Abba Gebremedhin says 'we were Christians before Christ'

By Gamal Nkrumah, Al-Haram

Abba Paulos“We were Christian for over a thousand years before Christ,” Abba Gebremedhin [formerly known as Abba Paulos], the [illegitimate] Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, declared nonplused.

“We have been Christian since Queen Makeda [the biblical Sheba] visited King Solomon in Jerusalem to partake of his wisdom and returned to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant — containing the actual stone tablets of the Ten Commandments God gave Moses,” he explained.

And herein lies the idiosyncrasy of the world’s oldest church, which distinguishes it from all other churches: the antic relic held sacred, and placed in the Chapel of Saint Mary of Zion, in the ancient town of Axum, the cradle of Ethiopian civilisation, the sellata Muse, is a thoroughly Jewish object. Indeed, the Ethiopian Church is perhaps the only Christian temple in the world to claim as its most sacred treasure a Jewish holiest of holies.

Many suspect that the Tabot of Zion (Ark of the Covenant) is hidden in the altar of the Church of Saint Mary of Zion. “Only I, and a select few bishops, actually know its precise whereabouts,” the Ethiopian Patriarch grinned, gently stroking his salt and pepper beard.

Without batting an eyelid, and perhaps sensing my bafflement, Abba Gebremedhin [Abba Paulos] turned to the crux of his faith. “Religion is the belief in the power of the Almighty. He is the Creator of all. He is the Giver of peace, love and happiness.”

According to traditional Ethiopian lore, Philip the Evangelist baptised a treasurer of the Ethiopian Queen Gersamot Hendeke VII. The New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles corroborate this landmark event in Ethiopian history.

Ethiopian monotheism harks back much further in time, though. Abba Gebremedhin [Abba Paulos] was born in the vicinity of Axum, where gigantic stelae, designed to look like multiple-storey houses, testify to the greatness of a civilisation that in antiquity ranked with Rome, Persia and China as one of the four greatest empires in the world. The Axumite accolade was attributed to the Persian prophet Mani, and is indicative of Axum’s power, influence and grandeur.

Before Axum there was Yeha, a stone’s throw away from Axum. Yeha is suspected to be a centre of D’mt, a kingdom now shrouded in the mists of a distant past. All we know today is that its rulers were bestowed the royal title Mukarrib of D’mt and Saba’ — an ancient southwestern Arabian kingdom. The kingdom most likely incorporated Yemen and northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Yeha, unlike Axum, is dominated by the pagan Temple of the Moon, dedicated no doubt to the Sabaean moon god Al-Maqah.

There are to be found Musnad(South Arabian) inscriptions, characteristic of the Minaeans, the Qatabani, the Himyarite and Hadrami (of Hadramaut, southeast Yemen) civilisations across the Red Sea from D’mt, and rock-cut monumental structures reminiscent of Ma’rib, the celebrated Yemeni wonder of yesteryear. Indeed, Yeha is Ethiopia’s answer to Ma’rib. Through archaeological excavations the precise nature of the relationship between the two neighbouring mountainous and majestic lands may unfold in the years to come. The main thing is: Abba Paulos is proud of his heritage.

This rugged land of his was the birthplace of a literary masterpiece, the Kibre Negast(Glory of the Kings), that has exerted an unparalleled impact on Ethiopian civilisation and culture as both sacred scripture and historical lore. It also profoundly influenced the course of Ethiopian politics from antiquity to mediaeval times. Today, other no less potent forces are at work.

However, perched on precipitous peaks, the churches that dot the Ethiopian highlands continue to be venerated as they have been for millennia. The wondrous craftsmanship of the scrupulously contrived churches of the then imperial city of Roha, constructed by King Lalibela (literally: “The bees recognise his suzerainty”), and hewn out of the bedrock in a remote backwater that now bears the king’s name, bear tangible testament to the solemnity with which Christianity was revered in this remarkable land.

