Patriarch Tewoflos (Meliktu Welde Mariam)
1910 to 1979
Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Patriarch Tewoflos was the second Ethiopian patriarch but the first patriarch ordained in Ethiopia. He served his country as a spiritual leader for a total of twenty-eight years, and was considered a martyr of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after he was killed in 1979 by the Dergue regime.
Meliktu was born in 1910 in Debre Elias located in Gojjam province. His father's name was Welde Mariam (Jemberie) Wubie and his mother's, Zertihun Adelahu. Meliktu attended school in his birthplace and learned to read the Psalms from Merigegata ("Guide Master") Aredahegn and studied songs (Zema) from Grageta ("Left Master") Sahilu Negussie. Then he continued his studies in Qene (poetry) and what is now known as biblical hermeneutics as well as in other spiritual books under a memhir ("teacher"), a famous authority in these fields. Meliktu eventually graduated and became a memhir himself.
In 1927 Meliktu left his home to go to Addis Ababa where he continued his studies in the interpretation of the New Testament and Fitha Negest ("Chronicles of the Kings") from the other Ethiopian authority in these fields by the name of Memhir Haddis Telke who was later ordained as Bishop Yohannes. Having finished these studies, Meliktu was now able to teach and produce many graduates useful for the church. At the same time, he studied English, Italian, and Arabic.
In 1937, Meliktu went to Debre Libanos where the Abuna Tekle Haimanot Monastery is located and dedicated himself to the service of God by becoming a monk. Four years later Abba Meliktu was one of twenty church candidates selected by the Emperor Haile Sellassie I to study English. The emperor did this to modernize the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and enable its clergy to communicate with the people and clergy of other churches in the rest of the world. Abba Meliktu was one of the very few who finished this language program as most of the other candidates quit gradually. This language school was later brought under the Ministry of Education and became the Trinity Theology School in the Trinity monastery--the first theological college in the country.
In 1942 Abba Meliktu was appointed director of this theological school where he was also a teacher. Three years later, the emperor renamed the Trinity Monastery Menbere Tsebaot Qidist Sellassie Trinity ("Residence or Chair of Almighty Holy Trinity") and Abba Meliktu, as director, was given the rank of Liqe Siltanat ("Highest of Authorities"--possibly equivalent to the rank of professor), a title which always preceded his name thereafter. On his appointment day, the emperor gave Abba Meliktu a golden crown and gown when he awarded him this rank.
In April 1943, the churches of Ethiopia and Alexandria agreed to ordain bishops from among the senior monks of Ethiopia. On April 27, 1946, by the permission of the emperor, Liqe Siltanat Meliktu was one of five nominees elected unanimously to the position of bishop and sent to Egypt to be ordained with the other four bishop elects. But, for various reasons, the appointment was postponed for two years and all five candidates came back home.
Nevertheless, on July 23, 1948 the five candidates returned to Alexandria to be anointed bishop by Patriarch Yosab of Alexandria. Liqe Siltanat Meliktu took the name Tewoflos and was appointed bishop of Harar province while the Alexandrian Church made Abuna Baslewos patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. In 1950, by permission of the synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the goodwill of Patriarch Baslewos, Abuna Tewoflos was made vice patriarch and was given delegation to Patriarch Yosab of Alexandria according to the agreement made by the authorities of these two churches.
During his stay in Harar, Abuna Tewoflos managed to secure a huge meeting hall from Emperor Haile Sellassie I where students of all seven schools and of the Teacher Training Institute in Harar could come to learn about the doctrine of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. There many qualified Bible teachers taught those who came. Many years later, while he was head of Trinity College, Abuna Tewoflos showed how far-sighted he was in his vision of service for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by producing many educated individuals who became teachers, researchers, church leaders, and ordained ministers in the church. Many graduates of this college were sent abroad for further education and many of them are presently (2004) serving the country and the church in various positions.
In addition to his work in education, Abuna Tewoflos traveled on foot and on horseback to neighboring provinces to evangelize many people while he was bishop of Harar. The number of believers gradually increased in Harar and twelve modern churches were built in that province with the financial support of the emperor and the Harar people. In addition, Abuna Tewoflos built a new modernized training institute for monks, priests, and deacons in Harar and renovated the old church buildings in the city. He also established a spiritual association called Kesate Berhan ("Light Emission"). Using the money from the membership fees of this association he opened a library in Harar where people could come, free of charge, to read and learn. In his evangelization efforts in Bale province, he baptized twenty-four thousand people who converted to the Orthodox faith from the Awama faith and other religions in 1956 and 1957 alone.
As vice patriarch, he traveled to different countries to build many Ethiopian Orthodox Churches and completed his apostolic mission by spreading the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in many parts of the world. Some places he traveled for this purpose were the U.S.A., Trinidad, Togo, British Guinea, and Sudan.
