Cardinal Souraphiel of Ethiopia with Pope Francis Cardinal Souraphiel of Ethiopia with Pope Francis 

Cardinal Souraphiel hopes negotiations bring lasting peace to Ethiopia

In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, the head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, discusses the humanitarian crisis enveloping the nation which has suffered from civil war and famine.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, the head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, prays "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 slightly improved as negotiations are underway and since Pope Francis has made appeals for peace, the humanitarian emergency continues.

On 4 November 2020, war broke out after an attack against federal military bases by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, promised a victory in weeks, but the fighting escalated into a widespread conflict involving ethnic-based militias as well as Eritrean armed forces. 

Over 2 million people have been displaced and thousands are dead as a result of the civil war between the TPLF and Ethiopia's national military, the Ethiopian National Defense Force, and as a result of hunger becoming famine in the region. The tensions have worsened ethnic violence and the regional states Tigray, Amhara, and Afar, have been among the most affected. Millions of Ethiopians are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

Easter a 'feast of the family'

The leader of Ethiopian Catholic Church of the Alexandrian Tradition in the country whose faithful are currently in the Lenten season, as they celebrate Easter on 24 April, told us how the faithful are preparing for Holy Week and its devotions.

Looking ahead to Easter, he says his people are praying the Way of the Cross, fasting, and preparing to celebrate Easter together as a family, because, as he reminds, “Easter is a feast of the family.”

In recent appeals for peace and against war, Pope Francis has remembered Ethiopia in a special way. In the Pope's Christmas 2021 Urbi et Orbi address, he prayed that the Lord "help Ethiopia to find once again the path of reconciliation and peace through a forthright encounter that places the needs of the people above all else." 

On 27 February, after the Angelus, the Pope urged the world to remember "the forgotten wars." Saying he was heartbroken by what was happening in Ukraine, he pleaded, "Let us not forget the wars in other parts of the world, such as in Yemen, in Syria, in Ethiopia... — I repeat: Silence all weapons! God is with the peacemakers, not with those who use violence."

Conflict in Ethiopia (REUTERS)
Conflict in Ethiopia (REUTERS)

Q: Your Eminence, Pope Francis has made numerous appeals against wars and specifically prayed for your country of Ethiopia. What value has the Pope's appeals held?

Cardinal Souraphial: Great value. In fact, we have thanked the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for remembering us here in Ethiopia with conflicts and internal wars. We are very grateful for his concern and prayers for the situation in Ethiopia.

Q: How would you currently describe the situation?

Currently, at least, there is no war or fighting as it had been some months ago. Now it's a little bit better because we are told negotiations are continuing between the federal government and the regional government or political authorities, because mostly the conflict hangs around political and economic issues. We hope that this ongoing negotiation will bring lasting peace. This is the present situation. However, whenever there are wars and conflicts, it's the people who suffer a lot. The ordinary people have been suffering greatly, mostly in the Tigray region, but it has also spread out of Tigray into the other neighbouring regions like the Amhara region and the Afar region. People are still suffering in these areas of displacement, hunger and destruction. 

“Much infrastructure has been destroyed, including schools, healthcare facilities, and bridges.”

These need to be reconstructed. I have seen in some areas where children are asked to go to school just to keep them safe from staying always at home. While they have been able to return to their school facilities, they found their schools destroyed. They therefore are sitting on the floor or on stones or wood logs, and following courses. But the togetherness for the students is very important.

The suffering of the people is ongoing. The United Nations World Food Programme, the International Red Cross and many others, including the Catholic Church, through Caritas, the Orthodox, Muslims and Protestants are trying to save transport, food and medicine, if possible. We hope this present situation will continue to avert hunger from becoming famine.

Listen to a segment from the interview with Cardinal Souraphiel:

Q: 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 getting worse and worse because the facilitation of the humanitarian corridors through which the United Nations or the government or other agencies are trying to bring in food into the country, is being blocked sometimes and we don't know by whom. Because of that, the people's suffering is getting acute. What we have done as the Catholic Bishops Conference of Ethiopia is to appeal to our own Catholic network in the world, especially through Caritas Internationalis. Just two weeks ago, we were able to put the appeal of 100 million Ethiopian Birr to be able to help these people, to reach these people, not only in Tigray, but the neighbouring regions. The drought situation has worsened as well due to climate change. We have this great humanitarian crisis where people need assistance. 

Q: Cardinal Souraphiel, what importance do you see of Pope Francis' appeal for an Easter truce for the war waging on in Ukraine?

We are really saddened that war broke out between Russia and Ukraine. After nearly 75 years after the Second World War, I thought there would not be war in in Europe. It hurts us very much to see the war in Ukraine and the suffering of the people. We hear 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 which takes care of refugees. We have about half a million Somalian refugees, about 300,000 Eritrean refugees, and about 430,000 more refugees from South Sudan. Just to amaze you, we have Syrian refugees who have come to Addis Ababa. I don't know how they reached here, but people are travelling everywhere.

“We hope the war in Ukraine will not escalate because war destroys.”

We see on television, pictures, not only of Ukraine, but also Iraq and Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen. The Holy Father has constantly warned about the Third World War, happening in pieces, here and there. This needs to be taken seriously, and to stop as soon as possible.

The appeal of the Holy Father for Easter truce is very, very timely. This needs not only the voice of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, but also all Christians, because Russia and Ukraine are Christian. The same appeal from 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, the Muslims have stopped fighting for one month. I support the appeal of the Holy Father for the Easter truce.

Listen to a segment from the interview with Cardinal Souraphiel:

Q: Cardinal, you had said that the situation seems to be slightly improving in Ethiopia as negotiations are underway. Would you say that the Holy Father's words during his Urbi et Orbi address on Christmas and more recently on 27 February during the Angelus address, in some way contributed perhaps to this progress?

Yes. The Orthodox, Protestant leadership, as well as the Muslims in the country, have a great respect for the Holy Father.

“Here in Ethiopia, the ordinary people still are all praying for peace. I would say the people are praying for peace and for unity.”

We have lived together for centuries. Ethiopia should not be seen as a country of conflict or war, which is only the case for the last 40 or 50 years, and that's because of different interpretations or political interests. We do have many challenges here in Ethiopia, but I believe and I trust in the prayers of the people who have been united for centuries, who have intermarried and have been living as Ethiopians. We hope we will have some solutions so that the people will go back to being one and being united. We pray this as Christians under the gaze of our Lord Jesus Christ Who died crucified on the Cross for all of us.

14 April 2022, 12:09