By JAMES BROOKE, Special to the New York Times
Published: March 9, 1987
Holy Cross Square has been renamed Revolution Square and is now graced with a billboard hailing Communism’s trinity: Marx, Engels and Lenin.
But across town, gleaming new Coptic crosses top the Byzantine domes of St. Michael’s Church, the largest Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the nation. Consecrated last year, St. Michael’s was built to accommodate Addis Ababa’s growing number of Christians.
Indeed, 12 years of Marxist rule appear to have barely dented Ethiopia’s 1,600-year-old attachment to Christianity.
But, religious leaders say, the revolutionary Government has manipulated the church into a powerless position similar to that of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union.
This spring, the state of religious freedom in this ancient land is likely to be debated in the United States Congress. A bill with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives would impose trade sanctions on Ethiopia for human-rights violations.
Christianity in Ethiopia dates to the third or fourth century. Attacked in later centuries by a hostile Islam, Christianity flourished in the isolation of Ethiopia’s craggy highlands.
From the rock-hewn churches and monasteries of the highlands came much of Ethiopia’s culture: a national alphabet, a 13-month calendar, a subtle poetry called kine, a tradition of illuminating religious scenes on goat skin and a body of liturgical prayers and hymns in Geez, a language kept alive only in the church.
Once nominally subordinate to the Coptic Patriarch in Alexandria, Egypt, Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church was long intertwined with the Ethiopian state. In 1959 Haile Selassie, then Ethiopia’s Emperor, furthered this alliance by engineering the election of an Ethiopian Patriarch by Ethiopian bishops.
By 1974, when the Marxist revolution toppled the monarchy, the nation’s religious divisions had changed little over the centuries. Ethiopia’s Orthodox, about 45 percent of a population of 45 million, continue to live largely in the highlands. Ethiopia’s Moslems, also about 45 percent of the population, live largely in the lowlands.
The remainder include Roman Catholics, Protestants, animists and black Jews.
Once in power, the Marxists here did not directly attack the Orthodox Church. There were few church closings and few arrests of priests. Instead, the state moved to co-opt the church.
All church lands – about 30 percent of cultivated land in Ethiopia – were nationalized.
”The Government pays us four million birr a year compensation,” Abebaw Yigzaw, general secretary to the Orthodox Church, said of the $2 million the Government pays to cover salaries of most of the clergy. Wields True Power in Church
Mr. Abebaw, a member of Ethiopia’s Communist Party, is considered the true power in the church. His previous assignment was as deputy governor of Gondar Province in a tumultuous period in the late 1970’s known as the Red Terror.
The titular head of the church, Patriarch Tekle Haimanot, is a frail, elderly man described by one priest here as a ”peasant monk.” His predecessor, a forceful man known as Archbishop Tewoflos, was ousted by the Government shortly after the revolution. He is believed to be dead.
With a weak Patriarch, Government control of the church’s finances and a long tradition of a church-state alliance, the Orthodox Church is seen here as politically neutralized.
”The church and the state are like two sides of the same page,” Mr. Abebaw said.
On state occasions, Orthodox priests regularly bless the party flag – all red except for a gold star and a small red hammer and sickle – along with Ethiopia’s national flag, a green, yellow and red tricolor. Critics Dealt With Swiftly
Retribution is swift for the rare religious figure who criticizes the Government. An Orthodox Bishop assigned to Jerusalem publicly attacked the Government from New York and was promptly excommunicated, with the order signed by Mr. Abebaw.
In the Soviet mold, Ethiopia’s new Constitution, adopted last month, says, ”Freedom of religion may not be exercised in a manner contrary to the interests of the state and the revolution.”
At the Soviet Embassy in Addis Ababa, Mikhail N. Bocharnikov, the press officer, noted growing ties between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthdox Church. Last month, two Ethiopian bishops attended an antiwar conference in Moscow. ”They went through the invitation of the Russian Orthodox Church,” he said. Behind-the-Scenes Pressure
Behind the scenes, the Government has discreetly sought to reduce the power of the Orthodox Church. Party members are discouraged from attending church services. Neighborhood associations often schedule mandatory political education meetings for Sunday mornings.
In the interior, the loss of rents from lands has forced many provincial priests into penury, church sources report. Visitors returning from Lalibala said that complex of rock-hewn churches dating from the eighth century was falling into disrepair.
Other religious groups have fared variously under the Marxist Government.
The long-abused Moslems now have three official religious holidays, placed on the calendar by the Government.
Protestant sects have lost several clashes with the Government. A former Baptist church here now bears a sign reading, ”Working People’s Control Committee.”
Roman Catholics have chosen a non-confrontational approach and, as a result, have retained control of their 47 health clinics and most of their 200 schools. Ethiopia’s leader, Lieut. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, has two daughters enrolled in a Catholic school here. Churches Overflow on Sunday
Despite – or maybe because of – official chilliness toward religion, churches are often overflowing on Sundays. Loudspeakers serve the overflow.
The increase in church attendance since the revolution is generally seen as a form of quiet protest. Occasionally, the protest flares into the open.
In May 1985, an angry Orthodox crowd attacked Mr. Abebaw and smashed his car when he tried to remove sacred relics from Raguel Church in the main market here. In the confusion, a priest who led the protest was shot and killed.
The Moslems ”from the market were at the edge of the crowd,” one witness, a 37-year-old Ethiopian Orthodox man, said. ”They were saying, ‘Our turn will be next.’
Source: NY times 1987