The exiled patriarch of Ethiopia’s powerful Orthodox Church, Bishop Merkorios, has returned home to the capital, Addis Ababa, after 27 years.
Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met him in the US last week and persuaded him to reconcile with a rival faction of the church.
He was greeted by his followers, who sang and ululated in welcome.
The church split in the early 1990s after Mengistu Haile Mariam’s communist regime was overthrown.
Politics and the church are closely intertwined in Ethiopia – and Bishop Merkorios was perceived to represent the diaspora and opposition in exile.
As there are now two patriarchs, Bishop Merkorios will be responsible for the spiritual aspects of the church, while Bishop Mr Mathias will be in charge of the day-to-day affairs.
The reunification of the church signals that Mr Abiy, who become prime minister in April, is succeeding in his efforts to promote reconciliation among Ethiopians, reports BBC Amharic’s Kalkidan Yibeltal from Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church split
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church can trace its roots back to the fourth century – and is one of the oldest organised Christian bodies in the world. It used to be part of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church, but appointed its own patriarch in 1959.
Bishop Merkorios was forced to abdicate after the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
His followers objected, saying the role of patriarch is held for life. The cleric escaped to the US, where a rival synod was established.
In his place Bishop Paulos was elected as patriarch in 1992, becoming the first person from the Tigray ethnic group to head the church. When he passed away in 2012, Bishop Mathias was elected to replace him.
More than 40% of Ethiopia’s population of about 100 million are adherents of the Orthodox church
Ethiopia has some of the word’s oldest churches, including rock-hewn churches, which are a World Heritage Site, in Lalibella in northern Ethiopia.