Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Politics at root of quarrels, say church members

'We do not have political agenda:' dissidents

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Congregation members receive communion at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on Mountain Avenue.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Congregation members receive communion at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on Mountain Avenue. Photo Store

It's not money, bad bylaws, or a too-powerful priest causing a rift in a Winnipeg Ethiopian Orthodox church, but politics back home.

That's according to more than two dozen church members who say a group of dissidents is wielding accusations of financial mismanagement and bad governance to weaken the church, because most parishioners do not support the current regime in Ethiopia.

The dissidents, several of whom helped to found the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church on Mountain Avenue years ago, have complained formally to the Canada Revenue Agency about $65,000 in charitable donations they say ended up in the priest's personal bank account.

They've also raised concerns about improper board elections, the lack of financial transparency and new bylaws that appear to invest significant power in the hands of the priest instead of the board.

In turn, the church's board hired a lawyer last fall, barred the dissidents from Sunday services, and threatened legal action.

But church members, who gathered recently to offer their version of the rift following a story last month in the Winnipeg Free Press, say the real trouble began a year ago when Ethiopia's repressive Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died.

The dissidents wanted to pray for Zenawi, but other church members balked at praying for a leader whose regime was noted by Human Rights Watch for its "harsh intolerance for any criticism of government actions and a sharp decline in freedoms of expression and association."

"That's why we're here (in Canada)," said Tigist Aderu, a church member. "There was no sense praying for a prime minister we fled from."

In fact, church members say some of the dissidents are so close to the Ethiopian regime that the Ethiopian consulate in Canada asks visa applicants to secure letters of support from some of the dissidents before applying for a return visit to the African country.

"This has nothing to do with the money," said Ali Hussien Saeed, a leader with the Ethiopian Society of Winnipeg who is not a member of the church but knows many of the its members. "This is about politics."

The dissidents say that's nonsense, a ploy by the priest to twist legitimate internal issues into something political to further fracture the church and Winnipeg's Ethiopian community.

In an interview Sunday, dissident Lemma Mekonnen said few in the 20-plus group support the current Ethiopian regime and some dissidents actively opposed it. The issue of visa letters is pure fabrication, he said.

"We only want law and order in our church," said Berhanu Balcha, a Winnipeg physician. "We do not have a political agenda."

Since the church is a registered charity, dissidents have made a formal complaint to the Canada Revenue Agency asking the CRA to investigate what they say is a board hand-picked by the priest, Aba Fikreselasie Tsegaw Terefe, who has rewritten the bylaws to give himself more power. Proper elections haven't been held for years, and it's been impossible for parishioners to get board minutes and financial statements, say the dissidents.

And, the dissidents have concerns about more than $300,000 raised to build a new cathedral and multicultural centre as well as the fate of $65,000 given to the priest in 2006.

The cash was meant to be passed on to monasteries and religious schools in Ethiopia when the priest returned on a pilgrimage. The dissidents say the fate of the money is murky, and they have repeatedly demanded an accounting of where it was donated.

The CRA does not discuss complaints or ongoing investigations, but the dissidents said Sunday the CRA has told them it is launching an audit of the church.

Church members, none of whom serve on the board, said they had full confidence in the integrity of their priest and in the proper governance of their church. They balked at accusations the priest orchestrated changes to the bylaws to invest himself with more power, and said the board continues to have final say on financial matters.

Though the priest does suggest names for the church's board, church members can and do vote to approve those names, just as they voted to approve the bylaws in an open meeting.

Church members say they are confident the church's finances are in order and that the $65,000 donation was ultimately passed on to monasteries in Ethiopia as intended.

"We all know the money is there," said Aderu.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 6, 2014 A6

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