Abune Tewophilos and Emperor Haile Selassie I: Their Invaluable Contributions to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (By: Fikre Mariam Workneh)

Abune Tewophilos and Emperor Haile Selassie I: Their Invaluable Contributions to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

By: Fikre Mariam Workneh


As a former celibate priest or monk, I had the privilege of serving both Abune Tewophilos and Emperor Haile Selassie I, and I would like to share my indelible memories about these two giant Ethiopians. 

Abune Tewophilos: 

    It has been nearly forty years since His Holiness Patriarch Tewophilos was murdered by the Ethiopian military/communist government in 1979. This barbaric act by the Ethiopian government against His Holiness was performed with the blessing of some members of the Orthodox Church clergy. Although many years have passed since His Holiness was strangled to death, for me it feels as though it happened just few days ago. I am still going through a profound sadness, an overwhelming sorrow and outrage about the fact that he was murdered in such an inhumane manner. No one had to die with such savagery. The Church, instead of preaching the gospel of love, mercy and forgiveness, became a collaborator to the military regime’s brutality. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was left with an immeasurable loss of a wise leader. Those who came after him did not measure up to his intellectual caliber or vision. 

    Abune Tewophilos was a visionary leader who was ahead of his time. He was a beacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He had taken several progressive steps to bring the Church forward into the 20th century, making it more relevant to the new generation of the Orthodox Church’s faithful. He put some basic reforms in place.    

    His Holiness was acutely aware that the Church had had a longstanding shortage of priests and deacons. In many regions, churches did not have the required priests and deacons in order to conduct communion. Sunday services were not held on a regular basis. According to the Church’s tradition, two priests and three deacons were required for service. He suggested some relaxations in the old customs and traditions. He advocated that communion service could be conducted with just one priest and one deacon. He consulted his idea with His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie and Patriarch Baslios, and they were both in agreement with him.  

     His Grace also put in place some basic educational requirements for ordination into the priesthood. Deacons were also required to go through a similar regimen. In addition, he set up primary and high religious schools. He encouraged other bishops to establish similar programs in their jurisdictions. He modernized some existing theological schools to include courses such as biological sciences, mathematics, languages and geography alongside theological teachings in their curricula.  The theological school he found in the city of Harer (ራስ መኮንን መንፈሳዊ ትምህርት ቤትwas a case in point. The school was specially designed to educate clerical students with an emphasis on modern subjects. The majority of students enrolled were already well-educated in clerical education. They had training in a wide range of theological studies in the tradition of the Church. In other words, they were the cream of the crop. Specifically, many were teachers, poets, or philosophers. They were also well versed in geez translation. 

    Among many other of Abune Tewophilos accomplishments was the translation of several liturgical and daily prayer books from Geez to Amharic. His critics, of course, did not like that and saw it as less sacred and even blasphemous when, in fact, it was designed to facilitate the reading of spiritual books. Equally significant was that the translation of books from Geez to Amharic brought on greater congregational participation. 

    In addition, His Grace established and expanded Sunday school programs, previously nonexistent. Sunday school programs have remained a vital component of the Church to this day. 

    Furthermore, His Grace allowed and encouraged women to have active role in the life of the Orthodox Church. This was considered a milestone as women were able to play a vital, complimentary, roles on a variety activities, including serving as church choirs.


    For the first time, His Grace put forward new initiatives for greater exposure of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Consequently, the Church was able to gain membership and closer relationship with other sister Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Church also gained an ecumenical membership with the World Council of Churches. Through His Holiness’ outreach initiatives, the Church received some developmental assistances. Many foreign Churches offered the Ethiopian clergy to attend their seminaries on scholarship. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, under the leadership of Abune Tewophilos, was able to send a number of students abroad for advance theological studies. For instance, the late Patriarch Abune Paulos had often attributed his educational advancement and leadership development to the support of Abune Tewophilos. 

    Abune Tewophilos’ vision and deeds, on the other hand, seemed to have created some strong opposition from a group of fanatic clergy within the Church. He came face to face with some old timers who got in his way by putting up some stumbling blocks. They became engaged in spreading false propaganda among church followers. They accused him of shaping the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to look like the Catholic or Protestant Churches. They also questioned his faithful guardianship of the Church. This group of the clergy alleged that the Patriarch squandered some money from the Church’s treasury and that he ordained bishops without the permission of the synod. 

