A North End Ethiopian church has been riven by allegations of missing funds, bad governance and intimidation, and now the internal strife may end up in court.
Four dissident members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church on Mountain Avenue have received letters from the church's lawyer banning them from Sunday services. In response, the dissidents, many of whom founded the local church 20 years ago, 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.
The dissidents, part of a group of 20, have also demanded an accounting of thousands of dollars in donations they say ended up in the priest's personal bank account.
"This is Canada. You can't do things like they did back home," said Lemma Mekonnen, who was among seven of the dissidents who sat down with the Free Press recently. "You have to be accountable. We say, 'No, what you're doing is not right.' We just don't have the stomach to keep quiet."
'This is Canada. You can't do things like they did back home... You have to be accountable. We say, No, what you're doing is not right. We just don't have the stomach to keep quiet.'
In a statement issued through Winnipeg lawyer Alfred Thiessen, the church's board of directors disputed all those allegations: "These false statements have all been addressed internally to the full and complete satisfaction of its membership and the congregation's support for Aba Fikreselasie Tsegaw Terefe remains steadfast."
The trouble began about a year ago when questions arose about more than $300,000 raised to build a new cathedral and multicultural centre. Progress on planning the cathedral appeared to be stalled, and some church members asked for a full accounting of the fundraising.
In its statement to the Free Press, the church's board did not respond to specific questions about the cathedral donations.
Among some congregants, the issue dredged up old questions about the fate of a $65,000 donation the church authorized to monasteries and religious schools back in Ethiopia. In 2006, a cheque was cut to the priest and deposited in his account with the expectation he would personally deliver the cash while on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia. The dissidents, some of whom are physicians, accountants and civil servants, say the fate of the money is murky, and they have repeatedly demanded an accounting of where exactly it was donated.
The CRA also asked for an explanation in 2008. In a letter to the CRA, church board members acknowledged the cash had been deposited into the priest's account with the full approval of the board. It's not clear whether that answer satisfied the CRA.
In recent years, the dissidents allege, the church's board has been largely hand-picked by the priest. Proper elections haven't been held for years, and it's been impossible for parishioners to get board minutes and financial statements, they say.
In April, the church's board drafted new bylaws the dissidents say give the priest almost complete power over the board, instead of vice versa.
The dissidents say proper governance is especially important given the church's central place in the lives of new immigrants, their cultural reverence for the priest and the tradition of the tithe, in which members give a significant portion of their incomes to the church.
"The priest controls almost everything," said dissident Berhanu Balcha. "The congregants should elect the board members so they are accountable to the congregation... Instead, they are spending the money we gave them to pay for lawyers to expel us from the church."
The new bylaws do allow the board to deny church services to people "deemed a dangerous agent that destabilizes the church's existence."
That's what happened in October, when four dissident church members received a letter from Thiessen saying the church had revoked their membership. The letter also threatened legal action should the four try to attend Sunday services or contact the priest.
"... You, in concert with three other individuals, have for a number of months now been conspiring to cause dissension among the church's membership and have to that end openly challenged the legitimacy of the church's bylaw and the authority of Aba Fikreselasie Tsegaw Terefe," wrote the lawyer in October.
In an interview, Thiessen also said the congregation voted to support the termination letters during a meeting last month. The new church bylaws were also approved by an overwhelming majority of parishioners earlier this year.
In response, the dissidents made a formal complaint to the Canada Revenue Agency in October asking for an investigation into the bylaw changes, the fate of the $65,000, and the lack of audited financial statements. Since many church members claim donations at income tax time, Mekonnen says taxpayers have a stake in how the church is run.
Staff at the CRA said they cannot confirm whether an investigation has been launched. But they said charities that alter bylaws or governance structure are normally expected to alert the CRA.
This fall, the internal strife prompted some raucous church meetings complete with security guards. The strife has spilled onto the Internet and into local Ethiopian hangouts. Flyers denouncing the dissidents have been dropped at coffee shops and stores frequented by the city's Ethiopian expats.
The dissident members can't appeal to church officials. After Ethiopia's military junta fell in 1991, the faith suffered a schism and it's not clear who has authority over the Winnipeg church.