Christianity in Eritrea, which is located along the southwest coast of the Red Sea, dates back to at least the 4th century when the ancient Christian kingdom of Aksum flourished in what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia. The kingdom began to decline in the 7th century in the wake of Muslim invasions, but a portion of the Eritrean population always remained Christian. Subsequently the coastal areas were dominated by various regional powers, and fell under Ottoman rule in the 16th century. Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941, when it was captured by the British. It entered a federation with Ethiopia in 1952, and was annexed as an Ethiopian province in 1962. A lengthy struggle for self-rule culminated with the country’s declaration of independence on May 24, 1993. At that time the country’s Orthodox population formed a single diocese within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
In July 1993, with the support of the government, the Eritrean Orthodox appealed to Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church for separation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and autocephalous status. In early September 1993 Ethiopian Patriarch Paulos and Archbishop Philippos of Asmara sanctioned jointly the separation of their churches, while stating their desire to work closely together. On September 28, 1993, the Coptic Holy Synod responded favorably to Eritrea’s request and authorized the training in Coptic monasteries of as many as ten future bishops for the Eritrean Church. In February 1994 the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches signed an agreement in Addis Ababa that reaffirmed the autocephalous status of both churches, and recognized a primacy of honor of the Coptic Church among the Oriental Orthodox churches in Africa. On June 19, 1994, Pope Shenouda ordained five new Eritrean bishops in Cairo.
After intensive discussions among government and church leaders in April 1998, Archbishop Philippos of Asmara was chosen as the first Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. He was installed as Patriarch by Pope Shenouda III in Cairo on May 8, 1998. A protocol between the Holy Synods of the Eritrean and Coptic churches was also signed at that time. It provided for close cooperation between the two churches, including the holding of a common general synod at least every three years, the commemoration of the heads of both churches in all liturgies, the formation of a common delegation in theological dialogues with other churches, and the establishment of a standing committee of the two synods to promote cooperation in such areas as theological education, social services, and development projects. In view of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 and continued tensions between them, relations between the churches of those two countries have remained difficult.
Patriarch Philippos died on September 18, 2002, at the age of 101. On December 4, 2002, the Holy Synod elected Abune Yacob as his successor. He passed away on December 2, 2003. The Holy Synod then elected Bishop Antonios of Hamasiye as Patriarch on March 4, 2004. In August 2005 the Eritrean Government intervened in the church’s affairs by limiting the powers of the patriarch and designating a layman, Yoftahe Dimetros, to oversee them. Shortly thereafter, the Holy Synod charged Antonios with heresy and removed him from office. Antonios was then placed under house arrest. In January 2006 Antonios sent a letter to the Holy Synod in which he denied the charges against him and excommunicated several synod members as well as Mr. Dimetros, stating that their actions and those of the government violated the constitution and bylaws of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, on April 19, 2007, the Holy Synod elected Abune Dioskoros as new patriarch. In July 2019 the Holy Synod, under government pressure, formally charged Antonios again with heresy and expelled him. Patriarch Dioskoros had died in 2015, and as of 2020 no successor had been named. The other Oriental Orthodox Churches as well as the Catholic Church continued to recognize Antonios as Patriarch, even though he remains under house arrest.
In December 2020 the Eritrean government’s continuing interference in religious affairs caused the US State Department to include Eritrea among countries of “particular concern” over religious freedom. It has done this repeatedly since 2004. The designation was issued under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 “for engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”
The Orthodox make up about half of Eritrea’s six million inhabitants. No other Christian denomination exceeds five percent of the population; Sunni Muslims make up the rest. Most of the Orthodox belong to the Tigrinya ethnic group centered in the central and northern highlands. Today the Eritrean Orthodox Church has approximately 1,500 churches, 22 monasteries, and 15,000 priests.
His Grace Bishop Makarios is head of the Eritrean Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. He resides at 5 Woodstone Drive in Cedar Grove, New Jersey 07009. Eritrean Orthodox faithful in Great Britain are under the pastoral care of Bishop Markos. He resides at St. Michael’s Eritrean Orthodox Church, 78 Edmund St, London, SE5 7NR. It became the first Eritrean Orthodox church in Europe when it was consecrated in 1997.
Head: Patriarch Antonios I (born 1927, elected 2004)
Title: Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church
Residence: Asmara, Eritrea