NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – The head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in his first public comments on the war in the Tigray region, harshly criticizes Ethiopia’s actions, saying he believes it is of genocide: “They want to destroy the people of Tigray”.
In a video shot on a cell phone last month and made in Ethiopia, elderly Patriarch Abune Mathias addresses tens of millions of Church followers and the international community, saying his previous attempts to speak out have been blocked. He is of the Tigrayan ethnicity.
The video comes as the conflict in Tigray marks six months. Thousands of people were killed in the fighting between Ethiopian and allied forces and the Tiger forces, the result of a political struggle that turned deadly in November. Dozens of witnesses told the PA that civilians were being targeted.
“I don’t know why they want to declare the genocide of the inhabitants of Tigray,” said Abune Mathias, speaking in Amharic and 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 calls for strength, adding that “this bad season could pass. And he urges the world to act.
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 as Ethiopia, facing multiple crises of sometimes deadly ethnic tensions, faces 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 AP he shot the video in an impulsive moment as he returned it to him. visit last month to 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 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.
The Ethiopian government says it is “deeply dismayed” by the deaths of civilians, blames the former leaders of Tigray and says normalcy is back in the region of around 6 million people. He denied the widespread profiling and targeting of Tigrayans.
But witnesses told the PA 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 be swept up and detained, often without charge.
Churches were the scene of massacres – a deacon in Aksum told the PA he believed around 800 people were killed in a weekend in November at the church and around town – and mass graves.
“The people fell to the ground like leaves,” said the Patriarch of Aksum, Ethiopia’s holiest city.
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.
Associated Press writer Haleluya Hadero contributed.