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Haile Selassie and the African Diaspora

November, 2017 marks the 87th anniversary of the coronation of the last Christian Emperor in the world, a member of the Oriental Orthodox Communion. At the Cathedral of Saint George in Addis Ababa, the Coptic Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Kerrilos, crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I, Elect of God, as King of Kings of Ethiopia on November 2nd, 1930. For the first time in Ethiopia’s history, foreign states sent high representatives to witness the enthronement of the heir to the world’s oldest dynasty, tracing its origins to Solomon of ancient Israel and Makeda, Queen of Sheba. King George V of Great Britain sent his son Prince Henry the Duke of Gloucester, King Vittorio Emanuelle of Italy sent his cousin the Prince of Udine, and France sent Marshal Franchet D’Esperey. It was a monumental event for colonized Africans, and for people of the African diaspora around the world. Here was a monarch who symbolized ancient Africa, a kingdom with a proud tradition and a illustrious history, and a church as ancient as Christianity itself. It triggered a great sense of pride in many hearts around the world and wonder in many others. Fatefully however, it would be the last coronation of a Christian Emperor that the world would see.


Emperor Haile Selassie went on to become a very iconic figure. His stand against Mussolini and the fascist invasion of his realm made him an international star of sorts, especially after his speech at the League of Nations on June 30, 1936. His quite dignity as he mounted the podium wearing his dark cloak and faced loud whistles and heckling jeers from Italian journalists in the gallery won him great sympathy. However it was his powerful speech that raised the threat to world peace that fascism was to the community of nations that made him such an admired figure. His prophetic utterance “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow” presaged the coming World War. Defeated in 1936, he spent five years in difficult exile in England before the coming of the World War finally brought Britain to his aide, and he led an allied campaign that liberated his country in 1941, making Ethiopia the first country freed from Axis occupation.

The question naturally arises, what was the Emperor’s approach to his faith? What did he accomplish for his church at home and internationally? The answer is that the Emperor’s faith was one of the things that clearly defined him. By all accounts the Emperor was a very devout man. Born Lij Tafari Makonnen, son of Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael, governor of Harrarge province on July 23, 1892. His mother died while he was still a toddler. His father was the first cousin of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and his de-facto foreign minister who traveled often, leaving the day to day care of his son to relatives and a large household. The young Lij Tafari received the traditional education of a young boy of the Imperial Dynasty and the larger nobility. He was put under the direction of Orthodox priests who instructed him in reading and writing, and by age six he was as was traditional, able to recite the Book of Psalms in Geez (Ethiopia’s ancient language now used only in liturgy). By age nine he was ordained as a boy deacon by the Coptic Archbishop of Ethiopia at the time, Abune Mattewos (Matthew) and assisted in the conducting of the Holy Liturgy and learning all the rituals and customs of the church At the same time, his father arranged for him to receive instruction in modern subjects and in languages by a locally active French Catholic priest, yet he retained a life long devotion to his Orthodox faith.

In 1917, the nobility of the Ethiopian Empire joined together and removed the un-crowned Emperor Designate, Lij Iyasu from the Imperial throne for the crime of apostacy. Lij Iyasu had been named heir to the throne by his grandfather Emperor Menelik II, but had never been crowned since Menelik’s death in 1912. He was accused of having converted to Islam and was excommunicated by the Archbishop Abune Mattewos. He was replaced on the Imperial throne by his aunt (Menelik’s daughter) Empress Zewditu. As the new Empress had no children who had survived infancy, her cousin Tafari Makonnen was given the title of Ras and made Crown Prince and Regent of the Empire to govern the country in her name. From the moment he took over state responsibility, the young Prince worked hard to advance the cause of his Orthodox Christian faith. Almost immediately he began negotiations with the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria for the consecration of native born Ethiopian bishops. Since the 4th Century when Saint Athenathius appointed Saint Frumetius as Ethiopia’s first bishop Abune Salama, Ethiopia had always received a single Coptic bishop to crown her monarchs, bless church altars, ordain clergy and preside over her Orthodox faithful. Emperor Yohannes IV (reign 1872-1889) had managed to get the Coptic Pope to appoint four bishops for his Empire, but they had died one by one with no successors appointed to their sees, the last being Abune Mattewos who had crowned Empress Zewditu. Ras Tafari Makonnen argued for native born bishops but Cairo resisted. Finally in a compromise, the Coptic church appointed a Copt, Abune Kerrilos (Cyril) as Archbishop of Ethiopia, and five Ethiopian born bishops to serve under him in 1928. This greatly reduced the hardship faced by the many churches across the vast country as they now had to send people shorter distances to be ordained by a bishop. The new bishops spoke the native languages, and were more active in the day to day running of their diocese than their Coptic born predecessors had been. It was a great advance for the Ethiopian Church.

