In Ethiopia, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel serves as archbishop in its capital city of Addis Ababa, and he was recently given the special responsibility of chairing that country’s National Reconciliation and Peace Commission.

From Oct. 17-29, the cardinal visited Washington, D.C., on another mission, to support the Kidane-Mehret Ge’ez Rite Ethiopian Catholic community to raise funds to build a church of their own, after 35 years of worshiping in various locations around the Washington area. And on Oct. 27, he celebrated a special Mass for them at the St. Ursula Chapel of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, where he presided at the First Communions and Confirmations for young members of that community.

In an Oct. 23 interview with the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Souraphiel underscored the need for the Ethiopian Catholics in the Washington area to have a church of their own, and praised their enduring faith.

“They have been going from one chapel to another chapel, depending on the generosity of parish priests. But sometimes you just cannot move from one place to another without having roots,” he said. “…What impressed me is the depth of their faith, the richness of their religious heritage which they received from their forefathers. You know most of them have come from Catholic families in Ethiopia who also had strong faith. The faith, the culture and the history are inter-related. You cannot separate the faith from their daily living and their culture and their history. So here also they are concerned to pass the same faith on to their children and their grandchildren, so their children and grandchildren will be able to pass on the faith to other generations.”

Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, gives First Holy Communion to a young member of the Kidane-Mehret Ge’ez Rite Ethiopian Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of Washington during an Oct. 27 Mass at the St. Ursula Chapel of the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Maryland. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

That community’s faith echoes his own story. When Pope Francis named him a cardinal in 2015, the Ethiopian archbishop said his family had been Catholic for generations. In the interview, Cardinal Souraphiel noted that his father was a farmer and trader, and how he was shaped by the prayerful example of his parents and how they reached out to those in need. Later, he studied in schools sponsored by the Christian Brothers and the Vincentians, and felt called to the priesthood. He was ordained as a Vincentian priest in 1976.

Recently Ethiopia was in the news when it was announced that its prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, after helping resolve a border conflict with Eritrea that had been going on for two decades.

Praising that effort by Ahmed, the cardinal noted, “He went to speak to the political leader there in Eritrea. He convinced him from the side of Ethiopia, Ethiopia wants to make peace, would agree with all the United Nations and the High Court in the Hague had decided. What is important is that we have peaceful relations between the two countries, and especially the two peoples. He went especially to restore the old relationship that had existed among the two peoples, because the two peoples share the same religion, the same culture, the same languages in that area… So when Abiy went there, the people were for peace.”

When Cardinal Souraphiel heard that Prime Minister Ahmed was this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient, he said, “It was a great, good news, unexpected, a great joy for me. In the short time he served in Ethiopia, a year and one half or a year and eight months, (that) he could achieve this, especially being an instrument of peace with all our neighbors, peace in our neighboring countries, and also for his stand of freeing all political prisoners, allowing all political dissidents to come back to the country and also whenever he went abroad, (helping to gain the freedom of) all Ethiopians who had been doing jail service in neighboring countries.”

Cardinal Souraphiel noted that the prime minister also worked for peace among the nation’s religious groups: “… He made peace for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They had their own divisions. There was one synod in the United States and another in Ethiopia. He helped them to have one united synod, and they are very, very grateful for that. The same service he gave also to the Muslims. There was division among the Muslims. He brought them together to speak together, to iron out their differences and be united.”

Prime Minister Ahmed appointed Cardinal Souraphiel to chair Ethiopia’s National Reconciliation and Peace Commission, which the cardinal said has “41 members from different categories of society – religious leaders, from all areas, professors, university people, media people, sports people, artists and so on. We are now in the eighth month, the Peace and Reconciliation Commission. I am the chairperson, and there is a lady (Yetnebersh Nigussie) who is a blind person, she is the vice chair person, she’s also Catholic and very influential.”

That effort is personally very meaningful to Cardinal Souraphiel, who explained, “I value reconciliation and peace, because it has been part of my life. During the past regime, the Marxist regime, I was myself affected… I was imprisoned (for) seven months, in 1979-1980. I was put one month in solitary confinement, and the rest of the six months with the other prisoners, and I’ve seen many people being killed… for what, it is very sad, for political ideas. I was in prison because of my faith, because I was a priest. It was forbidden to participate in religion.”

After his release from prison, the future archbishop was expelled from the area in Ethiopia where he used to work.

