Shepherd in a troubled land

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Archbishop of Addis Ababa, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel outside Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Ethiopian cardinal speaks

In over four decades of priestly ministry, the 74 year old Archbishop of Addis Ababa, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel has lived an extraordinary life.

From studying Divinity at the prestigious King’s College in London and further postgraduate studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University through to spending over two decades as the most senior Church leader in Ethiopia, Cardinal Souraphiel is well known on the world stage as a member of the Congregation for Oriental Churches and the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees.

And yet the calm, mild-mannered Cardinal thanks God each day that he escaped death in 1980 after being imprisoned for a year by Marxist authorities, just three years after he was ordained a priest.

Solitary Confinement

“I was in solitary confinement and at that time, that meant that those who put you in prison could take you out and shoot you anytime they wanted”, Cardinal Souraphiel explained in an interview with The Catholic Weekly at the start of a visit to Australia, hosted by the aid agency Catholic Mission.

“I was in solitary confinement and at that time, that meant that those who put you in prison could take you out and shoot you anytime they wanted”

“I am eternally grateful that I survived my imprisonment and when I was released from jail, I was able to travel to Rome to further my studies as a young priest at that time.
“When I returned five years later to Ethiopia, the Marxist government had been over-thrown and the man who had put me in prison was in jail himself. So I went to visit him and he was really surprised and asked me for mercy and forgiveness because he said he had caused so much suffering to me.

A tank damaged during the fighting between the Ethiopian National Defence Force and Tigray Special Forces. PHOTO: CNS photo/Reuters

“I told him that I forgave him when I was in prison. The past leadership of that government authority were all sentenced to death and as religious leaders in Ethiopia, we pleaded with the Prime Minister and President for their death sentences to be over-turned in favour of life in prison which was successful and eventually they were indeed released from prison”.

“In forgiving the man who was responsible for my imprisonment, I drew inspiration from Pope St John Paul II who met and forgave the man who had attempted to assassinate him in 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca and that’s indeed an inspiration for all people of faith”.

Historic visit to Australia

During his visit to Sydney, Cardinal Souraphiel has celebrated a Solemn Sunday Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, delivered an address to staff and students at the Australian Catholic University campus in North Sydney and paid a visit to brother priests from his religious order, the Vincentians in the northern suburb of Marsfield.

Over the coming week, he will visit schools and parishes in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth before returning to Ethiopia on 7 June.

The Cardinal said he was attracted to the Vincentian charism based upon their founder’s great commitment to caring for the disadvantaged, which was a natural mission in an impoverished nation such as Ethiopia.

“St Vincent lived in 17th century France where there was a lot of poverty and many people displaced because of war. He is the Patron Saint of Charity in the Universal Catholic Church and concentrated his ministry very much on the Proclamation of the Gospel, love of the poor and love of ones neighbour”.

Cardinal Souraphiel said he has had to draw heavily upon St Vincent’s inspiration as Ethiopia faces a deadly civil war which has left thousands dead and an estimated 350,000 others living in famine conditions since the conflict began in November 2020.

The conflict began when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a ministry offensive against regional forces in the northern Tigray region.

In forgiving the man who was responsible for my imprisonment, I drew inspiration from Pope St John Paul II who met and forgave the man who had attempted to assassinate him.” – Cardinal Berhaneyesus
Demerew Souraphiel

The conflict has since spread across the country and all sides of the conflict have been accused of human rights abuses.

Cardinal Souraphiel has been at the forefront of efforts to promote peace in the country, chairing the National Peace Commission and working alongside seven other faith leaders as part of an Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia. Alongside Cardinal Souraphiel on the council is the leader of the largest religious denomination in the country, Patriarch Abune Mathias from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Grand Mufti Haji Omar Idris, the most senior Muslim leader in Ethiopia.

People displaced by conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region receive food donations at the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter. PHOTO: CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters

While Catholics only make up approximately two percent of the nation’s 120 million people, its broader connection to the global Church under the guidance of Pope Francis has helped strengthen its influence around the negotiating table.

“The Catholic Church has always stood for dialogue and together with other faith leaders and government authorities, we need to find a solution”, Cardinal Souraphiel explained.

“Violence and war don’t really impact on people in leadership, but they do impact upon the poor and those who are just living ordinary lives, whether that’s the elderly, women or children”.

Refugee Displacement

Since fighting began, the United Nations refugee agency estimates 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes across Ethiopia with many seeking refuge in South Africa and parts of the Middle East, including Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

Catholic Mission, which has coordinated Cardinal Souraphiel’s visit to Australia, is at the forefront of efforts to combat poverty in Ethiopia with a focus on subsistence farming projects to help combat malnutrition.

People carry home their rations of wheat, yellow split peas and cooking oil following a distribution in a rural area of Ethiopia’s Oromia region. CNS photo/Will Baxter, courtesy CRS

A chronic drought and increasing food prices is leading growing numbers of Ethiopians to experience health problems because of a lack of nutritious food.

Catholic Mission is supporting a goat rearing centre to help families in desperate need, helping supply them with nutritious goats milk and a healthy source of food which can also be made into staple foods like cheese and butter.

Alongside these efforts on the ground, Cardinal Souraphiel said the Catholic Church is very much focused on lifting Ethiopians out of poverty through investing in schools and universities.

The Catholic Church currently operates 400 schools in the country and the government has asked them to build another 20 schools and another university.

Cardinal Souraphiel helped establish the first Ethiopian Catholic University of St Thomas Aquinas in 2005, which is administered by the De La Salle Brothers. The Catholic Church is the second largest provider of education in the country after the government.

Refugees fleeing from the fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region wait for food at a camp in Um Rakoba, Sudan. PHOTO: CNS photo/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah, Reuters

Cardinal Souraphiel said he has been following the Plenary Council of the Catholic Church in Australia with close interest and believes the Church will benefit greatly from the once in a generation opportunity for reflection and renewal.

“These processes will strengthen the Catholic Church in Australia. You have indeed gone through lots of challenges in your history, but I would say that these challenges have come to strengthen the Church here in Australia and to deepen the faith of believers.”

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