    The underlying reason for this group of clergy for objecting His Holiness as the leader of the Church had, however, to do with their petty regionalism. They did not like the fact that he was a native of the Gojjam province. In their narrow-minded view, he was not entitled to be elevated to the office of the patriarchate of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. For instance, some members of the clergy from the Shewa province had thought that the patriarchate belonged to them. Their false claim seemed to be based on the premise that the first Patriarch, Abune Baslios, was born in Shewa. Since the monarchy’s seat was in Addis Ababa (Shewa), the argument went, the patriarch had to be from Shewa. It was said that upon hearing this, His Majesty rebuked this group of the clergy and did not consider its claim to be worthy of his support. Perhaps this group might have been misinformed by the old tradition of the Church of Rome, which for over 500 years elevated exclusively Italians into the papacy.

    There were also some members of the clergy from the Gonder province who entertained a similar notion. They are believed to have entertained the idea that the seat of the Ethiopian monarchy should be returned to Gonder, as was the case between the seventeen and nineteen centuries. By extension, they tried to make the case that the seat of the patriarchate should be in Gonder. Their movement and aspiration were led by Like-Siltanat Habte Mariam Workneh (now Abune Melketsadik), an individual with a highly inflated ego. This too was another poorly conceived idea, which never got off the ground. It was an exercise in futility.          

    Indeed, Like-Siltanat Habte Mariam Workneh’s animus with Abune Tewophilos had started even before the latter became a Patriarch. It is said that after Like-Siltanat Habte Mariam became the dean or Like-Siltanat of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, he had wanted to evict His Grace Abune Tewophilos from his residence in that church. The Emperor had given the residence to the latter upon becoming the first Like-Siltanat of the Cathedral. Abune Tewophilos continued to reside in that residence even after he became the bishop of Harergie province. Abune Tewophilos needed to spend time in Addis Ababa as His Majesty had also appointed him to lead the Church’s head office as a deputy to Patriarch Baslios. The latter had been in poor health. Like-Siltanat Habte Mariam appealed to His Majesty to get Abune Tewophilos’ residence but was advised by the Palace to move into another house located in a close proximity to the Cathedral. He was very disappointed that the Emperor ruled against him and became more furious at Abune Tewophilos. It is said that he turned his fury against Abune Tewophilos and began a campaign of disinformation. He defiled and defamed Abune Tewophilos’ name whenever he got a chance. 

    It is believed that Like-Siltanat Habte Mariam’s followers and friends, including 15 bishops, led a rebellion against Abune Tewophilos. They insisted that the new military government should remove him from his position and that was what exactly happened. Within a short of time, not only was the Patriarch removed from his office, but he also went to prison for three years and was murdered in 1979. He was strangled to death and his dumped body was not even recovered until years later. He was a victim of a disoriented clergy and a ruthless regime.

Emperor Haile Selassie I: 

    His Majesty was not just a devoted follower of the Orthodox Christianity Church. He was also very engaged in advising and, at times directing, the Church’s leaders on how to run it affairs. He appropriated funds for building hundreds of modern churches around the country. The Emperor, with the help of Abune Tewophilos and others, was also instrumental in making the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to become independent from the Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt.      

    Emperor Haile Selassie was a very important supporter and ally of Abune Tewophilos. The Emperor, as the Ecclesiastical Head of the Orthodox Christianity Church, was intimately aware of Abune Tewophilos’ work and very much appreciated his prudent leadership. The Emperor’s appreciation of Abune Tewophilos went way back to when he selected him as the first dean or Like-Siltanat for the newly completed first National Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Addis Ababa. He was known as Like-Siltanat Meliktu at the time. The Cathedral Church was the center for major national events. For instance, annual national war victory celebrations began with prayer services at the Cathedral. It was built with a special design to serve as the final resting place for His Majesty and his royal family members. Many Ethiopian war heroes are also buried in the compound. His Majesty had an enormous respect for Abune Tewophilos and encouraged him to proceed with his reforms that were underway. 

    In 1947, His Majesty selected Abune Tewophilos and four others to be the last bishops to be ordained by the Church of Alexandria. Not too long after he was ordained as a bishop, Abune Tewophilos was appointed as the bishop of Harergie by Patriarch Baslios and the Emperor. The bishop of Harergie, as the birth place of His Majesty, was considered a very important assignment. Additionally, the Emperor designated Abune Tewophilos to be the deputy to Patriarch Baslios, who was much older and was in poor health. He served in that capacity until he was elected as the second Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in 1971. Contrary to the displeasure of his small-minded critics who claimed that he was, indirectly, handpicked by the Emperor, Patriarch Tewophilos was elected by an overwhelming majority of the clerical congregation. His consecration was celebrated with huge fanfare. Several patriarchs from Eastern Orthodox Churches around the world as well as many more from other Christian denominations were in attendance.        

