By Yehia Ghanem
As I was entering the old Cathedral of the Ethiopian Church, I felt my heart pounding out of fear that my mission would fail. Two days before, I was contacted by an Egyptian Bishop asking me to conduct an interview with his Holiness Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. The main objective was to soften the man’s attitude towards the late Pope of Egyptian Orthodox Church, his Holiness Pope Shenouda. After a while of discussions and argument, I agreed to take the mission on the condition of having two Egyptian diplomats (the press attaché and a member in the African Union Secretariat) with me during the interview. Having the Egyptian Church both in my heart and mind, I, the Muslim, felt a massive weight of responsibility leaning over my shoulders.
The irony was that I kept reciting verses of Holy Quran praying that God would help me succeed in what this man of God, the Egyptian Copt, entrusted to me. As I climbed the stairs headed for the Patriarch quarter, I was thinking about the absurdity of many people back home talking about the necessity of tolerance, when Egypt doesn’t have one tenth of the religious discrimination that many other countries greatly suffer. I thought to myself, since what I’m just about to do is not meant to be part of my professional C.V, then definitely it is out of tolerance, nothing else. There is no third explanation in light of the over sensitive nature of the issue, except being crazy, which I am not.
After a few minutes, the two Egyptian Copt escorts and I were in the audience of Patriarch Paulos, Head of the Ethiopian Church. The man was very welcoming and started by asking me about my journalistic background, then encouraged me to start asking the questions.
In order to avoid going into areas of conflicts, I decided to start by a question about an uncontroversial issue, which is the glorious history of the two Churches. The man didn’t fail me and started off with an emotional response about the bond that has tied the two Churches for 16 centuries in an almost chronological order. The more his Grace came closer to the troubled present, the more nervous I felt. Arriving at -the then present 2004 – Patriarch Paulos’ tone of voice suddenly became sharp. After he finished what came across to him as infringements on his status as Head of the Ethiopian Church from the late Egyptian Pope, I had to resume the interview.
Before I asked further questions, I appealed to his Holiness, however, in a firm way stating that there should be a sort of code of reference. “Since everyone in this room addresses your Holiness with the spiritual title you rightly earned then, with all due respect, I will not accept anything less for his Holiness Pope Shenouda; no one has the right to talk about him without using his much deserved and rightly earned spiritual title before his name”, I told the Head of the Ethiopian Church. “Also, it is pointless to use such harsh language when talking about the successor of Saint Mark. Both of you have been chosen by God to occupy the highest spiritual positions you already have, let alone the hearts of hundreds of millions of Christians in your two countries and in many other countries as well,” I added.
I was relieved when I saw a smile on the man’s face before I started talking about the greatness of the relations between the two Churches and the necessity of regaining it as such.
“Okay, how can you justify His Holiness Pope Shenouda’s move when he presided over the enthronement ceremony of a Patriarch to the Church of Eritrea back in 1994, separating that Church from its mother Church of Ethiopia? He had no right to do so” he angrily said.
I could clearly see the anxiety on the faces of my two Egyptian Copt diplomats.
“Your holiness, maybe you have the right to be angry. However, the Ethiopian Church was the daughter to the Egyptian Church for almost 16 centuries until it decided to secede and become independent back in 1950. By the same token, don’t you see that the Egyptian Church had the same right to be angry? Why did you give yourself a right, and then deny it from the others?” I asked.
“Good argument”, the Patriarch said with a smile on his face. Yet, his smile quickly faded before he started a new offensive.
“But Pope Shenouda treats me as if I am of a lesser status. I stand on equal footing with him and I should be treated as such. Our Churches are as sisters, not as a mother and daughter. Ethiopia had known of Christianity before Egypt,” he protested.
“Indeed, you stand on equal footing. However, I totally disagree with what your Holiness has just said about which was first to know Christianity and embrace it. History tells us that the two Egyptian brothers, Frumentius and Aedesius, were the first to introduce Christianity to Ezana, Emperor of Ethiopia in 320 A.D., and managed to convert him from Judaism to Christianity and that’s when and how Ethiopia became Christian,” I said. “Now, if Ethiopia had embraced Christ before Egypt, there would have been no reason for the two Egyptian brothers to preach to the emperor,” I attested.
“I know that some argue about the Greek names of the two brothers. However, Greek names and Roman as well were common in Egypt then. Moreover, if they were not Egyptians, why did Emperor Ezana ask Frumentius to travel back to his home town, Alexandria, where the Egyptian Orthodox Church was based then, to ask its Patriarch St. Athanasius to appoint a Bishop for Axum before the latter named Frumentius himself as such, giving him the new name of Abuna Selama, in Arabic: Father Selama” I added.
“It seems that Pope Shenouda has sent one of his agents to interview me,” the …read more
Read more here: Beyond Tolerance: An Interview Never Meant to be Published