The head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church accused government forces of committing “genocide” in the Tigray region, where a six month conflict between Federal and Allied troops and forces loyal to the former ruling party would have killed thousands of people.
In a video shot last month on a cell phone and out of Ethiopia, elderly Patriarch Abune Mathias addresses millions of Church members and the international community, saying his previous attempts to speak out have been blocked.
“I don’t know why they want to declare the genocide of the Tigray people,” said the patriarch, of Tigray origin, speaking in Amharic.
“They want to destroy the people of Tigray,” he adds, listing the alleged atrocities, including the destruction of churches, massacres, forced famine and looting.
“It is not the fault of the Tabby people. The whole world should know about it, ”he continues. Urging international and local action, he says “this bad season could pass.”
The comments are a stark denunciation from such an elderly person in Ethiopia, where state media reflects the government’s rhetoric and where independent journalists and Tigrayans have been intimidated and harassed. The video also comes weeks before Ethiopia, facing multiple crises of sometimes deadly ethnic tensions, is due to hold national elections on June 5.
Dennis Wadley, who heads the US organization Bridges of Hope and has been a friend of the church leader for several years, told the Associated Press news agency that he shot the video in an impulsive moment while he was visiting her last month in the Ethiopian capital, Addis. Ababa.
“I just pulled out my iPhone and said if you want to get the word out, let’s do it,” Wadley said on Friday after arriving in the United States. “He just poured out his heart… It’s so sad. I actually hugged him; I’ve never done this before.
A church official contacted on Friday confirmed the video and Abune Mathias’ interest in making it public. The patriarch of the church serves alongside a recently returned exile, Abune Merkorios.
“I have said a lot of things but no one is allowing the message to be shared. He’s pretty hushed up and censored, ”Abune Mathias says in the video.
“Much barbarism has been carried out” these days all over Ethiopia, he said, but “what is happening in Tigray is of the utmost brutality and cruelty”.
God will judge everything, he adds.
Berhane Gebre-Christos, a former Ethiopian foreign minister, told Al Jazeera that the religious leader has long spoken out against injustice and that his words carried “enormous weight” inside and outside from Ethiopia.
“He is a well-respected patriarch in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Orthodox churches around the world,” said Berhane, who is also a member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the former ruling party of the Tigray who was appointed this week by the Ethiopian parliament. a “terrorist” organization.
“He spoke to the Ethiopian people and at the same time called on the world and the international community to take correct and strong action,” Berhane added.
Fighting erupted in Tigray in early November 2020, when, according to the government, forces loyal to the TPLF attacked military bases in the region. The violence follows months of deteriorating relations between the TPLF and the federal government over what the party sees as discrimination against Tigrayans and attempts to centralize power – accusations the government rejects. A spokesperson for the TPLF denied that the group made the first strike.
The Ethiopian government says it is “deeply dismayed” by the deaths of civilians in Tigray, blames the TPLF and claims that normalcy is back in the region of around six million people. He denied the widespread profiling and targeting of Tigrayans.
But witnesses have said in several credible reports that they saw bodies strewn on the ground over communities, Tigrayans rounded up and expelled and women raped by Ethiopian and allied forces, including those in neighboring Eritrea. Others described family members and colleagues, including priests, who were kidnapped and detained, often without charge.
Churches were the scene of massacres – a deacon in Axum told the AP he believes around 800 people were killed over a November weekend at and around the church. city - and mass graves.
“The people fell to the ground like leaves,” says the Patriarch of Aksum, one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities.
Abune Mathias, born in 1942, has been outspoken in the past. In 1980, he became the first church leader to speak out against the reign of the Ethiopian communist regime “and was forced to live abroad for over thirty years,” according to the United Nations refugee agency.