Ethiopian Cardinal Discusses Hope of Peace and What He Learned From St. John Paul II

Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel: ‘True peace comes from God and from the heart of each one of us dedicated to peace.’

Then-Archbishop Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, shown departing the Vatican's Synod Hall on Oct. 13, 2014, was created a cardinal in 2015 and is committed to sowing the seeds of peace in his homeland.
Then-Archbishop Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, shown departing the Vatican's Synod Hall on Oct. 13, 2014, was created a cardinal in 2015 and is committed to sowing the seeds of peace in his homeland. (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Ethiopia and chancellor of Ethiopian Catholic University, spoke with the Register recently about his hopes for peace and more education in Ethiopia.

The cardinal, who is also chairman of the Ethiopian Peace and Justice Commission, discussed the “ideological colonialism” of the West imposing abortion, contraception and same-sex unions on African culture. He shared some thoughts on the Amazonian synod and the discussion of permitting married priests in the region. Cardinal Souraphiel concluded by recounting an important lesson of forgiveness he learned from Pope St. John Paul II.


Tell me about the situation in Ethiopia right now and what greatly concerns and occupies the Church there.

Ethiopia at the moment needs reconciliation and peace. I think because of that the Ethiopian government has established with a proclamation this reconciliation and peace commission, and all the members have been taken from the different sectors of society: from the elders, from the professors, the athletes, artists and the media people. It involves everybody because peace is not something which comes from one corner of society. It comes from the whole society, as built up on the social values and social capital of the society.

The commission, together with the interreligious council of Ethiopia, proclaimed one full day to pray nationally for peace and reconciliation. It’s only when you have peace yourself that you can share the same in the family or in the cities in the country. So that is one of the big challenges we are facing in Ethiopia these days.

Together with that we have the big challenge of poverty; I mean material poverty. It is a country of tremendous historical riches and values since the time of the apostolic age; peaceful coexistence among the different religions like Christianity with Muslims, and so on. These are great riches which Ethiopia can share with many parts of Africa and the world.

With poverty you have to work, and at the moment there are many programs to try to alleviate poverty. One is education; and then another is health; and another is clean water; and another is social awareness. The Catholic Church tries to help in these fields, so it has more than 400 schools throughout the country, more than 85 health institutions, the same amount of social centers, and [the Church is] creating, also, awareness for education, especially by establishing a Catholic university nationally because we feel education is the key to not only development but also peaceful coexistence.

This Catholic university is not going to be for the Catholics only, but for all elements of our society, open to all. That way it will be a forum for dialogue, for peaceful coexistence among the different ethnic groups, different political views, and so on, to inculcate in the young people and the professionals that it’s not persons or people who should fight; it’s ideas that should fight ideas. That can come only through education.

The Ethiopian Catholic community here in Washington, D.C., want to build their own parish, and it’s a big thing, you know. [They are a] small community, but they want to have their own parish and also their own parish institutions, whether it is helping migrants who come from Ethiopia, and they don’t know where to go. If there is such a center, they could tell them these are possibilities for legal issues, for charitable activities. Information is important.


Pope Francis has spoken in the past about the “ideological colonization” of attaching Western aid to contraception, abortion and unnatural ideas about gender and family. Have you seen this in your country, and what are the views on these issues there?

Our Holy Father Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken about ideological colonization, which is very actual in fact and especially imposed on poorer countries, say, like development assistance and so on, being paired together with strings attached; and one of them would be either with an anti-life contraceptive mentality or gender issues.

I remember the Holy Father mentioning also in different parts of the world that the real issues are not, say, abortion or euthanasia or same-sex unions — the real issues are poverty. When the Catholic Church speaks about poverty and we speak about equal distribution of resources, many of the rich countries don’t want to hear that because there are enough resources. There is enough food all over the world, but how to share that equally? That is the big challenge. Who is having many children in different parts of the world? The poor. Why? Because the poor feel their children are somehow their only guarantee for life, for continuity of life. But if, for example, the level of education is raised for the poor and they can better regulate the birth of children naturally, they do that. Education is important. Give education to the poor — speak about equal distribution of resources of the world.

