Abune Petros (1892-1936) was born near Fiche. His given name at birth was Haile Mariam. He studied to become an Orthodox Church priest, and he became a monk at the age of 24. He taught in the Fiche area, at the Debre-Menkrat monastery in Wolamo, and at the island Church of Mary in Lake Zewai. In June 1929, he was appointed Bishop of Wollo and was given the patriarchic name Abuna Petros. When the Italo-Ethiopian war began in 1935, he accompanied Emperor Haile Selassie in the northern campaign and witnessed the horrific effects of poison gas attacks on civilians. When Ethiopian forces lost battle after battle largely due to the illegal use of poison-gas on combatants and civilians by Italian invading forces, the Emperor left Ethiopia to go into exile. The invading army managed to take the capital of Addis Ababa on May 5, 1936 and also to annex and occupy a large part of country by the end of the year.
During Fascist Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia, Abune Petros took refuge in Debre Libanos Monastry in Shoa Province not far from Addis Ababa. However, he moved back to Addis Ababa when the Patriots’ Resistance Movement began a nation-wide war of resistance. Through his preaching and teachings in the capital, he reminded Ethiopians to stand up for their belief and conviction that God would redeem Ethiopia and her people sooner or later. Italian occupation authorities looked at his preaching and teaching as incitement to resist the occupation and asked him to stop. He replied by saying: “The cry of my countrymen who died due to your nerve-gas and terror machinery will never allow my conscience to accept your ultimatum. How can I see my God if I turn a blind eye to such a crime?”
In the summer of 1936, when an attempted insurrection in the capital failed, Petros was arrested and tortured for having spoken out against the occupying army. In a hurried trial, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. His final words before his execution were: “May God give the people of Ethiopia the strength to resist and never bow down to the fascist army and its violence. May the Ethiopian earth never accept the invading army’s rule.”
In 1946, Emperor Haile Selassie dedicated a monument in honor of Abuna Petros at the newly christened Abuna Petros Square on a main road to the Merkato in Addis Ababa. He delivered the following speech at the unveiling of the monument.
We today commemorate the martyrdom of an Ethiopian patriot who consecrated with his blood the place on which we now stand, in defense of the principles of religion and of uncompromising resistance against the forces of aggression. The Monument which We have unveiled, distinguishes the square where the Church Leader, Abuna Petros, was shot by the Italian aggressors in July 1936. His crime was that of being an Ethiopian and leader of the Ethiopian church, a leader that shrank not from condemning before the world the immorality of the Fascist regime. His death, which had been ordered amongst the first of those sought by the Fascists, marked the importance which the aggressor attached to the destruction of the basis of Ethiopian culture and standards of conduct. It also marked the culminating point in the bitter struggle in the course of which the enemy systematically burned and destroyed churches throughout Our Empire.
The death of Abuna Petros marked a significant point in a struggle characterized by the use of a proscribed means of warfare, such as poison gas, the burning of villages and homes, the murder of non-combatants and the aged, and by attempting systematically to abase the moral standards and the culture of the country through terrorism, the slaughter of the educated classes and the total destruction of schools. His death likewise preceded the massacres of February 1937 and those that followed. How many victims bear witness here today, with broken lives, to the depths of those atrocities?
It is a sad commentary on the state of the world of that period which tolerated the brutalities and the campaigns of unspeakable atrocities in Ethiopia. We ask, had the world refused to tolerate those immoralities, if it had reacted with energy against those violations of international law, might we not have spared the countless deaths and sacrifices of the last ten years? This monument, although far from the battlefields of Europe, has, therefore, a significance that transcends the frontiers of Ethiopia and the confines of the Continent of Africa and unites the dead of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian and British heroes, with those of El Alamein, of Salerno, of Stalingrad, of Normandy, and of Okinawa. […]
We will now turn to the period of peace at which we have by the Grace of God, at last arrived. It is necessary that the Governments of the United Nations who are now working for the reconstruction of World Peace should be guided by the principles of impartiality so that they shall lay down a solid and proper foundation stone for a system of peace which shall out-live generations. If the condition of the peace is such as will satisfy the conscience and sense of justice of men, if it is assured to human kind that they shall toil and live happily under a just system in which no discrimination will be made between small and great, then the peace system that shall be laid down can leave a heritage for the coming generation which will be full of happy life and boundless prosperity. […]
All [Ethiopia] needs are institutions and schools to filter and assimilate her ancient culture with modern culture. As you all know, before Ethiopia was invaded by the enemy, We did all that could be done to advance education in spite of all the difficulties that had to be encountered. The products of Our schools have been put to trial both in peace time as in the time of Ethiopia’s calamity. At this moment let us remember all those who have been hunted and murdered by the enemy. […]
Source: Selected Speeches of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, 1918—1967. Addis Ababa: Imperial Ministry of Information, 1967.
An earlier version of this article appeared in an annual publication entitled Ethiopian Calendar 2005 E.C. 2012/13 G.C. with Primary Sources.
This article, received in 2018, was written by Gabeyehu (Gabe) Adugna, Subject/Liaison Librarian at the African Studies Library at Boston University, Boston, Massachussetts, U.S.A.