The Torah, or to be more precise the Pentateuch — Five Books in Greek, is replete with references to Ethiopia and Ethiopians. According to the Torah, the wife of Moses was an Ethiopian. And Solomon courted the Queen of the South, presumably Makeda of Ethiopia, the biblical Sheba (Saba’) — or was she Bilquis of Yemen as stated in the Quran? The New Testament, too, makes frequent mention of the Ethiopians.

The early Christianity of Axum was first codified at specific places in northern Ethiopia, at a specific time. “They were documented in the holy language of Ge’ez, which was once the official language of the land,” the Ethiopian Patriarch extrapolates. Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the contemporary Ethiopian Orthodox Church, harks back to the days of D’mt. It is a Semitic language closely related to Arabic and Hebrew. Today, there are numerous Semitic languages in Ethiopia — Amharic (formerly the official court tongue and now lingua franca); Tigrinya (the native tongue of Abba Paulos and Prime Minister Meles Zennawi, widely spoken in the northern Province of Tigray and in neighbouring Eritrea); the Adari of the eastern Ethiopian Muslim city of Harar; and the Gurage of southern Ethiopia; among others.

“Heading the Ethiopian Church is no laughing matter,” he chuckled. “The 50,000 churches around the country serve the 45 million-strong Orthodox flock representing many different ethnic groups. There are some two million priests, monks and deacons dedicated to pastoral work and delivering services. There are 54 bishops, and 44 dioceses,” he muses.

Abba Paulos, the son of a priest, was dispatched to a monastery at the tender age of five. He is steeped in the religion of his forefathers. The oldest of six brothers and sisters, he knew at an early age that he alone among his siblings was to dedicate himself to monastic life.

Tradition ascribes the official introduction of Christianity to Ethiopia to the moment when the Patriarch of Alexandria Athanasius consecrated a Levantine from Tyre, Frumentius, as the first Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church, thereby establishing a tradition whereby the Coptic Pope of Egypt would appoint the Ethiopian Patriarch. Customarily, an Egyptian monk was appointed as the chief bishop of Ethiopia. This tradition was abruptly terminated in 1959 when the first Ethiopian, Abuna Basilios, was selected for the post. He was, however, to begin with, merely a bishop appointed by the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa Cyril VI. Ethiopian nationalism was resurging.

In due course, in May 1971 to be precise, the Egyptian Church received a request from the Ethiopian Church to consecrate an Ethiopian Patriarch (as opposed to a bishop). Even more symbolically significant and without any historical precedent, the Ethiopians also requested that their Patriarch’s consecration take place in Ethiopia and not in Egypt as had been the case for two millennia. Since then, the patriarchs of the Ethiopian Church have been consecrated by an all- Ethiopian Holy Synod, with the umbilical chord that bound the Coptic and Ethiopian churches ruptured for good.

The history of Christianity in Ethiopia has often been one of unintended consequences. Ironically, the famous fables of early Christian Ethiopia are Jewish, rather than Christian per se. There is no record of Jewish rulers of Ethiopia, even though the difference between Christianity and Judaism in Ethiopia is often confusingly blurred. It is perhaps more appropriate to speak of a Judaeo- Christian heritage.

Indeed one influential mediaeval monk, Abba Ewotatewos (1273-1352) urged his Christian followers to observe the Judaic Sabbath alongside the Christian Sunday mass. Even so, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia who practised a non-Talmudic form of Judaism suffered persecution in certain periods of the country’s long history. We know that Jewish kings ruled Yemen: Youssef Asar Yathar of Himyar, for example, who was routed by the Christian King Kaleb of Ethiopia.

Be that as it may, the Christianisation of the Ethiopian state in the fourth century, during the reign of King Ezana of Axum, was a turning point. It is important to stress that Christianity in Ethiopia was a state religion, closely affiliated with the monarchy and the court. Ethiopia, nevertheless, was always multi-religious, multi- cultural, and multi-ethnic. Many of Ethiopians are non-Christians — animists, Jews (the so- called Falasha) or Muslims. Indeed, the Arabic name for Ethiopia, Al-Habasha — from which the English Abbyssinia is derived — means Land of Mixed Races. Christians in Ethiopia have long learned to co-exist (peacefully or otherwise) with their non-Christian compatriots.

