Religious leaders hold "historic" talks in Addis Ababa

The head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church said on Friday that the bloody war with Eritrea which cost thousands of lives could easily have been avoided.

The Patriarch, Abune Paulos, was speaking in Addis Ababa, alongside Eritrean religious leaders who were paying a reciprocal visit to the Ethiopian capital. The talks, which started in Asmara on Wednesday, are aimed at boosting the peace process and building confidence between the people of the two countries.

The Patriarch said the two-year conflict had only brought misery. "Seen against the historical, racial, religious and blessed culture of both countries, the conflict that started three years ago could have been resolved through dialogue and should not have led to war," he told a ceremony at the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Hundreds of diplomats, priests and members of the public attended the meeting to hear the religious leaders of both countries speak.

His Eritrean counterpart, Abune Philipos, also insisted that the only way forward was through peace. He, along with other Eritrean religious leaders, met Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgis. Reverend Zerit Yohannes, of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea said: "This is a remarkable day for us. It is a milestone towards peace."

The talks have been mediated by the nongovernmental organisation, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), and mark the first time the religious leaders have met in each other’s capitals.

Ambassador Legwaila Joseph Legwaila, who heads the UN Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) described the talks as historic. "There has been no clearer signal to the world that Ethiopia and Eritrea want peace," said Legwaila, the Special Representative of the Secretary General. "I have no doubt that the fortitude, courage and determination you have shown to the peoples of both countries, has sent a message to other places of conflict that religious leaders have an important role to play in bringing about reconciliation and healing the wounds of war."

Stein Villumstad, the head of NCA in East Africa, paid tribute to the religious leaders for holding talks when others were not prepared to meet. "They have an important role to play in the peace process," he said, recalling that the previous five meetings between the religious figures had been held in third countries.

"Along the way, they agreed on a plan of action that they would work on towards peace and reconciliation," he said. Villumstad added that despite setbacks, neither side gave up. "This is the first step, this is the first peak they have climbed together and it is a significant peak," he said.