The head of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church has accused government forces of carrying out “genocide” in the country’s Tigray region, where a six-month conflict between federal and allied troops and forces loyal to the former ruling party is believed to have killed thousands of people.
In a video shot last month on a mobile phone and taken out of Ethiopia, the elderly Patriarch Abune Mathias addresses the church’s millions of followers and the international community, saying his previous attempts to speak out were blocked.
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“I am not clear why they want to declare genocide on the people of Tigray,” the patriarch, an ethnic Tigrayan, says, speaking in Amharic.
“They want to destroy the people of Tigray,” he adds, listing alleged atrocities including the destruction of churches, massacres, forced starvation and looting.
“It is not the fault of the Tigray people. The whole world should know it,” he continues. Urging international and local action, he says “this bad season might pass away.”
The comments are a striking denunciation from someone so senior in Ethiopia, where state media reflect the government’s narrative and both 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 a national election on June 5.
Dennis Wadley, who runs the US-based Bridges of Hope organisation and has been a friend of the church leader for several years, told the Associated Press news agency he shot the video in an impulsive moment while visiting him last month in Ethiopia’s 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 US. “He just poured out his heart … It’s so sad. I actually hugged him; I never did that before.”
A church official reached on Friday confirmed the video and the interest of Abune Mathias in making it public. The church patriarch serves alongside a recently returned exile, Abune Merkorios.
“I have said a lot of things but no one allows the message to be shared. Rather, it is being stifled and censored,” Abune Mathias says in the video.
“Many barbarisms have been conducted” these days all over Ethiopia, he says, but “what is happening in Tigray is of the highest brutality and cruelty.”
God will judge everything, he adds.
Berhane Gebre-Christos, an Ethiopian former foreign minister, told Al Jazeera the religious leader has long spoken out against injustice and his words hold “huge weight” inside and outside Ethiopia.
“This is a highly respected patriarch in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Orthodox Churches in the world,” said Berhane, who is also a member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s former ruling party which was designated this week by Ethiopia’s parliament a “terrorist” organisation.
“He has spoken to the Ethiopian people and he has at the same time appealed to the world, the international community to take correct and strong action,” Berhane added.
Fighting broke out in Tigray in early November 2020, when, according to the government, forces loyal to the TPLF attacked army bases in the region. The violence followed months of deteriorating relations between the TPLF and the federal government over what the party sees as discrimination against Tigrayans and attempts to centralise power – accusations the government rejects. A TPLF spokesman has denied that the group made the first strike.
Ethiopia’s government says it is “deeply dismayed” by the deaths of civilians in Tigray, blames TPLF and claims normality is returning in the region of some six million people. It has denied widespread profiling and targeting of Tigrayans.
But witnesses have said in multiple credible reports that they saw bodies strewn on the ground on communities, Tigrayans rounded up and expelled and women raped by Ethiopian and allied forces including those from neighbouring Eritrea. Others have described family members and colleagues including priests being swept up and detained, often without charge.
Churches have been the scenes of massacres – one deacon in Axum has told the AP he believes some 800 people were killed in a November weekend at the church and around the city – and of mass graves.
“People were dropped over the ground like leaves,” the patriarch says of Axum, one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities.
Abune Mathias, born in 1942, has been outspoken in the past. In 1980, he became the first leader of the church to denounce the rule of Ethiopia’s communist regime “and was forced to live abroad for more than thirty years”, according to the United Nations refugee agency.