Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq Mandefro, a leader in the diaspora of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia who, caught up in the political upheaval at home in the 1990's, split his congregations in the Americas from the mother church in Addis Ababa, died on Dec. 29 in Newark. He was 72 and lived in Union City, N.J.
The death was announced by a spokesman for the archbishopric in Dallas, where he recently moved his seat, and by Father Haile Malekot of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kingston, Jamaica.
Abuna Yesehaq - Father Isaac in English - was invested with the title of Archbishop of the Western Hemisphere and South Africa in 1979. He was originally appointed by the Emperor Haile Selassie and was sent to the Americas in 1962 to tend to Ethiopians principally in the United States and Jamaica.
Abuna Yesehaq, whose original name was Laike Mandefro, was born in Adwa, Ethiopia, in 1933. His parents were Ethiopian Orthodox. He attended liturgical schools in Ethiopia and was ordained a deacon and priest there. He was one of the young clerics taken to be tutored personally by Haile Selassie, the head of state and titular head of the church.
Coming west, he first went to Buffalo and later to New York City to continue his divinity studies, and received advanced degrees in religious education and theology from New York Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Appointed the church's administrator of the Western Hemisphere, he went to Jamaica in 1970 to establish the church there. He was credited with forming more than 70 congregations, with more than 300,000 members, many in the Caribbean.
The overthrow and assassination of Haile Selassie in the 1970's and the years of political turmoil that followed buffeted Ethiopian Orthodoxy as well. It reached Abuna Yesehaq directly in the early 1990's, when he declared the Western Hemisphere branch independent of Addis Ababa rather than accept the pre-eminence of a new patriarch, Abuna Paulos.
In the dispute over the authority of the two prelates, adherents of Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq clung to their own interpretation of canon law and continued to follow him instead of the patriarch in Addis Ababa.