Ethiopian Orthodox leader denounces Tigray 'carnage'

Addis Ababa (AFP) –


The head of Ethiopia's Orthodox Church has accused the government of wanting to "destroy" the country's northern Tigray region, in his first public comments about the war there.

The statement from Abune Mathias, a Tigray native, appeared in a video recording ferried out of Ethiopia by a friend, and the patriarch claimed his earlier attempts to speak out had been "stifled and censored."

It represents rare public criticism from a high-profile Ethiopian figure of the six-month-old war pitting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's military against forces loyal to Tigray's once dominant ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

"They are working day and night to destroy Tigray. They have no rest when it comes to destroying Tigrayans," Abune Mathias, speaking in the Amharic language, said in the 14-minute video.

"In all parts of Tigray there are killings. They mean to wipe Tigrayans from the surface of the earth."

Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, sent troops into Tigray in early November after accusing the TPLF of orchestrating attacks on army camps.

He has stressed the military is targeting the TPLF leadership and not civilians.

But myriad attacks on civilians -- including massacres and brutal gang rapes -- have been documented, with many witnesses and survivors blaming Ethiopian soldiers and troops from neighbouring Eritrea who are backing Abiy.

In the video recording, Abune Mathias described the violence as "the carnage of people -- particularly the killing of innocents."

He lamented damage to Tigray's famed Orthodox monasteries as well as massacres perpetrated on church grounds including in the Tigray town of Dengolat.

When AFP visited Dengolat in February, priests said they were disappointed that the Orthodox leadership had not commented on the violence, but speculated that Abune Mathias and others feared for their safety.

The Orthodox Church is the largest in Ethiopia, accounting for more than 40 percent of the country's 110 million people.

- Smuggled clip -

Dennis Wadley, a friend of Abune Mathias and director of the US-based group Bridges of Hope International, told AFP he recorded the video on April 26 during a trip to Ethiopia.

"The Patriarch asked me not to release it until I was out of the country, back in the US," Wadley said.

An Orthodox official confirmed the authenticity of the recording to AFP.

Abune Mathias said he had previously tried to speak out against the war multiple times including in media interviews but had been barred by the government.

"I spoke out and they held it back. I spoke out again and they held it back. Until now I have not had the opportunity to display my message through the media," he said.

Though Abiy declared victory in late November when the army entered the regional capital Mekele, fighting continues in the region.

As the war drags on, world leaders are increasingly concerned about what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month called an impending humanitarian "disaster."

Abune Mathias said he was worried about rising hunger in Tigray and the possibility that farmers might not be able to plant this year.

He called for outside intervention to provide more aid and bring an end to the fighting.

"I call on international governments to try and find a way to stop this immediately," he said.