In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, discusses the humanitarian crisis enveloping the nation which has suffered from civil war and famine. Pope Francis has called on the world to remember “forgotten wars” like the one that plagued Ethiopia.
By Deborah Castellano Lubov
Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, prays that “the ongoing negotiations will bring lasting peace”.
In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Souraphiel discusses the crisis enveloping Ethiopia, as the nation has suffered from civil war and famine. While the Cardinal acknowledges that the situation has improved slightly as negotiations are ongoing and since Pope Francis issued appeals for peace, the humanitarian emergency continues.
On November 4, 2020, war broke out after an attack on federal military bases by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised victory within weeks, but the fighting escalated into an all-out conflict involving ethnic militias as well as Eritrean armed forces. More than 2 million people have been displaced and thousands have died as a result of the civil war between the TPLF and the Ethiopian National Army, Ethiopian National Defense Force, and as hunger turned to famine in the region. Tensions have escalated ethnic violence and the regional states of Tigray, Amhara and Afar have been among the worst affected. Millions of Ethiopians are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
The leader of the Ethiopian Catholic Church of the Alexandrian tradition in the country, whose faithful are currently in Lent, as they celebrate Easter on April 24, told us how the faithful are preparing for Holy Week and its devotions. . Looking ahead to Easter, he says his people are praying the Stations of the Cross, fasting and preparing to celebrate Easter together as a family, because, as he recalls, “Easter is a family celebration.”
In his recent appeals for peace and against war, Pope Francis remembered Ethiopia in a special way. At the Pope’s Christmas 2021 Urbi and orbi In his address, he prayed to the Lord “to help Ethiopia find the path of reconciliation and peace through a frank encounter that puts the needs of the people above all”.
On February 27, after the Angelus, the Pope urges the world to remember “the forgotten wars”. Saying he was heartbroken by what was happening in Ukraine, he pleaded: “Let’s not forget the wars in other parts of the world, like in Yemen, in Syria, in Ethiopia… — I repeat: silence all the weapons! God is with the peacemakers, not with those who use violence.”
The pope has made many appeals against wars and has specifically prayed for your country, Ethiopia. What value have the appeals of the Pope had?
Cardinal Souraphial: Great value. In fact, we thanked the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for remembering us here in Ethiopia with internal conflicts and wars. We are very grateful for his concern and prayers for the situation in Ethiopia.
How would you describe the current situation?
Currently, at least, there is no war or fighting like a few months ago. Now, things are going a little better because we are told that the negotiations are continuing between the federal government and the regional government or the political authorities, because the conflict mainly revolves around political and economic questions. We hope that this ongoing negotiation will bring lasting peace. This is the current situation. However, whenever there are wars and conflicts, it is the people who suffer the most. Common people suffered a lot, mainly in the Tigray region, but it also spread from Tigray to the other nearby regions like Amhara region and Afar region. People still suffer in these areas from displacement, hunger and destruction.
These need to be rebuilt. I have seen in some areas where children are asked to go to school just to prevent them from always staying at home. While they were able to return to their school facilities, they found their schools destroyed. They are therefore seated on the ground or on stones or wooden logs, and follow routes. But student friendliness is very important.
The suffering of the people is continuous. The United Nations World Food Program, the International Red Cross and many others, including the Catholic Church, through Caritas, Orthodox, Muslims and Protestants are trying to save transport, food and medicine, if possible. We hope that the current situation will continue to prevent hunger from turning into famine.
The humanitarian situation in Tigray, according to many reports, is getting worse and worse. Do you have an appeal to make?
The humanitarian situation in Tigray is worsening because the facilitation of humanitarian corridors through which the United Nations or the government or other agencies try to bring food into the country, is sometimes blocked and we do not know by whom. Because of this, people’s suffering becomes acute. What we have done as the Ethiopian Catholic Bishops’ Conference is to appeal to our own Catholic network around the world, especially through Caritas Internationalis. Just two weeks ago, we were able to launch the appeal for 100 million Ethiopian birr to be able to help these people, to reach these people, not only in Tigray, but in the neighboring regions. The drought situation has also worsened due to climate change. We have this big humanitarian crisis where people need help.
What importance do you also attach to Pope Francis’ call for an Easter truce for the war unfolding in Ukraine?
We are truly saddened that war has broken out between Russia and Ukraine. Almost 75 years after World War II, I thought there would be no war in Europe. It pains us very much to see the war in Ukraine and the suffering of the people. We learn through the news that more than 4 million people are already refugees outside their country. We know what it means to be refugees because Ethiopia is one of the few African countries that takes care of refugees. We have about half a million Somali refugees, about 300,000 Eritrean refugees and about 430,000 other refugees from South Sudan. Just to surprise you, we have Syrian refugees who have come to Addis Ababa. I don’t know how they got here, but people travel everywhere.
We see images on television, not only from Ukraine, but also from Iraq and Syria, from Lebanon and now from Yemen. The Holy Father has constantly warned of World War III, which is unfolding in pieces, here and there. This should be taken seriously and stopped as soon as possible.
The Holy Father’s call for the Easter truce is very, very timely. This requires not only the voice of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, but also that of all Christians, because Russia and Ukraine are Christian. The same appeal of the Patriarch of Moscow would bring even more to the realization of the truce between Russia and Ukraine. Even in Yemen now, because of the Ramadan fast, Muslims have stopped fighting for a month. I support the call of the Holy Father for the Easter truce.
Cardinal Souraphiel, you said that the situation seems to be improving slightly in Ethiopia as the negotiations are underway. Would you say that the words of the Holy Father during his Urbi and orbi Christmas speeches and more recently on February 27 during the Angelus speech, have perhaps in some way contributed to this progress?
Yes. Orthodox and Protestant leaders, as well as Muslims in the country, have great respect for the Holy Father.
We have lived together for centuries. Ethiopia should not be seen as a country of conflict or war, which has only been the case for 40 or 50 years, and that is because of different interpretations or political interests. We have many challenges here in Ethiopia, but I believe and trust in the prayers of people who have been united for centuries, married and live as Ethiopians. We hope that we will have solutions for people to become one and united again. We pray to him as Christians under the gaze of our Lord Jesus Christ who died crucified on the Cross for all of us.