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Ethiopia buries unifying Patriarch of Orthodox Church

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The remains of the fourth patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Merkorios has been buried. The religious leader served from 1988 to 1991, fled his country for 27 years because of political tensions, and returned in 2018 to unite the split church. He died on March 3

He took over the leadership of the church -- one of the world's oldest Christian churches -- in the late 1980s after his predecessor died of natural causes.

But the 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

Merkorios, seen as hostile to the new regime, was forced to abdicate and later escaped the country to settle in the United States where a led a breakaway church.

Another patriarch Abune Pawlos was elected following Merkorios' exile.

"I'm deeply saddened by the passing of the fourth patriarch of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church," Abiy said on Twitter.

Merkorios "played the decisive role to have the two synods united," he said.

The patriarch returned to Ethiopia from his 27-year-exile in 2018 following a reunification of the two rival wings in a process overseen by Abiy.

Talks between the two synods had been going on for years.

Under the new arrangement, Merkorios was allowed to "return to the holy land of Ethiopia with the rank and dignity of Patriarch, and resume the patriarchal throne," the church said at the time.

After the reconciliation, there were two patriarch in Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous country.

Since returning to the war-hit country, Merkorios was wheelchair bound and kept a low profile, occasionally being photographed with dignitaries.

Abiy described his death as "a heavy damage" as he "was looking and meditating at things and helping our country with prayer."

The US Embassy in Addis Ababa said it was condoling with everyone mourning his death.

Tracing its roots back to the fourth century, the Orthodox church is Ethiopia's largest, accounting for more than 40 percent of the country's 110 million people.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was part of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria until the mid-20th century.

Its first patriarch was installed in the 1950s. Merkorios was the fourth patriarch in that line.

Ethiopia is also home to a Muslim minority and a growing protestant population that includes the prime minister.

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