He was given financial support from the government to establish a printing press in the city of Harar and he used the money to build an elementary school for orphans for grades one to six. He also opened two other new schools--one in Harar and the other in Qulbi Monastery--to provide modern education for monks and young people. Many educated people have come out of these schools. For example, the present Patriarch Paulos and four other bishops are living products of the Harar Teacher Training Theological School.
In his position as Liqe Siltanat, Abuna Tewoflos worked diligently as an Ethiopian delegate to Egypt and made frequent trips to Alexandria with a group of Ethiopian delegates to attend meetings in which they had long discussions to seek permission for the Ethiopian church to ordain her own bishops and patriarchs in Ethiopia. Traditionally these spiritual leaders had always been appointed in Alexandria (Egypt) since the 4th century when Frumentius was the first bishop of Ethiopia ordained by Athanasius of Alexandria. The negotiations were finally successful and Abuna Tewoflos was appropriately rewarded by being ordained patriarch, the highest church position in Ethiopia. He was also the first to ordain bishops in own country.
On April 6, 1971, at age 61, Abuna Tewoflos was elected patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church-the second patriarch of the church but the first to be ordained in Ethiopia. Abuna Tewoflos' historical and highly celebrated appointment was held on April 8, 1971, in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the presence of His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie I, princes and princesses, the ecclesial body of the Orthodox Church, high ranking officials, people of the country, many delegates from all over the world, and his own family members. (As a family member, the writer of this article was present at this celebration with her father and fiancé.) The original Amharic biographer claims that on that day of celebration from 11:00 a.m. to the end of the celebration, a sign of a spectrum miraculously appeared, encircling the sun directly on top of the apex of the cathedral.
Patriarch Tewoflos traveled extensively throughout the world to attend ecumenical meetings as a delegate of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In particular, he attended meetings of the World Council of Churches and of its executive committee in 1948 (Amsterdam), 1955 (England), 1971 (Ethiopia), and 1975 (Kenya). At the 1975 meeting Patriarch Tewoflos was elected president of the next general assembly but this did not materialize as he was arrested by the Dergue regime the following year. He went to the first general assembly of World Church Leaders held in the U.S.A. in 1956, the second one held in New Delhi, India in 1962, and the third held in Uppsala, Sweden in 1968. He was elected one of the three regional presidents of the general assemblies of the African Churches Association for two terms and served in that position until he was arrested by the Dergue regime. In 1959, he chaired the general assembly of African Churches Association held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He was present at the Eastern Orthodox Church Leaders Assembly held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1963 as head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church delegation. On that occasion His Majesty Emperor Haile Sellassie made an opening speech that made everyone happy and was given the honorary name Constantine II by the assembly.
Patriarch Tewoflos boldly opposed the Dergue regime in a number of ways and the government developed grudges against him because of them. For example, he said that the responsibility of a spiritual leader is to advise and to teach against the killing of innocent people. He refused to collaborate or support murders in cold blood when the government asked him to publicly voice his support after the Dergue regime assassinated sixty-two officials of the imperial government on November 21, 1974. He also wrote an article which appeared in the May 8, 1975 issue of a church magazine called Addis Heywet (New Life), [p.20] expressing his concern regarding the establishment of a stable rule of law for the country. He said that all sectors of the nation should be included in this rule of law, not only the armed forces. The reason for this statement was that the controlling body of the Dergue regime consisted of 120 officers of the armed forces. In the same magazine (p. 16), he stated that God's wrath was aroused by the fact that the Dergue regime had unjustly confiscated property (for example, much of the church's property had been confiscated). As a result he wrote a letter describing the seven steps the government had taken and was planning to take--steps which violated the rights of the church--and demanded that these actions be stopped or corrected (p. 32).
When the death of the emperor was announced, he went to the Dergue government office accompanied by two other bishops to ask for the body of the emperor in order to carry out the appropriate burial rituals but his request was denied.
As the internal and external ministry of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church expanded, the patriarch saw the need to ordain three more bishops. He presented this need to the synod and, with their approval, the three bishops were ordained in 1976. But the Dergue dictatorial regime interfered in church affairs and imprisoned the three bishops. A few days later, it also arrested the patriarch on the basis of false charges issued by a fault-finding ad hoc committee consisting of people personally opposed to him due to differences in ethnic origin and or to issues of jealousy and power struggle. This committee, called the "Transitional Revival Commission," pressed charges against him, saying that Tewoflos did not qualify to be a patriarch but had attained to that position because he was a close friend of the emperor. He was also accused of having a capitalist mentality because he built houses and received large sums of money. The third strike against him was the fact that he owned twenty different bank accounts in his name and many more accounts in the name of his friends and servants. The total managed in these accounts--either directly or indirectly--was approximately 4,029,350 Birr (Ethiopian currency).
