March 1, 2013
by Teklu Abate
The 28th of February 2013 seems to mark the end of the end of reconciliation efforts that were underway between the two Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC) synods. Abune Matias, Archibishop of EOTC Jerusalem, was announced as the sixth patriarch of the EOTC.
The news caught the attention of media, believers and others worldwide. Unfortunately, the optimism (for unity and peace within the church) that was developed during the last couple of months seems to be effectively dashed out by the event. Simply stated, the home synod, for whatever reasons and causes out there, has decided to follow the same course it has been following for the last two decades. And that course contradicts with the core values the church holds for centuries: forgiveness, humbleness, peace, and unity.
Several questions could be raised in relation to the election of the sixth patriarch. Was the election timely and in the best interest and need of the church? To what extent was the election free and fair? How and to what extent the election reflected the church’s tradition of electing patriarchs? How and to what extent the ruling party engineered the election? Were voters adequately and objectively informed of candidates’ backgrounds and qualifications? Does the winner possess the best qualities expected of a leader? Should the laity acknowledge the new patriarch? These and other questions beg for answers. Different answers could be provided by different people, depending on their spiritual life, political affiliation, ethnic orientations, social networking, and even personal benefits. However, for a rational and responsible person, a couple of points are worth to be clearly made.
Was the election necessary?
It is, from a spiritual point of view, unacceptable and even being bogus to push reconciliation efforts aside and rush for elections. Some argue that the home synod has already expressed interest to continue with the reconciliation efforts. That is a mere political gesturing; they wanted to falsely communicate to the public that they are committed to peace and unity. It is like locking hard your ‘French door’ and inviting a person to come into your house. Millions of Christians expected the synod to choose a course that is wide open to accommodate the exile synod. Unfortunately, the home synod decided to drive hard and rough on that bumpy one-way road. The church could have benefited a lot if serious attention and priority were given to reconciliation and unity. The election was neither necessary nor sufficient for the smooth operation of the church as it excludes the interest of the laity and is in sharp contradiction with what the Bible says about peace and forgiveness.
Was the election fair?
There were clues and ‘glues’ here and there that indicated that Abune Matias would win the election. Special coverage was given to him in the booklet that maintains candidates’ history and qualification, for instance. Plus, we have seen and heard that top government officials were convening with the synod and making ultimatums and terrors. If there is anyone this time around who denies the role the government played in the election, s/he must be out of touch with reality. All these testify to the fact that the election result was known much before it was conducted, not through poll simulations but through spurious manipulations.
Were votes bought?
The patriarch election bylaw clearly denies God’s intervention; voting decides final election. That paved the way for manipulations of all sorts. Plus, voters who came from the church structures all around Ethiopia testified, in one way or another, that they were under pressure to vote for the now winner. That was mainly why most of the votes (500 0ut of a possible 806) were harvested by Abune Matias. This makes significant sense as the Archbishop has never been serving in Ethiopia for quite a long period of time. I doubt that his qualifications and services to the EOTC were well known by the voters. On the other hand, those who were daily serving the church in Ethiopia to their capacity were given embarrassing number of votes.
Should we acknowledge the new patriarch?
If it is spiritually unacceptable to run for election at the expense of peace and unity and if the election process was designed, executed, and regulated by outside forces- the government, there is no compelling reason to get satisfied with the election result or to accept it at all. Those who cry for the holiness of the election have to travel extra miles to convince their minds and others’. Of course, it is easy to justify the election by playing politics for perceived, imagined and/or real benefits. Or, one could by default assume that “I do not care whoever sits on that front seat”. Others might innocently believe that it is impossible to question or discuss about issues related to how the synod operates including election of patriarchs. For these groups of people, the election result might be edifying and fulfilling. But for a genuine Christian who adequately knows the church teachings and who believes in truth, all what is done so far is well below spiritual standard.
Is future reconciliation possible?
The probability to further pursue genuine reconciliation with the exile synod is near zero. The exile synod has a clear precondition for reconciliation- to reinstate Abune Merkorios to the patriarchate. The home synod has already assigned Abune Matias as the ‘legal’ patriarch. And we are supposed to have only one patriarch at a time. So, the difference between the America-based and home synods is as wide and big as the physical distance between Ethiopia and North America; it is as dark and scary as the Atlantic and as arid and hot as the Sahara. Future reconciliation and unity are possible only if we are super lucky to have a paradigm shift both at the church, synod, and government levels.
What would be the impact of the division?
If reconciliation is something unthinkable henceforth, the two synods would implicitly and/or explicitly compete for members, churches, resources, fame, and recognition. This has already started. Christians might not have the confidence and trust in the church leaderships- the synods. Instead of learning and teaching the Gospel, people would tend to indulge in cursing and chasing the other party. A protracted process of attacking each other would be the norm. This would have a significant unfavorable impact on the growth of the church and the moral and spiritual strength of the laity. Other anti-unity and anti-EOTC forces might use the tension created to their advantage, by then weakening the great church. Meaning, the EOTC would continue to suffer from both internal and external pressures for years. In general, the number of Christians and churches and the quality of spiritual life is unlikely to improve in the years to come.
Could the problem be solved if the two patriarchs quit or die?
If the two patriarchs, Abune Matias and Abune Merkorios, quit or pass away from natural or other causes, both synods would elect their respective ones soon. And the cycle would continue up until at least a truly transparent, accountable, and democratic governance model is employed at church and state (national) levels. That time, the laity would resort to, along with spiritual criteria, the rule of law to safeguard the church. And that time, the clergy who appear powerful now would realize that the laity would not anymore be as ‘tolerant’ as God is. That would restore the good image of the church and of the synod, and of Ethiopia in general. Until people work hard and smart to bring that moment anytime soon, the church would continue abusing and killing itself.
Is there something the laity could do to ensure unity?
Unlike the views of the many, it is for the laity possible and is a moral and spiritual obligation to contribute towards the stabilization and unity of the church. The top leadership is already a lame duck. The laity who are under the two synods could eye on initiating, implementing, regulating, and sustaining partnerships between them. That with a goal of 1) easing the tensions between the two synod followers, 2) strengthening their collaborations to better spread God’s words, 3) building and/or renovating churches in the Diaspora, 4) supporting the poor and poor churches and monasteries in Ethiopia, and 5) paving the way for future merger and unity.
To do just that, Christians including the good-spirited clergy must focus not on their respective synods but on what the church wants and needs to achieve at this point in time. Organizing inter-synod spiritual workshops and seminars or conferences should not be dependent upon the whims of the synods. As long as EOTC traditions, teachings, and values are respected, Christians must be free to organizing such forums. This is extremely useful to Diaspora EOTC church communities who belong to three jurisdictions. The neutral churches must decide to create unity although there is no compelling and stimulating condition to do so. Overall, if the laity decided to break the yoke put on their shoulders and if they commit to create unity and peace among themselves, the synod divisions might not have a noticeable negative impact. If Christians wish to go by the status quo- cursing the synods but doing nothing else- the effect would be titanic enough for individual Christians, the church, and Ethiopia at large.