NAIROBI, Kenya — The head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in his first public comments on the war in the country's Tigray region is sharply criticizing Ethiopia's actions, saying he believes it's genocide: "They want to destroy the people of Tigray."
In a video shot last month on a mobile phone and carried out of Ethiopia, the elderly Patriarch Abune Mathias addresses the church's scores of millions of followers and the international community, saying his previous attempts to speak out were blocked. He is ethnic Tigrayan.
The video comes as the conflict in Tigray marks six months. Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting between Ethiopian and allied forces and Tigray ones, the result of a political struggle that turned deadly in November. Dozens of witnesses have told the AP that civilians are targeted.
"I am not clear why they want to declare genocide on the people of Tigray," Abune Mathias says, speaking in Amharic and listing alleged atrocities including the destruction of churches, massacres, forced starvation and looting. "It is not the fault of the Tigray people. The whole world should know it."
He calls for strength, adding that "this bad season might pass away." And he urges the world to act.
The comments are a striking denunciation from someone so senior inside Ethiopia, where state media reflect the government's narrative and both independent journalists and Tigrayans have been intimidated and harassed. The video also comes as Ethiopia, facing multiple crises of sometimes deadly ethnic tensions, faces a national election on June 5.
Dennis Wadley, who runs the U.S.-based Bridges of Hope organization and has been a friend of the church leader for several years, told the AP he shot the video in an impulsive moment while visiting him last month in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.
"I just pulled out my iPhone and said if you want to get the word out, let's do it," Wadley said on Friday after arriving in the U.S. "He just poured out his heart. … It's so sad. I actually hugged him; I never did that before."
A church official reached on Friday confirmed the video and the interest of Abune Mathias in making it public. The church patriarch serves alongside a recently returned exile, Abune Merkorios.
"I have said a lot of things but no one allows the message to be shared. Rather, it is being stifled and censored," Abune Mathias says in the video.
"Many barbarisms have been conducted" these days all over Ethiopia, he says, but "what is happening in Tigray is of the highest brutality and cruelty."
God will judge everything, he adds.
Ethiopia's government says it is "deeply dismayed" by the deaths of civilians, blames the former Tigray leaders and claims normality is returning in the region of some 6 million people. It has denied widespread profiling and targeting of Tigrayans.
But witnesses have told the AP about seeing bodies strewn on the ground on communities, Tigrayans rounded up and expelled and women raped by Ethiopian and allied forces including those from neighboring Eritrea. Others have described family members and colleagues including priests being swept up and detained, often without charge.
Churches have been the scenes of massacres — one deacon in Axum has told the AP he believes some 800 people were killed in a November weekend at the church and around the city — and of mass graves.
"People were dropped over the ground like leaves," the patriarch says of Axum, Ethiopia's holiest city.
Abune Mathias, born in 1942, has been outspoken in the past. In 1980, he became the first leader of the church to denounce the rule of Ethiopia's communist regime "and was forced to live abroad for more than thirty years," according to the United Nations refugee agency.