This historical legacy has deeply impacted the nature of the Ethiopian Church. From the outset it was a political, as much as a religious, institution. To this day the Ethiopian Church is an extremely politicised body, and this extends not only from domestic to foreign politics.

The split between the Coptic Church of Egypt and its Ethiopian counterpart in the early 1970s, and more recently, the split between the Eritrean and Ethiopian Churches are unpleasantly conspicuous examples of this legacy. The ruling cliques of Ethiopia have long interfered with, even dictated Church politics; and the Ethiopian Church has traditionally been subject to the whims of the country’s political establishment.

For instance, when the Derg usurped power, it promptly arrested Abba Tewophilos in 1976 and executed him in 1979. Tekle Haymanot was hurriedly enthroned by the Derg, and after his death an even more compliant Abba Merkurios was made Patriarch of Ethiopia. He was dismissed by many as a Derg puppet. And with the Derg’s demise Abba Paulos was hastily enthroned. His enthronement, however, was sanctioned by the Coptic Church of Egypt.

The incensed former Patriarch Merkurios fled the country and announced from exile that he was forced to abdicate under duress. His followers, mainly ethnic Amhara, still consider him the legitimate Patriarch of Ethiopia and a breakaway alternative synod was formed in exile. A substantial segment of the Ethiopian diaspora in North America and Europe pay allegiance to Merkurios.

The church, therefore, was seen by many as being systematically subordinate to the powers that be. This, however, is an issue that Abba Paulos vehemently disputes.

“Yes, there are those who grumble and complain deriding us as an instrument of state control. They claim that we are an appendage of the state. But we are not. We are completely free,” Abba Paulos insists.

“I came to Egypt with ten bishops. I didn’t ask the government’s permission who should accompany me.”

The adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, like those of the Coptic Church of Egypt, are staunch Monophysites — that is to say they are convinced that Christ has only one nature. In this they differ from other Eastern Orthodox churches — the Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian and other Slavic and East European churches, for example.

In many other respects, the Ethiopian Church is like no other. Few other people in Africa have been so intensely self-conscious of their unique documented history, hybrid identity and direct relationship with the monotheistic religions of the Middle East.

Royal propaganda played a pivotal part in perpetuating this tradition. Succumbing again and again to the lure of the monotheistic religions of the Middle East emerged as a peculiarly Ethiopian heritage. Since time immemorial Ethiopian religious lore was grounded firmly in the mythologies of the ancient Middle East.

However, certain Ethiopian potentates are known to have strayed from the path of devotion to the Jewish, and then Christian God. Some kings, such as Lij Iyasu crowned in 1913, had even toyed with the idea of becoming Muslim. Indeed, several of his wives were Muslim. Lij Iyasu, however, was forced to abdicate because his courtiers suspected that he had embraced Islam.

But Ethiopia is a land of contrasts and contradictions. Small wonder then that many of the Solomonic royals also claimed to be Ashraf(descendants of the Prophet Mohamed). “My forefathers in Axum provided a safe haven for Muslims fleeing persecution in Mecca,” Abba Paulos reminded me. He was referring to the first hijra (exodus), when the Sahaba(the Prophet Mohamed’s Companions) fled Hijaz to Ethiopia around 615 AD.

Landlocked Christian Orthodox Ethiopia was for centuries surrounded by Muslim states and conducted its foreign trade through them. At one point, Imam Ahmed bin Ibrahim Al-Ghazi, better known as Gran(The Left- Handed) threatened to overrun the territories precariously held by the country’s Christian rulers, who were reduced to fugitives with moveable tents for courts. Churches and monasteries were sacked and people abandoned their Christian faith. The unique Solomonic Christianity of Ethiopia was all but extinguished.

