The great controversy: Abune Paulos’ statue – By Eskinder Nega

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By Eskinder Nega | August 20, 2010

The controversial statue of Abune Paulos

Clad in the distinctive black robe of the Orthodox clergy, Abune Petros, one of Ethiopia’s four native-born Abuns (equivalent to Bishops) under an Egyptian Copt Patriarch, stood in a manifestly noble pose before an Italian military tribunal in 1936, the year that Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia.
A preposterously pompous Colonel presided over the proceedings. He was visibly relishing his moment in the spotlight. “The Patriarch has acceded to Italian rule,” began the Colonel darting his eyes dramatically between the hushed audience and the towering Abun. “Why then do you alone,” — a deliberate stop here for effect — “choose to disagree? Why did you rebel?”

Though tall, slim and markedly handsome, the Abun dominated the trial with the overpowering — and reassuring — calmness of his bearing. Nothing disturbed his peace. He responded in the deliberately restrained tone of a Church elder: “As a Church leader, I have responsibilities. I owe an allegiance to my Church and country. This is all I have to say to this court. I will tell the rest to my creator. Do as you please.”

Speechless, the judges froze in their seats. A higher authority was affirmed with such confidence, their skepticism was momentarily shaken. So pervasive was the silence that the drop of a pin would have been heard.

But a few moments later, a death sentence, to be carried out that very same day, was briskly read out by the Colonel; who was suddenly noticeably dispirited. The other two judges could not even bear to look up. But as soon as the Colonel finished, Abune Petros compassionately held his cross high, blessed the judges, and proceeded to pray for them in Geez; once Ethiopia’s dominant language, now spoken by no community, but dutifully conserved from extinction by the Church. They did not dare stop him.

Eight Italian army privates awaited him to pull the trigger simultaneously. He stood facing a wall, to be struck by a hail of bullets from the rear. As is customary, an Italian Officer approached him to read the death sentence (absurdly, in Italian) one last time. His legs and hands trembled as he did so. When he finished, the Abun, calm as ever, kissed the Bible he was carrying; blessed the crowd that had assembled to witness the execution; and then, with an expression serene more than ever, took out a watch from his pocket, noted the time, and placed it back in his pocket. He was ready to meet his creator.

The soldiers stood twenty feet behind him, and were kneeling when the order to fire came. Not a single bullet missed him. No one doubted that his end had come to pass. But the medical doctor who had to ascertain death looked up with stunned expression. Eight bullets had not killed the Abun. He was still alive. The crowd stirred. A solider stepped in hastily, and fired three more bullets. Each one struck the skull.

Five years later, Ethiopia was free from the pagan Fascists. A grateful Church and nation revered no one more than the martyred Abun. But however much he was held in high esteem, there were no calls to erect his statue by the Church or its followers. When his statue was finally built, it was at the site of his execution and was commissioned by the government. In deference to Orthodox tradition and the sensibilities of adherents, no statue of his has ever been built near a Church.

Three and a half decades later, a ferocious social revolution raged in Ethiopia. It was time for the theocracy that had endured for 1600 years to unravel. No mission, after ‘Land to the Tiller,’ was held with more fervor by revolutionaries than the total subservience of the Church to the new order. But, to few surprises, the prospect of subservience to a hostile state was roundly unpopular in the Church. The consensus was for political neutrality and Church independence. And the Patriarch, Abune Teweflos, was fully prepared to be martyred for the cause. As such, in a deliberate move to assert the Church’s independence, he appointed five Abuns; one of whom was the present Patriarch, Abune Paulos, without consulting the government.

For the Derg, this amounted to nothing less than open rebellion. The dismissal and imprisonment followed in quick succession. Both were unprecedented in a nation where the person of the Patriarch had always been inviolable. The Patriarch’s arrival in prison is here recounted in an autobiography by a prisoner, Abera Jembere, a high official in Haile Selliase’s government held under preventive detention for over seven years:

“It was past midday when he came. Bare footed and handcuffed, the Patriarch was being pushed and shoved by soldiers as they steered him to a solitary confinement cell. Inside the tiny room, they ordered him to lie down, chained both his hands and legs to a bed, and locked the door from outside. “Keep a close eye on this devilish priest,” barked an Officer as he headed back to his office. Shocked by the spectacle, prisoners had frozen in their tracks.

He would neither eat nor drink. He persisted for seven days despite numerous pleas by prison officials. Finally relenting to his determination, his door was flung open on the eighth day, was unchained from the bed, and prisoners were urged to prevail upon him. His solitary confinement came to an abrupt end. But weeks were to pass before he was to eat again. He sustained his fast. Spirit had clearly prevailed over body. (THE END)”

The next twenty eight months passed with his continued incarceration in a maximum security prison on the grounds of the Great Palace, few hundred feet away from the very seat of power. And then, out of the blue, at the peak of Mengistu’s prestige and power in late 1982, and when the revolution had finally stabilized, he was moved to a secret prison in north Addis Ababa for his final rendezvous with death. He was never tried in a court of law.

His end was tragically malicious. He did not see his murderers. As had happened to Abune Petros, they chose to strike from behind. They used barbed wires to choke him to death. It was a slow, brutal and painful death. He was buried in a mass grave. And thus came to pass the most horrifying murder of a Patriarch in the annals of Christianity. His story is one of the Church’s most cherished, and the power of its message resonates with all religions. But in line with Orthodox tradition no statue of his has been erected, nor has their ever been a proposal to do so.

Then, just what exactly did Abune Paulos, the current Patriarch, do more than the two martyred Abuns to deserve a statue, with the obvious consent of the Church bureaucracy he leads, and contrary to Orthodox tradition, at the largest church in the country?

Statuary was rejected by Orthodox Christianity because the dimensional representations were considered to glorify the human flesh rather than the divine spirit. Orthodox iconography, which has a rich history in Ethiopia, was alternatively developed to emphasize the spiritual holiness of figures rather than their humanity. And thus, no statues have ever been built for Abune Selema, who brought Christianity to Ethiopia; Yared, who developed the Church’s sacred gospel music; Lalibela, who built the Church’s greatest relic, the rock-hewn Churches in Lasta; and Abune Tekle-Haymanot, Ethiopia’s greatest native-born Saint. But they have all been amply represented by Ethiopian iconography.

Why is Orthodox tradition being uprooted?


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