    In the early 1950s, the Emperor invited some Western missionary churches to come to Ethiopia in order to help the spread of Christianity to the south and southwestern parts of the country, such as Sidamo, Arusi, and Welega. He instructed them to preach the Gospel to those Ethiopians who were not the followers of the Orthodox Church at the time. Some of the leaders of the Orthodox Church were, however, very unhappy and privately expressed their displeasure at the Emperor for bringing missionaries of other Christian denominations into the country. To the opposition, Ethiopia was supposed to be an Island of Orthodox Christianity. However, the Emperor was not impressed by their argument. One of the core objectives of the missionaries was building elementary and high schools. In addition, they built several clinics and hospitals. Their academic and health institutions were topnotch and more advanced. Consequently, many wealthy Ethiopians sent their children to missionary schools. The Emperor even allowed them to build a major broadcasting center in Addis Ababa (የብስራተ ወንጌል ሬዲዮ ድምጽ) that can reach many eastern African countries. Missionary churches were no longer considered as the enemy of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church. In fact, the Orthodox Church came around to accept them as partners. As a result, the Orthodox Church benefited in a verity of ways, including receiving scholarships for its clergy to attend theological seminaries abroad. 

    Sometime in the early 1960s, His Majesty learned that some eastern Caribbean leaders would be very much interested for the establishment of Ethiopian Orthodox churches in their countries. He was told that the islanders would accept Ethiopian priests in open arms, as they were resenting the services of their former colonial churches. Some Caribbean leaders even promised to give free land to build the first few Ethiopian churches. The Emperor immediately ordered the Orthodox Church’s leaders to dispatch a few priests to the islands. The Church’s leaders agreed to follow through with His Majesty’s order. However, they did not seem to assess the long-term prospect of the new churches in the Caribbean. Specifically, no serious foundational work was put into the kind of resources that the new mission churches would need. Nor did they (unlike their medieval-period counterparts who were very influential in the spread of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia) have discernible ideas or experience about running such mission churches. However, they were able to allocate small salaries for two priests and a deacon for every church and that was how the branches of the Orthodox Church in the Caribbean were established. In the ensuing years, however, no adequate support was provided from Addis Ababa. Nor did the Church’s leaders pay frequent visits to the Caribbean.     

    The Emperor, though small in his physical stature, possessed a special mystic and was considered by many as having a Solomonic wisdom. The Church’s leaders saw him as possessing divine authority. His Majesty’s coronation was considered as Godly ordained similar to those of David’s and Solomon’s of the Old Testament. Church leaders preached to the faithful not to question His Majesty’s authority. His name was praised in daily prayers. He was feared, and at the same time his subjects respected his authority without reservation. No one, until later years, suggested that he ruled as an autocrat. His strict governing style was accepted. He was seen to be moving the country into a civil society. Of course, those assumptions were challenged as time went by. An attempt was made to overthrow the Emperor by Brigadier General Mengistu Neway and his brother, Germamie Neway, in 1960. Twelve years later, the Emperor’s downfall came. His accomplishments to his country were instantly wiped out. Rather than demanding evolutionary or gradual reforms, people called revolutionary or radical changes. About 60 senior government officials were executed in 1974 and the Emperor himself was killed a year later.      

    The Ethiopian revolution did not just lead to the demise of the country’s Heads of State and Church. The revolutionary government of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam executed thousands of innocent Ethiopians. Many more people were put in prison without a single charge. Some, hoping to gain favors from the government, became government informers against their own families, neighbors, and friends. Several thousands of Ethiopians went into hiding out to the country side, and an estimated three to five million people fled the country altogether experiencing countless hardship in foreign lands. The majority of the exiled or murdered were highly educated in a wide range of professional disciplines. Their beloved country was gravely harmed by their absence. The country that they cherished was deprived of invaluable talents and expertise. The military/communist government also nationalized the properties of millions of Ethiopians with a vengeance.