“After some years, I returned back to the capital, and then I found out the one who jailed me was in jail himself, so I went to visit him,” the cardinal said. “He asked me for pardon, and I said, ‘I pardoned you when you imprisoned me,’ and he was really amazed, and he asked me to work for his release, not only for him, but (for) all his colleagues (who) were in prison for 20 years, so together with the other religious leaders in Ethiopia, we worked together so the death penalty would not be put in practice, and they would wait for a period of time and be released. I spoke to the prime minister and president, and their (the prisoners’) death sentence was not imposed, and later on they were freed. They were very grateful. They came to thank us, the one who had imprisoned me also.”

Reflecting on his own experiences, Cardinal Souraphiel added, “So I understand what it means, forgiveness and reconciliation and peace. Also during this government and the past government and so on, we have had situations where only forgiveness and reconciliation can close the doors of the past and leave us fresh, as new, to renew our social commitments.”

In 1999, Pope John Paul II named him as the archbishop of Addis Ababa, and that pope who was later canonized as a saint continues to inspire him.

Reflecting on that pontiff, he said, “St. John Paul II, a great pope really, a pope who has seen Marxism and who suffered under it, and who saw Marxism being transformed, and (his work to) bring peace to Eastern Europe and Russia and so on, and thanks to him, we got rid of the Marxist regime in Ethiopia, and so we are very grateful to him.”

And Cardinal Souraphiel also praised that pope’s “spirit of forgiveness which I learned from him when he forgave the person who wanted to kill him. He went to visit him in prison. That’s what I did also to the one who imprisoned me. I went to see him in prison, himself, when he was in prison. (Pope John Paul II showed) this great emphasis on forgiveness, coupled with a desire for justice. Forgiveness and justice, if these two are combined, we will have peace and solidarity with all peoples of the world. So I have great admiration for St. John Paul II, and I pray to him always, for his intercession for the Church and for our own beloved country, Ethiopia.”

Cardinal Souraphiel administers the sacrament of Confirmation to a young man who is a member of the Kidane-Mehret Ge’ez Rite Ethiopian Catholic Church during the Oct. 27 Mass. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Also in the interview, Ethiopia’s cardinal spoke about how his country has faced the challenges of immigration and refugees, and he connected that to the story of the Holy Family’s own plight.

“(The issue of) migration and refugees is a social phenomenon that has existed as long as human history,” he said. “We always remember how our Lord became a refugee in Egypt himself. Africa has been worthy to receive a refugee. Jesus was sought by King Herod to be killed and he had to escape, so his parents Joseph and Mary brought him to Egypt and he lived there. There is a tradition that says the Holy Family did not live all the time in Egypt because Egypt is hot, so they came down to Ethiopia for fresh air. So Ethiopia has been given by the Lord as a donation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, so we say Mary is the mother of Ethiopia. Also we say in the same line, when the relatives of the prophet Muhammad were persecuted in Mecca, they said go to Ethiopia, there is a peaceful king there, and he will take care of you, so they came also as refugees from Mecca.”

Cardinal Souraphiel added, “Nowadays it has been much in the news because of the huge number of migrants and refugees. We have many migrants from Ethiopia who go to the Arab world to work as domestic workers, these are mostly female Ethiopians, and many go to South Africa as economic migrants, and many want to go also to Europe through Libya, and many die in the sea.”

He noted that Ethiopia has more than 110 million people, and is the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria.

“There is huge unemployment in Ethiopia, and the challenge of poverty is always there,” he said. “The youth, they want to better their lives. They are more than 70 percent of the population… They have great aspirations, and some want to escape poverty by either being migrants or refugees in different parts of the world.”

Noting a paradox, he said, “Ethiopia itself has many refugees (within the country). We have nearly one million South Sudanese refugees. We have nearly 700,000 or so Somalian refugees, and more than 300,000 Eritreans. So Ethiopia, a poor country, is open to receive so many refugees and so many migrants, even some poor Syrian mothers have arrived to Addis Ababa. We were surprised how they reached there.”

“Imagine such a poor country, Ethiopia giving (refuge to so many),” Cardinal Souraphiel said. “… It has been a country of hospitality, a country of open doors to migrants and refugees who suffer in other parts of the world. And if a poor country shares meager resources she has with migrants and refugees, how much more should the richer countries (do)?”