Tewoflos justified some of this in his written will where he showed that these were false accusations made to defame and remove him from his position of authority and hurt him as much as possible. In his will, he explained that he had taken out a bank loan to build a big apartment building in Addis Ababa which he had then rented to pay the mortgage until the loan was paid off. He planned to use the future income of the building to provide funds for the Debre Elias Church in Gojjam--where he was born, grew up, and began his spiritual education--and for the Gofa Gebriel Church in Addis Ababa which he had built with his own income. In this way there would be sufficient funds for the clergy in the Debre Elias Church, and the Gofa Gebriel Church, and for the renovation of these churches. His will stated that the income would be divided in two and each portion would be deposited in a bank account for each of these two churches when the building was loan-free.
There were only five bank accounts in his possession the day after he was arrested. One bank account was for an Ethiopian Orthodox Church being built in Kenya, the second had been opened for the Gofa Gebriel Church, the third was the account for the theological college, and the fourth was the patriarch's income administration account and the fifth, an account for the Harar local churches. The account books were distributed to the people concerned because none of the accounts had been opened in his name. Tewoflos was keeping an eye on the bookkeeping of these accounts as it was a time of revolution and he felt responsible to make sure that the money was carefully managed. All the allegations were unfounded.
Another charge brought against him was the fact that he had appointed three bishops without the government's authorization. Finally, he was accused of neglecting evangelical work, showing no concern for the legacy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, destroying the youth ministry, and abolishing church laws for unholy reasons.
On the evening of February 17, 1976, Tewoflos was taken to the Jubilee palace and was imprisoned alone in the house of Commander Eskindir Desta. One afternoon he heard a loud voice that said to him, "What are you doing here? Go out of here to the east." As he heard this voice repeatedly, he walked out of the prison. The guard asked him where he was going but Tewoflos kept walking and the guard did not stop him. He decided to go to Asebot monastery after first stopping at his house to prepare for his journey. As his house was far away and he was on foot, he only got home at around 9:00 p.m. The guard who had lived with him for a long time phoned the government office and the next morning at around 11:00 a.m. Tewoflos was again arrested and taken back to Menilik Palace prison after being beaten and abused by the police. He was chained hand and foot for four days. Then he was taken to Prison One where other government officers were detained and his chains were removed. From the day he was taken from his home to this prison, he did not eat food for forty days. He just moistened his lips with water and refused to eat. Many Dergue officers came to persuade him to eat but he did not submit. Those who were with him testified that he was strong and in good health and talked with people without any sign of fatigue during those days. One day after Easter Sunday, the elderly prisoners pleaded with him to eat and he ate. He refused to accept the 120 Birr per month that was given to the family of prisoners for food, saying that he did not want anything from that government. He also said that he had grown up begging bread and that is what he wanted to eat thereafter. If anyone wanted to beg bread and send it to him, he would accept it. Until the day he died he did not take any money from the Dergue officers. They asked him what he wanted and when he said he wanted to be imprisoned in Asebot monastery they refused.
While he was in prison, an officer of the guards mistreated him and took away the golden cross that he used to carry in his hands. He also tried to force him to sign his name Meliktu and not Tewoflos. But Tewoflos was not afraid of any action he could take against him and did not obey his demand because he refused to use his secular name again.
Tewoflos spent most of his time in prison fasting and praying, sometimes for whole nights at a time. In the morning and evening, he led corporate prayer with other prisoners. Much of the time he read books and talked with people. He also studied to improve his Arabic and French. At times he assembled the prisoners and preached to them, asking them to forgive one another for their bitterness, hatred or guilt towards each other. He also told his friends that he would soon be killed by the Dergue regime.
On Saturday, July 14, 1979, at around 11:00 a.m. he was taken away by guards with two other prisoners. For thirteen years, no one knew what had happened to them. But after the Dergue regime collapsed, it was discovered that he had been killed with thirty-three others by strangulation and his body buried inside Ras Asrate Kassa's compound in Addis Ababa. Thirteen years after his execution, his body was exhumed on April 29, 1992 and buried the next day in a designated burial place he had built for himself in Gofa Gebriel Church.
Memhir (Teacher) Kidanemariam Getahun, False Testimony (Refuting the book of) "Testimony of the Living" of Abba Melke Tsedeq, published by Computer Typing and Design-Ethiopia Book Center (September 2001), pp. 19-49.
This article, received in 2006, was researched and written by Dr. Dirshaye Menberu, retired professor from Addis Ababa University and 2005-2006 Project Luke Fellow. She is a graduate of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST), a DACB Participating Institution.