own family, also helping his own country in this way. We have already signed an agreement with the government for this Catholic university, with the consent of the Holy See as witness. A plan is underway so that the personnel for the university comes chiefly from the Philippines, Colombia and Africa, but also from other countries: thus it will be a work of collaboration among the nations of the South of the world. To find the necessary funds we will in the future turn also to Europe and to North America . I hope that 30Days can help us.
How would you characterize the actual relations between the Catholic Church and the government?
SOURAPHIEL: Good. The authorities know what we are doing and are very content. We don’t have anything to hide, we communicate all our initiatives to the various government organizations, we present the accounts, in line with the politics of bookkeeping transparency adopted by the Church. And the same goes for our international financiers. Incidentally, I can assure you that that little money sent from foreign countries to our religious and to our nuns in the rural areas, goes directly to the projects for which it was destined: if it is for a school, it goes to a school, if it is for a hospital, it goes to a hospital, and the religious and the nuns don’t take anything from those amounts. Instead, in other international organizations, at times 30 or 40 per cent of the funds are used to pay the salaries of the officials or for other reasons...
The legality of the last political elections, won by Zenawi, has been harshly contested. The repression of the opposition followed.
SOURAPHIEL: We as the Catholic Church have expressed a clear position. Before the elections we instructed the people about what elections are, about the fact that the elections in themselves are not an end, but what comes after is. After the elections there were clashes, dead, and we have protested in writing with the government and with the opposition. We have asked for the release of political prisoners.
Your Excellency, peace with Eritrea could be great medicine for the economy. Why doesn’t Zenawi, after having promised it, want to recognize the borders between Ethiopia and Eritrea, already defined by an international commission?
SOURAPHIEL: I have already said that meetings between the religious authorities of both countries have taken place for some time on the question . From 2000 on then there have not been subsequent armed clashes, and we are very happy about this. We have always been on the side of the victims, whose deaths could have been avoided. Our position, as a religious authority, is to avoid any other war between the two countries, resolve the question of the borders through the continuation of the talks. However it remains a mystery for us as to what is now really blocking the two governments. If they would dialogue, they could succeed easily in loosening the skein: so why don’t they dialogue?
The religious leaders had made a proposal…
SOURAPHIEL: It’s true. Yes those who live on the borders should have been allowed to decide everything. The religious authorities wanted to create “village committees” on the borders, in order to define them in agreement with the people, without the need of international organizations. We wanted to do this, but were not given permission... In Addis Ababa we asked to see the authorities to decide about these meetings of the village leaders: nothing to do...
Please give us some news about the life of the Church, about pastoral care, charitable activities, where often it is the poor who help other poor.
SOURAPHIEL: In our country people expect much from the Catholic Church. Wherever there is a parish, there are many necessities and likewise requests to the priests, the religious and the nuns. But the important thing is to make the faith fast. That’s why there is a diligent work of catechesis, usually undertaken by lay catechists. In the villages, where they set up small chapels, their mission is to communicate the faith, teach the catechism and formally accept persons into the Catholic Church. The catechumenate could last from a year and half to three years. Then the baptism follows. Finally the bishop goes to visit for the Sacrament of Confirmation. For the Catholics in Ethiopia the parochial church is important, God deserves something beautiful and if our houses are small or simple tukul, the house of God must be something different. Therefore, in their poverty, all contribute with what they have. This is what Catholics in Ethiopia consider important. In Europe it is not understood, numerous organizations donate money only for streets, water wells, hospitals… while for the churches help is very limited. Instead, the Muslims are more intelligent.
Militia of the “Islamic Courts” during a parade in the city of Balad forty kilometers from Mogadishu. Between Ethiopia and the “Islamic Courts”, that in fact govern neighboring Somalia, the conflict seems on the horizon

Militia of the “Islamic Courts” during a parade in the city of Balad forty kilometers from Mogadishu. Between Ethiopia and the “Islamic Courts”, that in fact govern neighboring Somalia, the conflict seems on the horizon

That is?
SOURAPHIEL: They with the help that arrives from foreign countries build mosques, one after the other. And some of our Catholics feel inferior. I would like to make the Westerners understand that the people then love their own churches, that they needn’t be big, but beautiful!
Are there vocations?
SOURAPHIEL: Thank be to God they are not lacking, both for the religious and for the diocesan clergy.
How do they decide?
SOURAPHIEL: Through example: they want good example from priests and from religious.
How will you celebrate this Christmas in Addis Ababa?
SOURAPHIEL: Simply and according to the Eastern tradition. We celebrate it on January 7, not December 25 like you. We don’t have a lot of Christmas trees, of gifts, no…it’s more a religious feastday. In the cities some Christian families set up the crib, above all for the children, because it’s a feastday of children also in Ethiopia, and, traditionally, at Christmas the Ethiopians play hockey [gena, Ethiopian hockey, that according to legend was the game the shepherds were playing on the night on which Jesus was born, ed.]. And Christmas for us is so loved also perhaps because of the fact that the three Magi Kings are very dear figures here: one of them was Ethiopian.

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