The Ethiopian Genocide and Church Collaboration: Does Anyone Remember?

IMG 0068 3rd october 2019 by mario alexis portella

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3rd october 2019 by mario alexis portella

Italian soldiers gather around bodies of Ethiopians they had just slaughtered.

Many have heard of the Armenian genocide during Word War I, an atrocity that both Turkish and United States governments still refuse to accept. Yet how many are aware of an equally horrible extermination of Christians that began in October 1935 when Italy invaded Ethiopia in which the Italians under Benito Mussolini killed approximately one million Ethiopian Orthodox Christian men, women, and children, in addition to destroying 2,000 churches, 525,000 homes? What made this atrocity worse than the Armenian is that Mussolini’s operations had the approval of most of Italian Catholic churchmen.

Members of the Italian hierarchy and the clergy — most of them being fascists — took a clear position in favor of the Italian war against Ethiopia and gave every possible support, moral and material, to the fascist leaders and the army in their adventure of invading Ethiopia:

  • The Archbishop of Taranto Ferdinando Bernardi on February 23, 1936, saidThe Italian victory would open Ethiopia, a country of infidels and schismatics, to the expansion of the Catholic faith; therefore the war against Ethiopia should be considered as a holy war, as a crusade.
  • The Bishop of San Miniato Ugo Giubbi assured assured Mussolini “for the victory of Italy the Italian clergy are ready to melt down the gold of the churches and the bronze of the bells.”
  • The Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster, speaking in his Cathedral on October 28, 1935, praised the Italian army as“The gallant army which, in fearless obedience to the command of the fatherland, is opening the gates of Ethiopia to the Catholic faith and the Roman civilization.” 

At every opportune occasion they made chauvinistic speeches in favor of Mussolini’s policy of war. The Italian hierarchy not only blessed the departing regiments and their colors, but also delivered war-mongering speeches and wrote circular letters justifying the Italian war in Ethiopia — also known as Abyssinia — and protesting against the League of Nations and Great Britain for imposing sanctions against Italy.

The United States under President Roosevelt distanced itself from the Ethiopian situation. In fact, prior to the invasion, Roosevelt remarked, on 26 July 1935, that the conflict between Ethiopia and Italy was of no interest to America. Claiming to act under the Neutrality Law, he refused to help the victimized country or uphold the sanctions imposed by the League of Nations against Italy, and he did not give any assistance to the Ethiopians against their aggressors. Apparently, in the quest for a balance of power, Nazi Germany offered supplies to the Ethiopian rebels in order to coerce Mussolini to withdraw his support for an independent Austria. The Ducerelented in his position three months after the Germans occupied Austria following the Anschluss of 1938, for which he acquired German recognition of his Abyssinian conquest as legitimate. And even though the Soviet Union condemned the invasion, Stalin supplied Italy with oil, supplies of wheat, coal, oats and timber in support of the Fascists.

Public execution of Ethiopian Christians

In June 1936, Hailé Sellassié gave a speech to the League of Nations, in which he condemned Italy’s use of chemical weapons against Ethiopia. He also accused the League of Nations of violating Article 16 of its Covenant, which states that should any member of the League resort to war “in disregard to its covenants under Articles 12, 13 or 15, it shall ipso facto [automatically] be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other Members of the League.” Sellassié also criticized the League of Nations for permitting Italy to use the Suez Canal to transport troops and war material. He stated that “sprayers were installed on board aircraft so that they could vaporize over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another so that, from the end of January 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes, and fields were constantly drenched with this deadly rain.”

Italian soldiers pose with one of the many mustard bombs used to kill Ethiopians

The illustrious Abune Petros also publicly condemned the atrocities committed by the Italians, which included “the use of mustard gas, the bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances, the execution of captured prisoners without trial, the Graziani massacre, the killings at Debre Libanos monastery, and the shooting of ‘witch-doctors’ accused of prophesying the end of Fascist rule.” On 30 July 1936, he was publicly executed by 8 carabinieri in the center of Addis Ababa. Prior to his execution, he took his hand cross and removed the blue cloth that was wrapped around it and blessed the people at the four corners of the world and said the following last words: “My countrymen do not believe the fascists if they tell you that the patriots are bandits; the patriots are people who yearn for freedom from the terrors of Fascism. The bandits are the soldiers who are standing in front of me and you, who come from afar, terrorise and violently occupy a weak and peaceful country: our Ethiopia. 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.”                                  


General Rodolfo, who in 1937 authorized the massacre of 270 monks of the ancient Monastery of Debre Libanos, as well as a large number of pilgrims, who had traveled there to celebrate the feast day of the founding saint of the monastery; its treasures were apparently taken to Italy.

Graziani was replaced as Viceroy of Ethiopia by Prince Amedeo in 1937. After the Italians declared war against the United Kingdom, the British launched a counter-invasion in Ethiopia in January 1941; they pulled out altogether from Abyssinia later that year. Graziani was convicted for war crimes in 1948. He received a sentence of 19 years’ imprisonment, of which he served for only two years; he died in 1955. In 2012, the Italian state built a mausoleum and memorial park in his honor in the village of Affile, south of Rome. The town mayor, Ercole Viri, as well as some state officials, were present for its opening ceremony. Viri exalted the “importance of the sacrifice” Graziani gave for his country and dismissed his criticisms of the Butcher of Ethiopia as “idle chatter.” 

Cardinal Schuster changed his position on the war in Ethiopia, but after the tragedies. On April 25, 1945, he met with Mussolini in an unsuccessful attempt to mediate between him and the Allied Forces to end World War II — Schuster was beatified by Pope John Paul II on May 12, 1996. Eventually, the only free voice in Italy for the Ethiopians was to be that of Pope Pius XI (1923-1939). Many erroneously have sustained that Pius XI blessed the Italian onslaught because he wanted to expand Roman Catholicism in Abyssinia. It is true that the pope publicly observed neutrality in application of Article 24 of the Lateran Treaty of 1929. If the pope were to betray this neutrality, the Vatican City State could have been forced to forfeit its sovereignty and independence. Neutrality, however, does not mean indifference, and the Pope and Vatican diplomacy concerned themselves over the consequences of the would-be Italian campaign in Ethiopia.

Pope Pius XI with Ethiopian and Eritrean students at the Pontifical Ethiopian College, he co-founded with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, in Vatican City.

From January 1935, the Vatican knew that Mussolini planned an attack against Ethiopia, which placed the Church in an extremely delicate dilemma. Nevertheless, on August 27, 1935, just a couple of months before the declaration of war and of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Pius XI made the following declaration in a public audience to a group of about 2,000 international obstetricians: “We already see that, in foreign lands, war of conquest is spoken of as an offensive war: behold, a presumption to which We do not even wish, for it is against free thinking, hence, it is a shortsighted opinion. A war which was only of conquest would evidently be an unjust war. This is a passing thought in every mind, a thing that is unspeakably sad and horrible. We cannot think in favor of an unjust war, we cannot admit its possibility and we deliberately reject it.”

And on October 23, 1938, the pope told his aid Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi: “I  am ashamed of being Italian. And you, Father, please tell Mussolini! Not as Pope but rather as an Italian, I am ashamed of myself! The Italian people has become a flock of stupid sheep. I shall speak out, I will not be afraid. I am impelled by the Concordat [Lateran Treaty], but even more by my conscience… I am truly saddened, as Pope and as an Italian.”


N. B. All quotations and images, unless otherwise noted, are from my book Ethiopian and Eritrean Monasticism: The Spiritual and Cultural Heritage of Two Nations.

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