How I Got to Know Abune Tewophilos and Emperor Haile Selassie I:  

    I was born in the village of Yedaguat, in Bichena, Gojjam. It was in my home province of Gojjam that I also received my clerical education. In 1954, I became a monk (a celibate priest) at the Debre Libanos Monastery. The first time that I met Abune Tewophilos was in Addis Ababa in 1954 right after I became a monk. It was in the same year that Abune Tewophilos chose me, with four other monks, to serve at his private chapel in Harer. One of the memorable moments for me while I was in Harer was when His Majesty, Patriarch Baslios, and Abune Tewophilos came to the city and we held a prayer service for them at the Teklehaymanot Church. I was the lead priest. With the assistance of another priest, I conducted a full service for the country’s top political and spiritual leaders. Later in the day, I heard that His Majesty remarked to Abune Tewophilos that I was a fiery young priest. I was very delighted to hear that.  

     His Holiness Abune Tewophilos was my mentor, one I had the utmost respect for. I idealized him for his profound wisdom and farsightedness. He had high hopes and confidence that I would become one of the future generation of priests who would lead the Church into the 21st century. He knew that I was a good priest and skilled practitioner of the priesthood. He chose me to celebrate mass on special Holydays. For instance, whenever the Emperor came to Harer to attend his yearly mass during St. Mary’s two week fasting (ፍስለታ) in August, His Holiness called on me to be the lead priest. When His Majesty was in attendance of mass, the religious service must be conducted with a high degree of efficiency and the leading priest must have an excellent chanting skill. I was very fortunate to possess a good voice. My religious songs were, in fact, of high demand and had to be recorded and provided to some of the country’s ambassadors living abroad.  

    After serving at the private chapel of Abune Tewophilos for four years in Harer, I became (with the help of Major Getachew Nadew, who later on became a General) the first Chaplin of the newly established Ethiopian Airborne Battalion force in Debre Zeit. At the airborne base, I gave weekly sermons. I was not just another monk or priest at the Airborne’s base, however. I jumped from airplanes alongside the paratroopers. As a young priest in my mid-20s, I saw myself capable of performing what the soldiers did. Looking back, my sermons to the members of the airborne were consistent with social and political issues and concerns of the day. I stressed on Christ’s concern for the poor and how He detested the greed of the wealthy. Several people from the academia and other professions (from Addis Ababa area) attended my sermons. His Grace Abune Tewophilos was my guest on two occasions.      

    In 1966, His Grace Abune Tewophilos sent me to Trinidad and Tobago to serve at one of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches that were established a few years earlier. In my first year in Trinidad and Tobago, in 1967, His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie made an official visit to that country. He was accompanied by a large contingency of high-level Ethiopian officials. The Emperor and his entourage visited two Ethiopian churches that were already serving the community in that country. He also laid a cornerstone for a fairly new small church, which I later became its parish priest.    

    While I was in Trinidad and Tobago, I received a scholarship from the World Council of Churches to study at the American Region and Psychiatry Institute in New York City. I had already received my high school diploma through correspondence not too long before that. As I was ready to leave Trinidad and Tobago in 1968, I called Abune Tewophilos and told him about my plan, going to the United States in order to pursue modern education. He asked me to wait until a replacement priest was sent to Trinidad and Tobago. He also suggested that I returned to Ethiopia for consultation, which I declined to do.  And that was the last time I had a conversation with him. Once I arrived in the United States, I decided to leave monkhood or celibacy priesthood. A few years after I arrived in the Unites States, I got married to, coincidentally, a former nun and we are now the parents of three children. His Holiness was probably disappointed when he found out that I was no longer serving the Church. I was deeply sorry about that. I just hoped that he would be forgiving. Be that as it may, I never had the opportunity to see His Holiness again. Indeed, I have been living with a heart-breaking sadness ever since, having a difficult time of accepting the very fact that he was savagely murdered.  

Sources Consulted:

አባ ኪዳነ ማርያም ጌታሁን የሀሰት ምስክርነት ፡ የቋሚ ምስክርነት አዲስ አባባ 1994 ዓ.ም

ጌታቸው ኃይሌ (ፕ/ር)፤ አንዳፍታ ላውጋችሁ   ኮሌጅቪል ሚኒሶታ 2000 ዓ.ም  

ታምራት አበራ ቀዳማዊ ቴዎፍሎስ ፓትርያርክ የሕይወት ታሪክ አዲስ አበባ 2009 ዓ.ም

Gizachew Tiruneh. (2014). On the Run in the Blue Nile: A True Story. Create Space, United States.    

     [ግዛቸው  ጥሩነህ  (ዶ/ር)፤ ነፍስ አድን ሩጫ በአባይ ሸለቆ አዲስ አበባ ፡ አሜሪካ  2006 ዓ.ም]


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