Leo Varadkar defends visit to monastery which refuses entry to women

In Ethiopia Taoiseach says it is appropriate to respect customs of different cultures

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended his visit to an Ethiopian monastery which does not allow access to women by saying it was appropriate to respect the rules and customs of different cultures and religions in their country.

Mr Varadkar visited the male-only Ethiopian Orthodox church in Axum on Friday, the final day of his three-day visit to Ethiopia.

Critics of his decision to go inside the monastery include a number of Fianna Fáil politicians and Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy.

Female members of the Taoiseach’s party waited outside while Mr Varadkar, male colleagues and male journalists visited the shrine, which reputedly holds the Ark of the Covenant, the Old Testament stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments given to Moses.


St Mary’s Church and monastery in Axum, a holy shrine for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, permits only males to enter.

The visit again raised the issue of achieving balance between gender equality and respecting the prevailing culture and traditions of countries visited by Irish political leaders and diplomats. That is particularly the case for Islamic countries, including hardline states such as Saudi Arabia, where strict segregation between males and females is the norm, and where women's rights are subjugated.

The Taoiseach’s spokesman said: “The Taoiseach was brought to the religious sites at Axum by the mayor which includes a monastery. This monastery sets its own access [rules] and had done so for hundreds of years.

“It is appropriate to respect the rules and customs of different cultures and religions especially when you are in their countries, holy places and homes.

“The Taoiseach and Irish Government imposes no such rules when it comes to properties owned by the Irish State and does not support such rules.”


The issue was raised in recent weeks following a report in The Irish Times on an email sent by US-Ireland Alliance president Trina Vargo to Mr Varadkar urging him to end the practice of sending Irish diplomats to men-only membership organisation events.

One of the events to which she referred was the traditional male-only dinner organised each year by the Friendly Sons of St Patrick in New York, in advance of St Patrick’s Day.

Mr Varadkar responded by saying a boycott of male-only Catholic events in the US could set a “double-standard” if diplomats continued to attend male-only events in the Vatican, in Muslim countries, and at LGBT events.

The Taoiseach's delegation to Axum included Irish ambassador to Ethiopia, Sonja Hyland; assistant secretary general in the Department of an Taoiseach, Helen Blake; special adviser Clare Mungovan; Aide de Camp to the Taoiseach Commandant Caroline Burke; and diplomats Joanne Smyth and Fiona Broderick.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times