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Into the Future

Preparing a new generation of seminarians at an Ethiopian college

Last February, invited guests joined a number of priests and seminarians at Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Theological College in Addis Ababa.

Over the din of traffic and street peddlers, Abune Timotheos, the rector of the college, laid the cornerstone of what promises to be a large modern facility that will replace the forlorn and, in many cases, ad hoc buildings that now speckle the small campus. Indeed, as rendered in the conceptual sketch that was displayed that day, the new building will distinguish itself not only from the present structures but also from every other building in the neighborhood of Arat Kilo, a collection of dusty and worn 1950’s-era constructions.

“This building is for all Orthodox and all Christians,” Abune Timotheos said to enthusiastic applause. Later, back in his office, the archbishop’s enthusiasm was undiminished even though he admitted, “We don’t have one cent for this building.”

Abune Timotheos’s confidence stems from his long experience as a leader in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which includes about half of the country’s 77 million people. The church has rebounded from Communist-era repression (1974-1991) and is now looking to modernize, Abune Timotheos said.

Abune Timotheos was born Habtselassie Tesfa in 1938 in Tigray, a province north of Addis Ababa. At 12, he left home to begin his religious studies in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar, once the country’s capital.

“At the time there were no modern schools in the area, except for maybe one private Protestant school,” Abune Timotheos said. His religious education was traditional, a rite passed down through the centuries.

“We studied songs, Scripture and poetry in Ge’ez, the liturgical language.” This basic education, acquired during residencies at several monasteries, lasted 15 years, after which Abune Timotheos went to Addis Ababa, to Holy Trinity and then to Harare. During the course of his studies, he learned Amharic, the nation’s working language, and also focused on religious poetry.

His education took an unorthodox turn in 1965, when he went to the Russian city of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) as a student at St. Petersburg Theology Academy. By then, the Russians had already turned away from the staunch atheism enforced by Stalin, Abune Timotheos said. “People were still going to church, and there was a real demand for religion.”

“If you went to a bookstore, all the books about God were priced higher … that was what people were buying.”

His teachers invited him to remain in St. Petersburg after he finished his dissertation, but Timotheos was ready to return to his homeland. He arrived there in 1974 at a time when the country was beginning its own Communist era under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, who overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. Mengistu repressed the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, arresting and later executing its patriarch, Abune Tewophilos.

“It was a different sort of communism than what I experienced in Russia,” Abune Timotheos said. “There, the leaders were educated, they weren’t destroying all the books and culture. But here, they destroyed our books and took our property.” Holy Trinity was closed in 1978 — 36 years since it had first opened as a primary school — and its students transferred to Addis Ababa University. Its teachers were also reassigned.

“At first, I worked in the publications office of Addis Ababa University,” recalled Lule Melaku, 75, a professor at Holy Trinity. “Later, I was sent to the countryside for two years to teach socialism. Everyone was afraid. You had to be careful not to appear too religious.” Muslims faced a similar degree of persecution, added Abune Timotheos.

Abune Timotheos spent much of this period working for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Development and Interchurch Aid Commission (EOC-DICAC), which facilitated emergency relief and social development works. Consecrated bishop, Abune Timotheos went on to serve the church in the provinces, with brief stints in Addis Ababa.

“The church was able to survive because the people still gave money,” he said. “The church fathers asked followers to contribute 24 birr each year,” the equivalent of about $2.65.

By 1991, Mengistu’s government collapsed and the church began to regroup and recover. A new patriarch, Abune Paulos, an alumnus of Holy Trinity, petitioned the government to reopen the theological college, which it did in 1995, returning ownership to the church. The patriarch tapped Abune Timotheos to lead the college in 1998. But he found that it was struggling to get on its feet. Leaks in the library’s roof had destroyed many books, and there was little equipment — computers, fax and photocopy machines — upon which modern universities rely.

Despite the lack of resources, students came to the college — 150 enrolled when Holy Trinity reopened in 1995. The college hosts both full-time and part-time students (there are currently about 400 enrolled) and offers a bachelor’s degree in theology, a diploma of theology and a certificate in church management and administration. There are courses also found in secular institutions — foreign languages, statistics, philosophy and sociology — as well as classes in theology, liturgy and other areas of religious studies.

Many of the students have been educated previously in government schools. “From first to twelfth grade, I went to government schools,” said Mulugetta Dabi, a fifth-year student in his final year at Holy Trinity. By the time he was in sixth grade, he knew he wanted to be a priest in his hometown of Nazret, so he came to Holy Trinity.

In contrast, Sisay Wgayehu came to Holy Trinity only after his attempts to enroll at secular universities, including an Australian college, failed. “But once I came here, I was happy. When Addis Ababa University [later] offered me a spot, I turned them down.”

When they graduate, most students scatter across the country, often serving parishes in small villages. A few stay on and teach at Holy Trinity. The new generation of students will not only enliven the church at home, but will also help forge ties abroad, Mr. Dabi said.

“Now, most of our bishops are well educated, but not many are fluent in English or other languages. These students have the benefit of a more modern education and will serve as better ambassadors to the world outside of Ethiopia.”

“This new facility will help us modernize further,” added Abune Timotheos. “We’re making do, but there are only so many improvements we can make to the existing facilities.”

The archbishop also plans to offer post-graduate programs. As for the funding for this multimillion-dollar project, the archbishop hopes for local and foreign donors.

“The church, and this college, has only recently emerged from a period of suffering,” he said. “During that time, I think the people realized even more how important the Orthodox tradition was in this country. We are making sure that tradition continues.”

Paul Wachter is assistant editor of ONE magazine.

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