Saturday, September 12, 2009

Conversation with Pastor Ezra Gebremedhin

Part Three
Issayas: In an interview that I did with Prof. Asmerom Legesse and posted on my blog a while back, he referred to reformers within the Orthodox Church who started a reform movement in the 1860's and this movement coincided (Zeitgeist, if you will. Where history and destiny emerge)with the Swedish missionaries who were trying to go to Ethiopia (at that time, Abyssinia). Can you tell us about the reformers and their contribution in forming the ECE?

Pastor Ezra: It should be pointed out that though the narrators of this story are Qeshi Selomon Atsqu and Qeshi Zera-Tsion Mussie, the main figure and spokesman in this story of the early fathers of the ECE is Qeshi Haile-Ab Tesfai(Qeshi Haile-Ab and Per Erik Lager were killed by one of the soldiers of Ra’isi Woldenki’el outside of the church of Qiddus Mikaél in Addi Qontsi in July 1876). The two fathers of Evangelical Christianity in Eritrea narrate their story with a quiet sense of conviction, and with hardly any trace of self-pity or bitterness. As the title of their narrative (BERHAN YEKUN: LET THERE BE LIGHT, published in 1912) indicates, the first encounter between highland Orthodoxy and those who had arrived at an Evangelical conviction took place in Hamasen.

The point of departure of those who were of Evangelical persuasion was that the Bible and only the Bible (Tsiruy qal Igziabher- the pure Word of God) should be the guide and norm for teaching and practice in the Christian Church. Of course, these Evangelical fathers meant the Bible with the sixty-six books which they regarded as canonical, not the eighty-one books of the Tewahdo Orthodox Church. These fathers of the ECE, a number of whom were still priests of The Orthodox Church,were brought up in the classical theological literature of their mother church. Their understanding of The Trinity was based on the teachings of Haymanotä Abäw (Faith of the Fathers). Their standards for life and behaviour were set and guided by works like Fitha Negest (Law of The Kings) and Sinodos, even though the narrators add that they found the rules of Sinodos “harder than the rules of Orit” i.e. The Old Testament straight forward history than the kind of outright hagiography which abounds in dramatic miracles.

They had respect for ser‘at abbotat (The rule of the fathers). Nevertheless, when the time came for them to enter holy orders, Qeshi Solomon and Qeshi Zera-Tsion, had traveled to Adwa with a certain Haleqa Afeworq, the arch-priest of Hamasen, to ‘‘receive priesthood’’from Abune Atnatewos. After their ordination, they were received in a private audience by the bishop, who is reported to have told them, “If you can preach the Gospel in another country do so; if not preach it in your own country” Haleqa Afeworq then took them and introduced them to a certain Johannes Maier, a messenger of the Gospel from Switzerland who lived in Adwa at the time. Maier encouraged them, gave them portions of Scripture and other writings in Amharic. He also promised to supply them with further copies of Scripture from a bookstore in Massawa.

Monks from Debre Bizen Accuse Fellow ‘Orthodox’ in Tseazzega

According to the narrative in Birhan Yikun, monks from Debre Bizen, intent on challenging the ‘early fathers’ of the ECE, first appeared in Tseazzega in May 1873, according to the Julian calendar. The narrative states, It happened that in May 1873 some monks of Debre Bizen [...] were on their way to bring charges against us. Qeshi Gebremedhin, who was on a journey, happened to meet them at Addi Qontsi. Believing that they were still on friendly terms, he alighted from his mule in all sincerity and greeted them with a ‘Good morning!’ However none of them answered his greeting. He therefore interrupted his journey, returned at a gallop to his comrades and told them about what had transpired. Convinced that they would be interrogated in proper order, for good canonical regulations, taken from the different church councils recognized by the Coptic Church.

