By now the world has heard about Tuesday’s death of longtime Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, but Ethiopians are also mourning the loss of another major figure: Abuna Paulos, patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahado Church.
The U.S.-educated Paulos died unexpectedly of undisclosed health related problems on Aug 16, four days before the prime minister’s death was announced. Paulos was 76. The two men were close allies and hailed from the same Tigray ethnic group.
Home to some of the world’s oldest churches, Ethiopia has an estimated 45 million Orthodox Christians, a little over half of its 75 million population.
There are also tens of thousands of followers and dozens of Ethiopian Orthodox churches in the Ethiopian-American community across the Washington region. Thousands of Ethiopian Americans attended a memorial service Thursday at several churches throughout the area.
Back in Ethiopia, the council of the church will hold meetings in the coming weeks to appointment a new patriarch.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was part of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, but got its independence in 1959. Outspoken and active in public life, Paulos was the head of the church since 1992, and was appointed year after Meles and his party overthrew the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
During Mengistu’s crackdown on religion, Paulos was jailed in the 1970s and later went into exile in the United States. While here he studied at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in the New York, and afterwards joined the doctoral program at the Princeton Theological Seminary.
He was controversial because he was given the title of patriarch while his predecessor was in political exile, because of his ties to Mengistu. Paulos’s appointment was seen as a violation because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church states that no new patriarch can be in charge if the former one is still alive.
Still, Paulos is credited with reviving the religion inside Ethiopia and was at the forefront of pushing the church into offering social services for those displaced by war and drought, and was the first leader to openly break social taboos and pushing awareness about prevention of the country’s high HIV-AIDS rates.
He also started a series of peace talks between leaders of Ethiopian and Eritrean religious leaders when the two countries were on the cusp of war. He also met with Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir to talk about ways to end the conflict in the country’s western region of Darfur . “No one loves Africa more than Africans,” Paulos famously said.
He was also one of the seven current presidents of World Council of Christian Churches, an organization based in Switzerland.
“He was a real bridge builder, someone who believed in extending a hand,” said Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, the grandson of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who lives in the Washington region. “He was also a visible symbol of orthodox Christianity around the world.”
Emily Wax is a former Africa bureau chief and now a feature writer for The Washington Post.