Decades-Old Schism in the Ethiopian Church Mended

By Augustine Dickinson

 |  Religion  |  3 min read

Monumental news broke earlier this month with the announcement that Ethiopia and Eritrea would agree to put an end to the long-standing tensions between the nations which resulted from a border dispute left unresolved since 2000. The announcement was due in a large part to the election of a new Ethiopian Prime Minister in April, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, who has shown an interest in promoting peace and ending division. The Prime Minister's efforts have not been limited to political divisions, however, as soon after his election he began to encourage talks between the two rival synods within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) with an aim to end the schism that has complicated church relations since 1991.

From Antiquity until 1974, Ethiopia had been ruled by a monarchy, one which was, for most of its history, closely connected with the Ethiopian Church. After a revolution erupted in 1974, Emperor Haile Sellasie was ousted from power and a Marxist-Leninist military junta, popularly known as the Derg, took power. Within two years the Derg, which was ostensibly a secular government, also deposed and executed the patriarch, Abuna Theophilos, and oversaw the election of a successor who had no ties to the previous government or administration, Abuna Tekle Haymanot. Following the death of Abune Tekle Haymanot in 1988, Abuna Merkorios was elected to succeed him as head of the EOTC.

The Derg continued to remain in power in Ethiopia until 1991, when a diverse coalition of revolutionary movements, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), overthrew the Derg and held elections for a new, democratically elected government. While the rise of the EPRDF brought many new religious freedoms, and the front had a policy of non-involvement in religious matters, that same year saw the resignation of Abuna Merkorios, allegedly due to reasons of illness and stress, as well as the replacement of the Church's General Secretary with a government appointee. The following year, Abuna Paulos, an ally of Abuna Theophilos who had been imprisoned and exiled since the deposition of Abuna Theophilos, was elected to replace Abuna Merkorios. Abuna Merkorios, announcing that his resignation had been forced upon him, fled to Kenya and then relocated to the United States in 1997, after Abuna Yeshaq, Archbishop of the Western Hemisphere, had been encouraging churches in the diaspora to secede. Thus, ongoing political and geographic divisions were extended to the church.

Both synods, the synod in Ethiopia and the synod in exile, mutually excommunicated, continued to function largely as normal, with little distinction between the churches aside from which patriarch was commemorated liturgically. Following the death of Abuna Paulos in 2012, both synods met to discuss the possibility of reconciliation. While the synod in Ethiopia proposed that both synods meet and together elect a new patriarch, the synod in exile insisted that Abuna Merkorios be reinstated and reconciliation efforts came to a standstill. The synod in Ethiopia then elected Abuna Mathias as successor in spite of objections from the synod in exile, who continued to recognize Abuna Merkorios as the legitimate patriarch.

Following the election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister, it was announced that a meeting would be held in Washington, DC to try to mend the schism between the two synods. After several days of deliberation between three representatives from each synod, an agreement was reached:

  • Abuna Merkorios and Abuna Mathias are to be recognized equally as patriarchs, with Abuna Mathias being responsible for the administrative duties
  • Archbishops and bishops consecrated by either synod during the schism are to be mutually acknowledged
  • All excommunications from both sides are to be lifted
  • There is to be only one Ethiopian Church and one synod

The Prime Minister himself attended the celebrations in Washington, DC, where he remarked, "It is impossible to think of Ethiopia without taking note of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church," calling it "both great and sacred."

The move was praised by Ethiopian faithful both in Ethiopia and in the diaspora, with laypeople and clerics alike celebrating the end of enmities within the church and the outlook for the future.

For more information on religion in Ethiopia before and after the fall of the Derg and rise of the EPRDF, see this article published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies.

Article Photo: Celebrations in Toronto for the announcement, which coincided with the feast day of St. Gabriel.

Augustine Dickinson is a PhD student at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto. He holds an MA in Classical Studies and a BA in Medieval Studies, both from the University of Waterloo.