Thursday October 29th 2016
By Zecharias Zelalem
Father Girma Wondimu, the Orthodox Christian priest who has established his name with his sermons and his practicing of exorcism, has been detained by Ethiopian police for a day now, barely days after his return from a church related stay in Australia.
Father Girma, whose healing videos and videotaped sermons have him among the most recognizable personalities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church today, has a massive following of believers among Ethiopians living at home and all around the world, hence his frequent trips to the likes of Australia, Canada and Switzerland. But despite his acceptance among many adherents of the faith, Father Girma has long been seen in a negative light by the authorities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church administration. His methods and ways apparently counter those of the church leadership, but according to acute observers, despite the EOTC banning Father Girma from preaching and holding exorcism sessions from many of Addis Ababa’s cathedrals and churches, there has never been an official EOTC statement of condemnation specifying what the religious father has done to merit his being virtually excommunicated.
The news of his being arrested has hit the cyber waves and become a hot topic, with the general reaction of Ethiopia’s social media users being that of shock and dismay at how a clerical figure as renown as Father Girma could find himself in police custody. Until the publishing of this article, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians can merely speculate what could have gone awry as the state radio broadcaster Fana, which initially broke the news, failed to pinpoint what pushed Ethiopian police to handcuff the 57 year old Father Girma, except to say that it was probably “connected to his religious service.”
Long before his arrest, the all round debate over whether some of Father Girma’s teachings and practices are ethical or not was an intense one. Many Orthodox Christians have criticized Father Girma for being keen on resorting to somewhat aggressive means to liberate the souls of his followers from demonic presences. Orthodox Christians believe that a possessed soul can be the cause of erratic behaviour and unnatural conduct. A regular feature of Father Girma’s videotaped exorcism sessions, widely sold across the country and abroad on DVDs, is of Father Girma “banishing” evil spirits from the souls of his followers, who usually end up shrieking horribly or convulsing uncontrollably before regaining their composure to a chorus of cheers and praise from astonished crowds of onlookers.
After gaining a huge following across the country, word of his works spread across the country, and with the aid of a Youtube channel set up for him, he eventually garnered an international following. Trips to Europe had huge numbers of Ethiopian expats and a considerable number of foreigners turn up at churches to listen to his teachings.
Whether or not the arguably somewhat “unorthodox” ways of this Orthodox Christian leader are fit for the church, it is evident that Father Girma, and his network of aides and deacons have organized themselves to the point that he now holds very significant influence over the church. Every word he utters is analysed and sometimes scrutinized and he remains widely admired by countless, although still looked upon with suspicion by others.
Father Girma’s religious practices aren’t illegal nor do they constitute to any violation of the Ethiopian constitution. Exorcism and proselytism are permitted as long as they aren’t forced and there’s no evidence to suggest that anything wasn’t done without the express consent of the subjects of his videos. If there is anything that may be considered a violation of the terms a religious father is supposed to agree to, it would be at the church level and not at the legal level.
Although police refusal to immediately provide a reason for the arrest of such a famous figure isn’t out of the norm, the failure to do so in the case of Father Girma gives weight to the claims of many that this arrest was a politically motivated action taken at the behest of furious members of the EOTC administration. The EOTC has openly despised Father Girma for reasons yet to be clarified. Many speculate it could be on ideological grounds, or perhaps for the growing cult of personality surrounding him. Hoping they could render him insignificant, the EOTC prohibited him from entering the grounds of one church, after another, after another. But if the EOTC authorities calculated that this would make Father Girma cease and desist, they were off by a country mile. Going international and gaining sympathy appearing as a victim of the big institution, his fame and followers increased. Upon possessing no further trump cards and running low on options, the only reasonable way to stop the wave of popularity would appear to accuse him of a criminal act. Which is why it would appear, Ethiopian police waited until he was back on Ethiopian shores, before swooping in and taking him for a ride downtown.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church administration, are in no way considered to be in good standing with the country’s Orthodox Christian population, which numbers about 40 million people according to some estimates. Long accused of having close ties to the ruling EPRDF party, there seems to be no more efforts to resolve the issue of the unending internal divisions which have seen the formation of an opposition Ethiopian Orthodox committee in exile, complete with its own patriarch. In recent times, increasing accusations of corruption and embezzlement of funds intended for the construction of churches or the feeding of poor parishioners has seen the church’s dirty laundry aired in public. Realizing that the mass theft and nepotistic tendencies among EOTC authorities and subordinates were too abundant to bury under the rug or turn a blind eye too, the storied institution recently went into damage control.
Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch Abune Mathias recently declared that he would do everything in his power to combat corruption in the Orthodox Church. His saying this doubled as an admission that the church is indeed infected with many rather unholy fathers.
However, the statement appears to have come after the church had come under increasingly heavy pressure and criticism from the faithful to come clean. Other than that, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, once a powerful entity with a voice of its own, has been rendered a meek and ineffective organisation, incapable of serving the masses and serving the interests of a select few. The numbers of Orthodox Christians bewildered and distraught at the direction the administration is heading is increasing, leading to them seeking the sanctuary of other houses of worship. Sowing division among believers and church officials alike and unable to clean its own house of allegations of corruption, the church refuses to speak out against government misconduct and rarely if not never acts independently of EPRDF policy. One example would be the massive protests during the national period of mourning following the coldblooded murder of 28 Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians by an ISIS affiliate in Libya. The church went on record to declare the fallen men martyrs of the faith and half heartedly attempted to console the grieving nation, but didn’t issue any words of condemnation for the government’s heavy handed crackdown on protesters with baton swinging policemen brutally beating thousands of people in Addis Ababa. The police violence was broadcasted across the world for all to see, resulting in the government resorting to blaming a local political opposition group for the violence. The church’s silence was well noted during this short period of unrest.
Instead of attempting to bridge the canyon sized gap between an increasingly frustrated Ethiopian population and their government, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church administration is rather occupied engaging in the dirty world of church politics and the naming and shaming of individuals as “protestant spies” or followers of a new reformist branch known as “Tehadeso.” Instead of putting efforts into reuniting the feuding local and exiled entities of the church, the EOTC spends money on unnecessary banquets hosting leaders of the Egyptian church or other Eastern Orthodox national representatives. And instead of handling disputes and disagreements in a dignified manner, the EOTC have appeared to have twisted some arms and brownnosed the police into arresting a dissenting voice from within the Ethiopian Orthodox community, Father Girma Wondimu.
Church affairs were once handled in a centuries old ceremonial fashion at a round table of national prayer leaders strong in spirit and faith. But now as Girma Wondimu’s arrest indicates, the current EOTC authorities have given regime forces the green card to get into the fray whenever necessary. The church’s ineptitude and inability to create an atmosphere of reconciliation as is heavily promoted in the Bible, means that in order to get their way, the church is going against everything it stands for and resorting to the same tactics used by the government to silent voices of dissent among journalists and bloggers. Birds of a feather? Say it ain’t so!
Memihir Girma Wondimu should probably be released any day with a warning not to stray far away from the regulations set in place by the now police backed authorities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But this episode will leave a sour taste in the mouths of Ethiopians.
Because unlike Ethiopian Muslims, who have unanimous opposed the involvement of the EPRDF government in the affairs of their religious day to day workings, the lack of such a strong response from Ethiopian Christians has probably set a dangerous precedent for future involvement of state force, when it comes to doing what our holy fathers at the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church administration, have proven incapable of doing.
My name is Zecharias Zelalem.