Martyrdom was a significant phenomenon for Christians in Ethiopia during the course of the 20th century, but the focus of this brief presentation is the memory and reality of martyrdom during the most notorious episode of that century: the brutal invasion and occupation of Ethiopia by the military of the Kingdom of Italy from 1935 to 1941, which inspired Hitler, disempowered the League of Nations, and triggered the chain of events that culminated in the 2nd World War. I will discuss memory in terms of the popular narrative, and contrast it with findings from my research into the reality - research conducted between 1991 and 2016. I will follow this with my assessment of the principal driving force behind the actions that led to the martyrdoms of Ethiopian Christendom, and my suggestions as to what lessons can be learned in order to avoid such occurrences in the future.
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The focus of this presentation is the memory and reality of martyrdom during the invasion and occupation of Ethiopia by the military of the Kingdom of Italy from 1935 to 1941, which triggered the chain of events culminating in the 2nd World War.
The reality of what occurred during that dark episode looms powerfully in the collective memory of Ethiopians, but is almost unknown outside Ethiopia. Unlike the excesses of the Nazi regime, which were recognised and addressed, and have been subjected to years of critical analysis, open dialogue and debate, the excesses of Mussolini’s government in its quest for expansion through conquest of weaker nation-states – notably Ethiopia, Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia – were never subjected to public scrutiny, nor even, in many cases, acknowledged. Instead, ‘memory’ outside Ethiopia consists largely of a post-war myth that the Fascist government was benign, warm-hearted, and even comical. Thus not surprisingly, little is known today of the reality.
In the first half of the 4th century, Ethiopia became the second country in the world after Armenia to adopt Christianity as state religion – even before the Church of Rome. Ethiopia was also the world’s first nation to depict the Christian cross on its coins. The Ethiopian Church thus incorporates traditions dating back to the earliest Christian Church, one of the most fundamental being the institution of monasticism rooted in the traditions of Pachomius. By the middle-ages, many Ethiopian monks were working as scholars and theologians in the great religious centres of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Rome. Accepting foreign clergy as their peers and equals, they were, in turn, similarly accepted by their hosts.
To name but one example from the coterie of Ethiopian clergy who worked closely with the Church of Rome, the theologian Tesfa Seyon of Debre Libanos – one of several monks from Debre Libanos to be attached to the Holy See - became a confidant of Pope Paul III, and was responsible for several pioneering works of ecclesiastical and literary importance, including the first translation into Ethiopic of the New Testament, published in two volumes in 1548/49, a project sponsored jointly by the pope and the Ethiopian Emperor Claudius. Tesfa Seyon, who became Abbot of the Monastery of Santo Stefano in Rome, knew Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and became a close friend of Filippo Archinto, the Vicar-General of Rome, with whom he is depicted in a painting in the Jesuit mother-church of Il Gesù in Rome. Tesfa Seyon of Debre Libanos was also one of the founders of the Kingdom of Italy’s state church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and as such is depicted in the company of Pope Pius IV and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in a 16th-century painting in that church. It is, then, almost incomprehensible that the entire clergy and congregation of the Monastery of Debre Libanos, well known and respected by the Holy See for centuries, should in our supposedly civilised times be slaughtered in cold blood, thereby becoming Christian martyrs, on the ignoble orders of commanders acting under the flag of that very same Christian kingdom.
In October 1935, Ethiopia was the first sovereign state to be invaded by Italy under Mussolini’s government, in a quest for expansion through foreign conquest, and with the documented intention of dismantling the state, turning the country into a military-industrial complex utilising the mineral deposits thought to exist there, and conscripting its men into a one-million strong army to fight further wars of conquest.
Despite their lack of military training and modern weaponry, whenever the Ethiopian armies managed to put up serious resistance, the Italians overcame them with the use of airborne chemical weapons; in this manner hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians – mainly from the Christian highlands - died in the brutal, ‘take-no-prisoners’ invasion. And when the invaders encountered civilian hostility or resentment towards them, they responded with a form of counter-insurgency consisting of what scholars today call ‘exemplary repression’: murder and mayhem with fire and sword among civilian communities in order to dissuade others from supporting the resistance. The methods developed in Ethiopia would be used in the other countries invaded by Italy - notably Yugoslavia, where the military commanders were often the very same generals who had honed their techniques in Ethiopia. And the same methods would be followed by the Nazis in Poland and Russia.
The “reign of terror” explicitly prescribed for Ethiopia in mid-1936 by Mussolini, which Marshal Rodolfo Graziani eagerly implemented, consisted largely of mass reprisals for actual or imaginary offences against the invading forces. Many atrocities were perpetrated against individuals, including beheading and skinning alive, the most popular being the burning to death of families inside their homes. But the methods also included large-scale outrages such as (i) the Massacre of Addis Ababa, in which some 20,000 unarmed men, women and children were slaughtered in an orgy of mayhem and depravity ordered by the Fascist Party, led by Blackshirts, and condemned by the American ambassador at the time as being comparable only to the Armenian massacres; (ii) the murder of the Young Ethiopians - a pogrom ordered by Graziani and implemented by the carabinieri and the regular army in which a generation of educated Ethiopians was decimated for no other reason than for being intellectuals; and (iii) the Massacre of Gogetti, a village in which Mussolini personally ordered the execution of every male over the age of 16 years.