Portuguese firearms saved the day. Even as Gran beseeched the Ottomans for support, so the Ethiopian emperors called on their Portuguese co-religionists to come to the rescue. Be that as it may, the Portuguese failed to convert the bulk of Ethiopian Christians to Roman Catholicism.

The Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia has preserved a substantial body of memories in spite of the fact that for centuries the actual power and prestige of the crown waned. As imperial power abated, the zemana mesafint, the era of the princes, was ushered in. The prestige of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church suffered in consequence. A few Ethiopian emperors, under the influence of Portuguese missionaries, converted to Roman Catholicism. Emperor Susneyos was forced to abdicate in 1632 AD because he embraced Catholicism.

The days of the Solomonic emperors are over, but the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has survived. It has overcome many ordeals. Today it faces new challenges: internal frictions, the growth of Evangelical Christianity and a host of socio-economic calamities.

As the interview draws to a close, Abba Paulos dwells on hellishly controversial subjects, most notably the HIV/AIDS pandemic that is ravishing his country and the rampant poverty that plagues many of his compatriots. His flock includes the impoverished residents of the many slums that cling to the hillsides of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. He insists that poverty eradication and fighting HIV/AIDS, unemployment and homelessness are all part and parcel of the church’s mission. “Words and deeds,” he explains, saying they are as important as preaching. Orthodox Christianity has played a central role in Ethiopian history, culture and society. “And it will continue to do so.”

The Ethiopian Church might vie for the sobriquet of the world’s oldest church, but it is a church very much in the making.

Abba Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopia, Archbishop of Axum and Echegue of the See of Saint Tekele Haimanot is an imposing man. Last month, in Cairo at the invitation of Pope Shenouda III of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, he was resplendent in glistening white and equally effulgent headgear. He was in Egypt to mend fences. The two “sister churches” have long had a love-hate relationship. Historically, the Coptic Church insisted on posing as the Mother Church; today it has at last come round to the more modest accolade of sister church.

Before Cairo, Abba Paulos visited the Sudanese capital Khartoum, to foster closer ties between Muslims and Christians in Africa. In his capacity as president of the World Council of Churches — an international body that groups together Orthodox and Protestant Churches — he met Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. “I feel honoured to have the opportunity to make a deliberation on the most pertinent issue of Muslim-Christian dialogue,” he told the Sudanese president. His express aim, as he explained to his host, was to unveil a roadmap for peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims in Africa generally, and the Horn of Africa and the Nile Basin in particular.

Abba Paulos eschews ideological and religious fanaticism, for which Ethiopia is particularly badly prepared. It is surrounded by predominantly Muslim nations like Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. It is also a country that has been ruled by a Christian elite traditionally for at least two millennia, even though roughly half of its 70 million people are Muslim.

The official Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is according to its adherents the oldest church in Christendom, a claim disputed by some other churches. The Ethiopian Church has long been inextricably intertwined with the fortunes, and catastrophes, of the Ethiopian state. Church and state, down the centuries, have served each other well.

However, Ethiopia has witnessed dramatic upheavals since the once “hermitic empire” was invaded by the forces of the Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1935. Ironically, Ethiopia was conquered by a European power at precisely the moment when the first fruits of modernisation instituted by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) were beginning to be harvested during the reign of Emperor Haile Sellassie (1930-1974).

A violent, quasi-Marxist revolution, ensued; and the last of a long line of Ethiopian emperors for some 2,500 years was summarily and unceremoniously executed. A military junta (the Derg) ruthlessly ran the country, meddling in Church affairs. Throngs of victims were packed into detention centres where they were routinely tortured; many perished or disappeared without trace.

Abba Paulos was incarcerated, but he managed to flee the country. A resourceful man, he made good use of his exile: he studied theology at Princeton and Yale. His sojourn in the United States abruptly ended when he was hand-picked by the new regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zennawi and appointed Patriarch of Africa’s most ancient church. Abba Paulus is acutely conscious that radical changes in his country are currently underway, and that the pace of change is certainly poised to quicken in the 21st Century