Addis Ababa (AFP) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has overseen the reunification of feuding wings of the one of the world's oldest Christian churches, his top aide said Friday.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church split in 1991 over the naming of a new patriarch after the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) removed the Derg military junta from power.
The patriarch Abuna Merkorios, seen as hostile to the new regime, was forced to abdicate and later escaped the country to settle in the United States.
There, where dissidents founded a breakaway church under him, claiming his ouster violated rules that say the role of patriarch is held for life.
Talks between the two synods have been going on for years. Abiy, a reformist new premier, is credited with speeding up the peace process, which culminated on Thursday in his maiden visit to the United States.
Abiy oversaw a reunification ceremony in Washington, attended by priests in flowing black and red robes, according to images his top aide shared on social media.
"After significant mediation efforts, PM Abiy witnessed in DC the reunification of the 2 Synods of the #Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The 2 Synods are reunited into one Holy Synod after 27 years," his chief of staff Fitsum Arega wrote on Twitter.
According to details of the reconciliation published by an Orthodox Church news website, Merkorios "will return to the holy land of Ethiopia with the rank and dignity of Patriarch, and resume the patriarchal throne."
Meanwhile the resident Ethiopian patriarch, Abuna Mathias, "will lead the church by carrying out administrative duties."
Both their names will be mentioned in prayers and as long as both are alive "our holy Church will regard their patriarchal honour as equal."
The Holy Synod expressed gratitude to Abiy for his work to "restore peace in the country and the unity of the Orthodox Church."
- 'A historic jump'-
Tracing its roots back to the fourth century, the Orthodox church is Ethiopia's largest, gathering 38 million people, according to the World Council of Churches.
The country is also home to a Muslim minority and a growing protestant population that includes the prime minister.
"While noting that the reconciliation event marks a historic jump, the Prime Minister emphasised that this has been something overdue," the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate said.
Since taking office in April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has prioritised reconciliation between dissidents and the EPRDF, which has held power unopposed for 27 years.
He has released numerous jailed dissidents from Ethiopian jails, and sometimes met them personally upon their release.
Earlier this week, he called for "multi-party democracy," a stunning shift for the EPRDF which has been in power continuously since 1991 and holds every seat in parliament together with its allies.
He has also opened the doors to historic reconciliation with neighbouring Eritrea
The visit to the US is set to be something of a charm offensive for Abiy.
After his arrival in Washington, Reuben E. Brigety II, a former American ambassador to the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia, tweeted a photo showing the prime minister smiling and holding hands with a lone protester who greeted him outside the Ethiopian embassy.
He is also visiting diaspora communities in Los Angeles and the state of Minnesota in a visit the Ethiopian government has titled "Tear down barriers, and build bridges!"
Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians live in the US, among them numerous journalists and politicians who have fallen out with the EPRDF.