Once he was crowned Emperor, Haile Selassie continued to lobby Cairo to eventually consecrate an native Ethiopian as Archbishop as well. It was a long and difficult negation, but after the Italian occupation was over, the negotiations gained traction, and in 1948 an agreement was reached in which the successor to Abune Kerrilos would be an Ethiopian, elected by a new set of 5 native Ethiopian born bishops which the Patriarch appointed. Thust the Ethiopian church gained autocephaly. In 1951, Coptic Pope Yosab II consecrated Abune Basilios as Ethiopia’s first native born and locally elected Archbishop. With further negotiations and agreements, in 1959, Coptic Pope Saint Kerrilos VI elevated Abune Basilios to the rank of Patriarch-Catholicos, and the Ethiopian church, an achievement which had evaded every Ethiopian ruler from the fourth century onwards, and which could largely to be credited to Emperor Haile Selassie.

Beyond the autocephaly, the Emperor did much to reform the governance of the church. In 1942 he enacted a law reforming church finances. In 1944 he established Holy Trinity Theological College, the first modern institution of higher theological education in the country. He ordered a new translation of the Holy Bible into modern Amharic in 1960 and had it dispersed widely across the realm. He was responsible for the building of countless churches across the country. Most significantly the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the Church of the Savior of the World Consoler of Sorrows(Meskea Hazunan Medhane Alem) , the Church of Saint Stephen, the Church of Saint Mark, in Addis Ababa. Outside the capital there was the new Church of Saint Takla Haimanot at Debre Libanos Monastery, the Asebot Monastery, the Church of St. Gabriel the Archangel at Kulibi, the church of the Great Monastery at Waldeba, and above all, the new Cathedral of Saint Mary of Zion in Axum, and many more. Haile Selassie I was a great builder of churches. He also arranged for the church to join the World Council of Churches and participate in international forums for the first time.

The Emperor was a man devoted to the idea of Christian ecumenism, and particularly in the unity of the Oriental Orthodox Communion. Recognizing that the Oriental Orthodox Churches had never met together since the Council of Ephesus, and hadn’t taken a join decision since they took their common stand on the Council of Chalcedon, the Emperor called a Conference of the then five Oriental Orthodox Churches held in Addis Ababa in 1965, ending their isolation from each other. The five churches discussed issues of common concern from January 15 to January 23, reaching historic decisions and agreeing to work in greater concert in the future. In gratitude the heads of the five Oriental Churches bestowed on the Emperor, the title of “Defender of the Faith” which he bore with reverence and pride.

The Emperor was a devoted proponent of Christian communities under strain, especially among the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. As early as his first visit abroad as Crown Prince in 1923, he had been moved by the plight of the many Armenian Genocide orphans being cared for by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He adopted 40 boys and took them back to Ethiopia where he personally covered their educational and living expenses, joining an already existing Armenian community in Ethiopia. These Armenian boys were known as the “Arba Lijoch” (Forty Children” in Amharic) and they formed Ethiopia’s first marching brass band. They would go on to establish prominent Armenian-Ethiopian families active in various trades and in society generally. The Emperor was also a good friend to Ethiopia’s large Greek community, and is known to particularly raised the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the Turkish authorities during stressful times. His visits to Eastern Bloc countries were always marked with respectful visits to the local Orthodox hierarchies under communist oppression, whether it was in Moscow, Belgrade, or Bucharest. Emperor Haile Selassie’s interest and solicitous attitude did much to alley by some degree the official oppression that these captive churches faced. In Yugoslavia, in order to please him, Marshal Joseph Broz Tito even had the badly vandalized Royal Chapel of Saint Andrew the First Called in Belgrade’s royal palace restored ahead of the Emperor’s visit there knowing the Emperor would be displeased to see it in its desecrated state.

In his personal life, Emperor Haile Selassie was deeply devout. He followed the rigorous fasting rules of his church, following a strictly vegan diet on fasting days. He attended Holy Liturgy almost daily, visiting various churches on their Saint’s holidays. He took Holy Communion twice a month, on the monthly days marking the feast of Our Lady Covenant of Mercy (Kidane Meheret) and that of The Savior of the World (Medhane Alem) according to the authors father who was witness to this schedule. Before every trip he took abroad, he would first go to Holy Trinity Cathedral to pray immediately before departing. His fist stop after returning was also Holy Trinity Cathedral to pray. During the course of his day, if he saw a priest, no matter how humble, he would stop to kiss that priests hand cross. Every public statement that he made paid homage to the Creator and asked for his blessings.

When the monarchy fell, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was also stripped of it’s status as the Church of State. After he was deposed by the Marxist Derg military junta in September 1974, the Emperor was kept under arrest in a small building on the grounds of the Imperial Menelik Palace in Addis Ababa. This building was close to one of the Palace Churches, the Church of Our Lady Covenant of Mercy (Kidane Meheret). Prevented from attending the Holy Liturgy, his personal attendants have attested that the aged Emperor would stand in one of the windows of this house facing the church and make all the responses and participated in the Liturgy as it was said in the church and broadcast by speaker. In August 1975 in highly suspicious and mysterious circumstances while imprisoned, Haile Selassie I was said  to be buried in an unmarked grave. The Derg government specifically forbade the conducting of any type of memorial service for the Emperor.

In November 2000, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Paulos, payed tribute the Emperor Haile Selassie, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia. He said that not just the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, but all of Ethiopia, Africa, and the world at large, owed Emperor Haile Selassie an emense debt. It does indeed.

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