SCHOLL: The king and I: from prisoner to patriarch

November 18, 2012 

Well, he wasn’t a king, exactly; I stole the title from a Broadway play. He was a patriarch in Orthodox Christianity. There are about 19 patriarchs: Greek, Russian, etc. Each patriarch is revered by all one-half billion Orthodox Christians as Roman Catholics do Pope Benedict XVI.

When I met him, Paulos was a bishop in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a church reaching back to the third century A.D. We met at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya. Having attended the same graduate school, Princeton Theological Seminary, he was keen to hear about Princeton since he left. I remember thinking him a very friendly and distinguished man.

After Nairobi, Bishop Paulos returned home to Addis Ababa. Unknown to me, he was arrested along with the Patriarch Theophilos. To control the country, communists had to control the Ethiopian church as well as the contrary church leaders who resisted government control.

Paulos was imprisoned; he remained there for years. He needed his family to bring him food since his captors provided no prisoner with anything. The jail cells were huge and filled beyond limits. Not all had people bring them food, so Paulos taught fellow prisoners to share so no one starved. Still, they never knew if it was their day to be shot.

Patriarch Theophilos was executed. In some parts of the world it takes a very special person to accept a call to religious leadership.

Following the conference, I was a guest of Bishop Samuel of the Egyptian Orthodox (Coptic) Church in Cairo. Bishop Samuel was also a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary; he too wanted to hear of the changes at Princeton. He was gentle man, a unique and much loved church leader. Six years later he would be shot to death with Anwar Sadat.

Several years later, on one of my annual trips to Princeton, I ran into Paulos in the cafeteria; his story was incredible. After seven years of being under the communist thumb, Paulos was released from prison and he quickly fled the country. He found his way back to Princeton where, in exile, he worked on a Ph.D. and pastored an Ethiopian congregation in New York City.

I took Paulos to his favorite restaurant where I pestered him to tell me more about his ordeal. It was a steak house and he was particularly fond of the popcorn appetizer. I sat in awe when I heard of the sacrifices he made for his faith.

As we sat in the restaurant, Paulos told me of the abuse to his niece and nephew. At midnight, communist soldiers had invaded their home and one, standing on the kitchen table, threatened these kids with his submachine gun. Paulos needed to get them out of Ethiopia. This began an adventure that would seal our friendship forever.

Naïve words slipped out of my mouth before I could think. I would help. I had but only one small asset to offer -- to the point of obnoxiousness -- I rarely took “no” for an answer. There were a couple months of persuading the U.S. Department of State to help, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa. There were bribes to communist government officials.

The Greek Orthodox Church in Athens provided a lot of help with airfare and the two kids were on their way to America. Instantly, I was a father.

Hiwot and Tadesse received political asylum because of the persecution for being related to Bishop Paulos. Tadesse graduated Magna Cum Laude from college and received an medical degree from John Hopkins Medical School. He was the first person to discover a dangerous parasite in South America and published over 70 articles in medical journals.

Today, Hiwot is a nurse and Tadesse is a high level official in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where he works on public health issues in various countries. Kazakhstan changed their laws according to his recommendations and other former Soviet bloc countries are considering it.

His work with AIDS prevention in Ethiopia and Uganda is saving millions of lives. Bishop Paulos, Ph.D., continued his ministry in New York City while overseeing scores of Ethiopian congregations in this country. One day, on the city street, he came across the very man who imprisoned him. Paulos’ persecutor needed to flee Ethiopia and he lied his way into the U.S. Several times my contact at the State Department asked me to get the name of this communist abuser. Paulos would never tell me. He said he forgave him.

The Communist government in Ethiopia fell. Paulos returned home very concerned about the survival of ancient biblical texts important to scholars worldwide. Upon his return, a vote by the archbishops made Paulos the new patriarch. He was one of the most educated church leaders in the world. He was a president of the World Council of Churches. He addressed the United Nations three times that I know about.

I accompanied him to the Carter Center to meet with the former President Jimmy Carter. He met world leaders continually. Under his leadership a serious rift with the Egyptian Orthodox was healed. He helped negotiate an end to the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Paulos found a way to peacefully work with the Islamic community and other churches in his country. He delicately negotiated continuing church/state issues in Ethiopia.

Widely known as a humble man of peace, he was awarded the Nansen Medal by the United Nations for his promotion of peace and his work with refugees. From the depths of prison wondering when he would be shot, to patriarch who negotiates an end to a war,

Patriarch Paulos was an inspiring man, who lived his faith every day of his life. His example inspired many far beyond the boundary of Ethiopia to many who never met him. His life lives, also, in others who were close to him, such as his niece, a nurse and his nephew who became an incredible asset to humanity. Paulos’ legacy will be remembered for a long, long time.

The road for religious leaders is not always easy. Paulos followed his faith, and it allowed him to lead; he led others to lives of love and service to others, especially to those in need. I am lucky to have known him; he will always be a king to me.

Paulos died last August. Too few people know the details of his life; his gifts to the world would fill pages. Paulos was a saint the world was blessed to have.

Tom Scholl is a resident of Macon. He writes every other week for The Telegraph.

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