For good or for bad, they laid out welcome carpets in church and waited for them. The others however, about thirty monks altogether, came in procession, carrying the seat (stool) and cross of Abune Filippos, which were covered with ornamented textiles, and walked straight towards the residence of Blatta Gebre Kidan. Blatta Gebre Kidan sent his servants and had us brought to his presence. The subjects taken up at this session were the role of the saints as mediators, the significance of the Tabot (The Ark of the Covenant) in the worship of the Orthodox Tewahdo Church and the piety of the faithful. The main spokesmen for the Evangelical group were Qeshi Haile-Ab and Qeshi Gebremedhin. The first encounter seems to have ended in a deadlock. In any case, another appointment was made for a meeting at a place known as Miku´at Meret.
The same issues were discussed in greater detail at the session in Miku‘at Meret. The Orthodox Tewahdo priests argued energetically in favour of the thesis that angels, saints, the righteous had been given promises by God that they would be able to mediate on behalf of the faithful. The Evangelicals maintained that such a teaching was based, in the last analysis, on secondary sources of dubious quality and not on the Bible. Since the views of the two parties were found to be irreconcilable, the matter was referred to a judge in Tseazzega.

Once before the judge, the spokesman of the Orthodox Tewahdo monks, Abbat Haile Yesus, argued,‘Don’t give these people their’ rim’ (i.e. rations or rightful dues). Note: Let at this point be known that we should perhaps restate a fact that is probably not obvious for everyone. The Kenisha never questioned the propriety of mutual intercessions (i.e.‘praying for each other’) here on earth, i.e. in atsädä siga (the realm of the body).What they questioned was the propriety and ‘biblical legitimacy’ of praying for or entreating the prayers of the departed, i.e. communicating through intercessions with the departed in atsädä näfs (the realm of the soul or spirit). Furthermore, the Kenisha felt that the unique and utterly sufficient role of Christ as the Mediator of Mankind before the Father should be underlined.

Abbat Haile Yesus continued to argue to not let them enter the church. "I excommunicate all those who associate with them", he said. Let him who has the power to excommunicate do like wise!’ At this, all the monks present said, ‘We have excommunicated!’Then Qeshi Gebremedhin replied, ‘Behold, my master! How can they excommunicate us while we stand here before the law? Isn’t this like deciding that a person be made to forfeit his cattle before he is convicted or that he be made to lose his wife before he is divorced?’ At this stage, some elders like Ayte Barya’ou from Shiketi and Kentiba Zemouy from Tseazzega stood up and pleaded with those who had uttered the excommunications: ‘Restrain yourselves! Unbind your excommunications!’However, the former said, ‘We shall not!’We then replied, ‘Well then, we too have authority, just as you do. We would have excommunicated you. However, since you are rulers of the land and the bestowers of worldly appointments, let a thousand carpets full of gold and a thousand slaves bearing guns, protect you. We then pronounced, ’Don’t give them their ‘rim’ and don’t associate with them.’ The judges told us, ’Go home.Let your mutual excommunications remain in force.’ We spent the night at our homes and they spent the night locked in church. On the morrow, mediators came to us and told us ’Keep to the Bible, which is lofty enough. Don’t refer to questions’.

We answered, "as long as we have the Bible we have everything we need in it. Indeed, that is why we preach on the basis of the Bible ". Having said this,we considered the matter, approved of their request and agreed to become reconciled. The mediators then took us to the church where they were. After the reconciliation we greeted and embraced each other. We then spent two days discussing books. At last we agreed that we would rectify wrong practices inthe church. Having agreed that we would meet at Miku ’at Meret on the feast of Be’alizgi in Meskerem, we parted company.

A Good Will Visit to Debre Bizen

Qeshi Haile-Ab and Habte-Giorgis of the Evangelical group paid a goodwill visit to Debre Bien before the date of the coming meeting at Miku’at Meret, hoping to facilitate the dialogue that had been started. They were given the cold shoulder. The proposed October meeting was postponed to Be’alzgi in Tiqimti, i.e. the 29th of Tiqimti (ca the 7th of November).On the day of the meeting, the Evangelicals felt that the atmosphere between the two parties had deteriorated. A spirit of confrontation had replaced that of dialogue. According to the narrative in Berhan Yekun, the friendly and conciliatory Blatta Gebre-Kidan was left out of the negotiations,intentionally. Soldiers who belonged to Ra’isi Barya’ou were sent to arrest and take Qeshi Haile-Ab, Qeshi Selomon, Qeshi Gebre-Medhin and Habte-Giorgis to Areza, where they were made to stand before Ra’isi Barya’ou.

