Interview With Archbishop of Addis Ababa
ROME, 16 MAY 2011 (ZENIT)
The Church in Ethiopia traces its history to the Apostle Philip, who baptized an Ethiopian as is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
Today, the country maintains its Christian majority, though only 1% are Catholic. Still, the Church has an important value to transmit to the universal Church, according to the archbishop of Addis Ababa and president of the bishops' conference of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Archbishop Berhaneyesus Souraphie spoke with the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.
Q: Ethiopia is mentioned 78 times in the Bible and was the second country to officially recognize Christianity. The Church in Ethiopia is one of the oldest Churches in the world. Can you tell us a little bit about the Church and the life of the faithful today?
Archbishop Souraphiel: Well the Church in Ethiopia goes back to the apostolic age when Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. It’s mentioned in Chapter 8 of the Act of the Apostles. Officially it became the state religion in the fourth century. The first bishop, St. Frumentius, was ordained by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, so the first bishop was a Syrian and from then on Ethiopia became officially a Christian country, second only after Armenia to declare Christianity a state religion.
Q: What is the life of the faithful like today?
Archbishop Souraphiel: It’s really amazing to say that Christianity has been inculturated so much that you cannot separate culture and religion. People live religion. It is in their blood. It is in their history. It is in the land of Ethiopia because the monks came during the ninth century, they built up a lot of monasteries and translated a lot of spiritual writings and Scriptures from different languages into the Ethiopian language and so people were able to understand Christianity from the very beginning in their own language.
Q: Christians make up 60% of the population, Catholics only 1% of the population. What are the different traditions that you have in Ethiopia?
Archbishop Souraphiel: Christians are still the majority in Ethiopia. The Orthodox Church is around 44%, the Protestants around 18%, the Catholics 1%, thus 62% of the population is Christian. Ethiopia has always remained a Christian country and this is also, as we say in Ge’ez, due to “Divine Protection." If we look at the other ancient Christian countries starting from Egypt to Morocco — all Northern Africa where we have the great saints like St. Augustine, St. Tertullian and St. Cyprian — they no longer have Christian majorities in these countries. Ethiopia remains a majority Christian country thanks to the protection of God and Our Lady, as we say in Ethiopia.
Q: It is also interesting because Islam, at the very beginning, sought refuge in Ethiopia because of persecution and Ethiopia was the only country that welcomed the followers of Mohammed?
Archbishop Souraphiel: Yes they did. When the Prophet Mohammed was persecuted in Mecca and he was not sure where to send his followers to be saved, the first country he thought of was Ethiopia. He said: “Go to Ethiopia, there is a Christian emperor, he will receive you and stay there until things improve.” They came to Ethiopia and they were well received. Because of this reception, it is written in the Hadith: “Don’t touch the Ethiopians. Don’t touch the country of the elephants. They have been good to us." So there has been, traditionally and historically, peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia.
Q: Every Christian in Ethiopia, upon their baptism, receives what is called a mateb. What is a mateb and what is the significance of it?
Archbishop Souraphiel: The mateb is a cord that is worn around the neck, given during baptism. The person carries it all the time — it is a sign that he is a Christian. It doesn’t matter whether he is practicing, or even going near a church, but he is a Christian. And whoever sees him knows that he is a Christian, he follows the Christian rules, he obeys the Commandments and also obeys the Church commandments like fasting and so on. It’s an external sign of being a Christian.
Q: Often among Ethiopians, there is a tattoo of the cross inside the wrist? Is this just among the Orthodox or do Catholics also have this tradition?
Archbishop Souraphiel: Mostly the Orthodox. You see, the cross is a sign of victory for Christians — [there] Christ destroyed sin and death. In Ethiopia you find the cross everywhere: on top of the churches, on top of houses, in tattoos on the forehead or on the hand, on the dresses of the people, on the writings and on the manuscripts. There are over 200 different designs of the Ethiopian cross. The priests hold the cross in their hand for people to kiss and to greet. We celebrate the Feast of the Finding of the True Cross, which reminds us how Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine, found three crosses on a dig in Jerusalem and she found the one true cross on which Jesus was crucified by taking the sick there and through their healing. The cross has a big role in Ethiopia and one part of the [true] cross is found in one of the monasteries in Ethiopia called the Gishen Mariam Monastery.
Q: Your Excellency, Ethiopia is not without its crosses, that is, its challenges. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. What particular challenges confront Ethiopia today?
Archbishop Souraphiel: The biggest challenge today is material poverty. The population has been increasing. Ethiopia has nearly 80 million people and recurrent drought and famine as well as conflict, civil war — these have become big crosses for Ethiopia. Ethiopia has experienced great famine for a long time. The number one issue in Ethiopia, however, is poverty and how to overcome it. This is what the government is trying to do, what the people are trying to do and what the Church wants to overcome. Because of this poverty many things are interlinked, for example: many of our young people go to work in the Arab world as domestic workers, as guards or as drivers and to go there, to facilitate the situation, you change your Christian name or you dress like a Muslim — whether you are a man or a woman. For the first time in the history of Ethiopia, poverty is forcing people, not to deny, but to give up their Christian heritage. That is how serious poverty is in Ethiopia.
Q: The Catholic Church provides about 90% of the social services in Ethiopia? How is the Church so active despite being such a minority population?
Archbishop Souraphiel: You are right; the Catholic Church is a minority, about 1%, and it also does most of the social services: health centers, schools and social centers that take care of the homeless, the needy and HIV patients and so on — work like that of Mother Teresa's sisters. The Church started looking and asking, what are the needs in Ethiopia? The needs are evidently related to poverty such as health issues. For example, if a child under five doesn’t get clean water, he or she will die, so clean water is very important. Those who pass beyond the age of five are normally guaranteed to live to about 48 or 50 — that is the life expectancy in Ethiopia. To give soap and medicine especially to the children and to the mothers, teaches them life — the Church stands for life. The child also needs education: we have more than 200 schools in Ethiopia; mostly in the rural areas, though in the cities as well and these cater to the people in need.
Q: It is an extraordinary confidence on the part of the government that they have confided so much of these activities to your hands.
Archbishop Souraphiel: Yes, because we don’t discriminate. The services provided by the Catholic Church are open to all — Christians and Muslims. The important thing is the human person with human needs. And that is why the Church has been building on this and even now, upon the request of the people and the government, the Catholic Church is starting a Catholic university in Addis Ababa, working together with the regional governments so that this university is a national one.
Q: Is the Catholic Church granted more space because of the fact that you have provided so many services in Ethiopia?
Archbishop Souraphiel: It is a support to the faith and yet a challenge for Catholics: to be witnesses of the social teachings of the Church, to be good neighbors, to respect others and also to do more because the expectations are high of the Church. And here I would like to thank also the contribution of the universal Church. We work together with the universal Church and all who work with it, like, for example Aid to the Church in Need. They support us in the many projects we have in all the dioceses and we can do these works thanks to our benefactors in Europe and the States.
Q: What can the African Church bring to the universal Church?
Archbishop Souraphiel: I would say its values. The Church in Africa has the values of the family. The family is so important. I remember the Holy Father coming to Cameroon. We received him and he was so happy to see many Africans dancing and receiving him in a big stadium. And the archbishop of Yaounde was saying to him: “You know, Your Holiness, in Africa, we call the bishops grandfathers, and you are our great, great grandfather,” and he was happy. We have respect for parents, for our elders, for our ancestors and also for those around us; every human being has a value and cannot be measured or quantified just by material things. Africa can bring this value to the world.
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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.