Atrocities in the second half of 1936 and the first half of 1937 were concentrated primarily on a pogrom against the clergy of the Ethiopian Church, who had been publicly denounced by several of the senior Italian clergy as “schismatics”, and “obstacles” to the future of the Roman Church in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Church was also perceived by the invading forces to be a threat, propagating the spirit of the nation.
The persecution of the Ethiopian Church was focused particularly on Ethiopia’s premier monastery: the 13th-century Monastery of Debre Libanos, which over the centuries had produced some of Ethiopia’s most illustrious theologians, including, as we have seen, one of the founders of the state church of Italy. Indeed, despite the long-standing connections and mutual respect between Debre Libanos and the Vatican, one of the first and most public atrocities against the Ethiopian Church was the execution of Abune (Bishop) Petros, a highly revered and righteous holy father of Debre Libanos who refused to collaborate with the Italian high command in Addis Ababa. Refusing to withdraw his condemnation of the invasion and accompanying atrocities, he asked, “How would I ever face my God if I do not condemn a crime of such magnitude?” Machine-gunned in public while still holding his cross in blessing, he became one of the first official Christian martyrs of the Italian occupation.
The Massacre of Debre Libanos was a deliberate act of large-scale exemplary repression, and ‘memory’ as distilled and documented by historians from the fragmentary Italian communiqués suggested that around 450 clergy were executed. This had thus long been the popular narrative, but in-depth research conducted locally in the 1990s established that in reality the death-toll was around 2,000 Christian monks, priests, deacons and pilgrims.
The Monastery of Debre Libanos being founded by St Tekle Haymanot, and many ‘daughter’ monasteries and churches having since been established over the centuries, this great massacre was followed by the country-wide persecution of the House of Tekle Haymanot – a series of massacres in which several other ancient monasteries were destroyed and their monks put to the sword.
The question for our panel session this morning is: How could the invading Italians – most of whom had never killed a person in their life before arriving in Ethiopia – have descended to such barbaric and shameful behaviour, and on such a massive scale? There were several factors at work, including a decade of demonisation of the Ethiopians by Mussolini’s government, and the certainty that the soldiers would not be punished for their actions. But above all, the invaders were imbued with an overwhelming sense of mission. Almost all (99%) of Italians were Catholic, and some of the most senior members of the Italian Catholic clergy were vociferous cheer-leaders of the invasion, making public declarations to convince the troops that they were doing God’s work, and even handing over their holy artifacts of gold to be melted down to finance the invasion. The soldiers were informed repeatedly that the invasion of Ethiopia was a crusade, and indeed that is what it became: a replica of a medieval crusade with the same heady mixture of arrogance, courage, idealism, cruelty and greed. And to reinforce the message even further, picture-postcards were produced in their thousands, showing Christ or the Virgin Mary hovering over the troops to guide them into Ethiopia - again reassuring them that the invasion had the blessing of the Catholic Church, and indeed that it represented the will of God. In summary, some of the senior clergy forgot their holy vows and abused their religion for nationalistic and political purposes.
The Vatican and Mussolini’s government had got themselves into something of an unholy alliance, and Fascism had appropriated much of the iconography of the Catholic Church, and even its prayers. It is then not surprising that the Party distributed picture-postcards with images remarkably similar to those distributed by the Church, showing iconic figures such as Minerva, the Ancient Roman Goddess of War exalted in Italian Fascism. Others showed Mother Italy, portrayed as Magna Mater, a pagan deity believed to protect cities, wearing a turreted crown symbolising Rome. Borne aloft above the advancing Blackshirts, these deities guided them to their providential destiny. In short, Fascism masqueraded as a religion.
The dangerous mixture of religion and politics had the desired result; the invading troops were, in effect, transformed. We cannot close the book on their misdeeds by dismissing them as evil monsters. The truth is more frightening: they were ordinary people, like us. This is the greatest single lesson of the martyrdoms of Ethiopia. Both commanders and the rank-and-file had been conditioned to do whatever they thought was necessary to establish the “reign of terror” and “the destruction of everything” as ordered, and with the apparent approval of the Almighty. Their consciences were clear. This surely explains why in photographs of unspeakable atrocities, they and their commanders are smiling happily, like school-children on a day-trip.
For those of us who are too young to remember these terrible events, it is worth remembering that they did not occur in the mists of ancient history; they happened within living memory. Three examples make the point: Firstly, over the last 25 years I myself have personally interviewed many eye-witnesses of these atrocities. Secondly, the canonisation of Martyr Saint Abune Petros, and the establishment of a church in his name, took place quite recently, in 2009, under His Holiness the late Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who assisted me in my research, and who, being a champion of inter-faith dialogue, was a great supporter of the Sant’Egidio Community. And thirdly, another of the many Ethiopian martyrs of the Italian occupation, Simi’on Adefris, a devout young Catholic who suffered a terrible death in Graziani’s torture chambers for resisting the occupation of his country, was the uncle of Cardinal Berhaneyesus, today Archbishop of the Ethiopian Catholic Church. Clearly, the memories and impacts of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia are still with us today.
As the driving forces behind the death of the Ethiopian Christian martyrs become clear, the lessons learned for tomorrow are self-evident. We must condemn those who would abuse religion for political purposes, just as we must be on our guard against those who would disguise politics as religion. And those in a position to be heard should speak out before evil can triumph.
If these lessons can be taken to heart, and consequently progress made in the spirit of Sant’Egidio to ensure that such horrors will never happen again, then the forgotten martyrs of Ethiopia will not have died in vain.