When we speak about these issues [of abortion and contraception] the Catholic Church is accused of conservatism, but the real issues are not raised by institutions or organizations which push one-sided solutions like contraception.


At the Amazon synod in Rome there is discussion of permitting married priests in order to minister effectively in cultures where the Church is a relatively new arrival and missionaries and local vocations are scarce. What are your thoughts on this idea?

In Ethiopia we have the Oriental Catholic Church just like Oriental Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe. There, married clergy are allowed, so the issue is not married clergy or celibacy. The issue is, in Amazonian areas, the lack of vocations [to the priesthood]; and all that they speak about is in a way to sideline the real issues which are happening in Amazonia. Just before the Amazonian synod we were looking at all of Amazonia on fire; and the whole world was saying that the Amazon is the lung of the world — and it was burning — and what action was being taken? And the indigenous people who are living there, what right have they been given by the nine countries which surround the Amazon? Did they get educational opportunities? Health opportunities? Opportunities to preserve their traditional values?

These questions are not changed, but to sideline [such issues] or to give importance to the married priests to work in that area would not be concentrating on the real issues of what is happening in Amazonia, as I see it.


You have spoken in the past about youth migration and human trafficking within Africa. What do you want people to know about these issues?

Well, these issues are real issues in Ethiopia. We have migration, both types of migration — the legal migration and illegal migration. Our people are suffering because of illegal migration. First, they suffer through the hands of the human traffickers. We want to plead for legal migration where two governments agree on the conditions of work or salaries and so on and protections of the workers. If that is done, legal migration is a good thing. Look at the U.S.A.: The U.S.A. is a country of migrants, and Pope Francis is saying, “I am a son of migrants to Argentina,” so it’s not wrong to migrate; it is good — but how to protect it?

Now, in Ethiopia the parliament is discussing a possible law to make human traffickers criminals, especially with the young women, the young girls being exploited and who come back from these countries to Ethiopia traumatized and really very much affected; so this is a big issue, and we hope to get more assistance on that level.


I was fascinated to read about your time as a priest ministering in southwestern Ethiopia and being imprisoned and then exiled by the Derg, a communist military junta. What did you learn during your time in solitary confinement?

My imprisonment was during the Marxist regime in Ethiopia [1974-1987]; and that was terrible, because that’s one of the times of Ethiopia when many people died, especially young people, who were killed in large numbers. And it’s terrible that that thing happened in Ethiopia; and also, we lost some members of the imperial government, really great statesmen, who were also killed.

We were very, very sad. When the missionaries were expelled from southwestern Ethiopia, I was there. But imagine when all the missionaries were expelled! The foreigners could go, but we had to stay and continue the work; so I used to be a parish priest of one parish, but when the missionaries left, I was in charge of 15 other parishes. I had to go all around to encourage the people to be with the faith. The communists took all our properties; everything was taken, confiscated, and we were thrown in prison.

One month in solitary confinement, that’s very, very difficult, very hard. That is the time when I prayed very much, when you are alone and naked in front of God; and whenever they knock, you are not sure if they have come to take you and kill you. You pray a lot. I prayed there; and together with the other Christians, the Orthodox, the Muslims, the Protestants — we prayed, we worked, and, through prayer, we were able to go out.

I came out after seven months of imprisonment, but after that I came to study in Rome and went back to Ethiopia. When I went back the one who imprisoned me was imprisoned so I went to visit him; and he told me, “Please, please let me come out of prison. Please work for that.” So I worked for that, and he became released from prison after 20 years in prison.

I learned from Pope John Paul II: what he did with that person [Mehmet Ali Ağca] who shot him [in 1981]; and he went to visit him [while serving time in prison for his attempted murder of the Pope].

For peace in Ethiopia, we want the prayers of Catholics all over the world because true peace comes from God and from the heart of each one of us dedicated to peace. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been awarded the Nobel Prize for 2019, so that’s also a good sign. We have to be instrumental to peace — all of us.

Register staff writer Lauretta Brown writes from Washington.