The priests of Evangelical conviction were openly ridiculed and stripped of their priestly head covers and attires. Issues which the Evangelicals had questioned, like the mediatory roles of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus, saints, the righteous, the martyrs, angels,the Tabot (Ark of the Covenant), the cross, sacred images, and certain regulations on fasting, were taken up and discussed. No agreement could be reached on the debated questions. At last the monks of Debre Bizen pleaded with Ra’isi Barya’ou that the accused be forgiven “for today”.They continued,if they sin in like manner in the future, we elders who live in our monastery shall keep an eye on them. If we send them back to you, do what you want with them. We would then be free from any responsibility for them.Then the Ra’isi replied, ‘ Since they are priests from the jurisdiction of my friend Hailu (Note: Degiat Hailu who was the prince of Tseazzega was a close friend of the Swedish missionary, Lager) I shall have mercy on them for today.’ He then asked the accused,’Do you prefer religion or punishment?’ And our brothers answered, ’When did we ever abandon the faith of the prophets and the apostles?’ At this reply, theRa’isi answered, ’In that case, swear not to abandon the faith of the prophets and apostles and the Three Hundred!’ They agreed not to. Then, Matthew 25:41-46 was read, after which they gave their oath to abide by the promise they had given.

The Ra’isi added, ‘If I hear, from now on, such an accusation against you, woe to you! You will be responsible for the consequences.’ He then released them and sent them away on bail, for a small sum of money. On their way to their home region they reasoned, ’ As far as faith is concerned, what else did the prophets and apostles have, except faith in God? And as far as The Three Hundred are concerned, what else did they have except the faith in the Trinity which they had formulated at Nicaea? What was the point of binding us by oath on such obvious matters’, they said, laughing as they moved homeward. And those of our colleagues who had stayed at home received them with joy. Alas, their joy and laughter was not to last long. Soon, persecution,flight, fear, exile to the burning heat and humidity of the Red Sea coast,hunger and thirst, were to become their lot.

Birhan Yikun- A Mirror of the Historical, Cultural, and Religious Features of Highland Eritrea

As already mentioned, the narrative in Birhan Yikun is, in many ways, a mirror of the historical, cultural, social and religious features of life among the Orthodox Tewahdo. It reflects the tenor of the times when Swedish missionaries and the Kenisha were slowly starting to gain a foot hold on the Orthodox highlands of Hamasen.
The narrative reflects quite a homogeneous Orthodox society in which local chiefs and leaders of the church worked in concert,listening to complaints and litigation. These leaders also meted out punishment or took measures to reconcile the conflicting parties.The power to excommunicate that the Orthodox priest possessed was held in high respect. In the course of the conflict, priests representing the Orthodox Tewhado Church and those Orthodox priests who had arrived at Evangelical convictions excommunicated each other. Others, both civic and church authorities, pleaded with the conflicting parties to lift or take back their excommunication. Berhan Yikun reflects a rural communal tradition in which efforts were made to iron out conflicts, through the offices of elders and men of authority. The highland society where the Kenisha found themselves was a society in which religious, social, political and cultural issues were intimately tided to each other. To abandon the Orthodox Tewahdo faith was to forfeit ones right to live in peace in the village of one's forefathers.
Next, Part Four On Kunama

1 comment:

  1. Dear Issayas,
    Thank you for the wonderful interview with qeshi Ezra. I can't wait to read the next part.
    By the way, the first time I read an article by qeshi Ezra was in Dehai titled "The Rock". He is just like an artist with his pen, very creative and imaginative. I wish if he can write more pieces.
    A small suggestion, is there a way these articles can be posted in major web sites such as Asmarino? I wish if more young Eritreans can read this piece.
    One of Eritrean's weakest side is, very few people are interested in the study of history, politics, sociology and anthropology; these are the main people who are supposed to identify, examine and treat our social and political ills.

    Wedi Edaga