Abyssinian's Ethiopian Visit

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[Africa News Update]

After nearly 200 years Abyssinia returned to Ethiopia.

A delegation of 150 members of the renowned New York City-based Abyssinia Baptist church, trailed by a Fox News television crew and others recently visited Ethiopia.

The two-week trip was a pilgrimage to the spiritual motherland of the church, but it was also a way to launch Abyssinia's bicentennial.

In November 2008 the church will be 200 years old, and a lot is planned to celebrate the event. The church was founded nearly two centuries ago when Ethiopian merchants, denied access to a white downtown church in New York, founded their own house of worship. It is now one of the best known churches in the United States and political office aspirants pay calls of respect every election season and in between.

During their recent journey in Ethiopia, many of the church members had quite an experience. The first week all members went up north, which is one of Ethiopia's historical sites.

They went to the rock hewn churches of Lalibella, built somewhere around the 11th -12th  centuries. They visited the castle of Gondar, or what is left of it, built some six centuries ago. They also visited the medical school there. Then it was off to Bahir Dar, a city known for being close to the birthplace of the Blue Nile which goes to Sudan and then later in Egypt. It also hosts several monasteries that hold some very old religious artifacts.

The church members also went to Axum and Mekelle. Axum was the place of an ancient kingdom that left traces visible up until today with its obelisks. Mekelle is the capital of the Tigray region, this where all the top leaders in Ethiopia come from. It is a shame that the delegation didn't see the South, nor the East or the centre for that matter. They likely visited only where their hosts invited them to.

At the Holy Trinity cathedral, during a special celebration hosted by the Abouna Paulos, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, members of the delegation offered an impression of their trip here.  C. Virginia Fields, the former Manhattan borough president was a member of the visiting delegation—she has been a member of the church for 25 years. "As we go back, we are now in a better position collectively to make recommendations to the church, to the African-American community throughout New York City and beyond," she said, of the trip, whose purpose was to learn and assess.

"This is an absolutely beautiful country as we traveled throughout the countryside,” she added. “The people are some of the gracious, some of the most respectful people I have ever met, and I have traveled through other parts. There is a spirit."

Vi Lilly, another member for 24 years, was also struck by the journey:

"We've been talking about it for years and years and we've never been able to consummate it. Everyone has embraced us like sisters and brothers. It's been an extraordinary experience. It's the highlight of my life."

Lauren Green, Fox News religion correspondent, also took part in this  project. The channel is preparing a documentary on Abyssinia. Her journey was a bit of a shock, she said. "It is an odd combination. I have never seen so much poverty; that's why I am a little confused. Is this poverty or is this just working poor? I am also struck by the progress here. Ethiopia is in transition," she said.

Green agreed that the experience was spiritual for her too: "What is surprising to a lot of us was that Ethiopia is mainly Christian. There's a large Muslim population as well but Christianity came so soon. I don't think many people in America even knew that."

The reverend Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of Abyssinian, knew a lot more about the History of the Ethiopian church, which is celebrating almost two thousand years of existence. Ethiopia converted to Christianity way before Europeans did. The introduction of this monotheist religion goes back to the 4th century AD, and it wasn't through war nor colonization that it happened.

Listening to Butts’ commanding voice it was easy to see how pastors, back in the days of Civil Rights Movement, managed to rally such huge crowds. It is a skill that very few people have. Butts seems to have enjoyed his trip, which for health reasons had been postponed twice before.

"Since our arrival here on September 16th we have experienced life altering events, challenging to reach new levels of spirituality," Butts told media here. "Our journey with Ethiopia is just beginning," he added, explaining this Abyssinia Baptist Church pilgrimage, will not be their last.

The church delegation also met with U.S ambassador to Ethiopia, Donal Yamamoto and with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and with officials from Addis Ababa University.

One wonders as to the level of openness accorded the group. The University is extremely divided ethnically—especially with Tigreans and Oromos. Police in the past have targeted and arrested students. The belief is that there some students who keep tabs on others on behalf of state security agents.

The university president, Indrias Eshete, is unpopular and students talk about deteriorating education conditions. Even though the trip was billed primarily as a spiritual, cultural and historical journey, prominent Americans can't come to Ethiopia and completely avoid the political minefields. Although Butts tried to stay clear of politics, there were many unanswered questions.

Despite some undeniable achievements in this country, like infrastructure and the industry sector growth, there is still a lot do as far as human rights are concerned. Independent groups such as Ethiopian Human Rights Council  (EHRCO) have done a brave job documenting conditions, including in Oromiya. Some staff were even detained for four months, then released.

An urbane and well informed pastor, he must be aware of the political situation here. One might wonder why, given the clear need for more outside pressure, the reverend would be against the Congressional Bill that calls for democratization, leveling the playing field for the opposition and even a visa ban for officials suspected of human rights abuse.

On a positive note, let's hope the trip will bring a better bondage between both African and African-American communities, often divided because of stereotypes and misinformation.

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