The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

According to an ancient tradition, the first evangelizer of the Ethiopians was St. Frumentius, a Roman citizen from Tyre who had been shipwrecked along the African coast of the Red Sea. He gained the confidence of the emperor at Aksum and eventually brought about the conversion of his son, who later became Emperor Ezana. Ezana later adopted Christianity as the state religion around the year 330. Frumentius was ordained a bishop by St. Athanasius of Alexandria and returned to Ethiopia to help with the continued evangelization of the country.

Around the year 480 the “Nine Saints” arrived in Ethiopia and began missionary activities. According to tradition they were from Rome, Constantinople and Syria. They had left their countries because of their opposition to Chalcedonian christology and had probably resided for a time at St. Pachomius monastery in Egypt. Their influence, along with the church’s strong links with the Copts in Egypt, probably explains the origin of the Ethiopian Church’s rejection of Chalcedon’s teaching that there are two natures in Christ. Indeed, the word “Tewahedo” that is included in the official name of the church today, means “being made one” or “unified,” and expresses the unity of Christ’s humanity and divinity in a single nature. The Nine Saints are credited with largely wiping out the remaining paganism in Ethiopia, with introducing the monastic tradition, and with making a substantial contribution to the development of Ge’ez religious literature by translating the Bible and religious works into that classical Ethiopian language. Monasteries quickly sprang up throughout the country and became important intellectual centers.

The Ethiopian Church reached its zenith in the 15th century when much creative theological and spiritual literature was produced and the church engaged in extensive missionary activity. The very negative experience of contact with Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th century was followed by centuries of self-imposed isolation from which the Ethiopian Church has only recently emerged.

From ancient times, all bishops in Ethiopia were Egyptian Copts appointed by the Coptic Patriarchate. Indeed, for many centuries the only bishop in Ethiopia was the Coptic Metropolitan. In the early 20th century the Ethiopian Church began to press for greater autonomy and the election of native Ethiopian bishops. In 1929 four native Ethiopian bishops were ordained to assist the Coptic Metropolitan. With the support of Emperor Haile Selassie (reigned 1930-1974), an agreement was reached with the Copts in 1948 which provided for the election of an ethnic Ethiopian Metropolitan upon the death of Metropolitan Qerillos. After he died in 1951, an assembly of clergy and laity elected an Ethiopian, Basilios, as Metropolitan, and the autonomy of the Ethiopian Church was established. In 1959 the Coptic Patriarchate confirmed Metropolitan Basilios as the first Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the state religion of the country until the 1974 Marxist revolution, which overthrew the Emperor and placed Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam at the head of the government. Soon after the revolution, church and state were officially separated and most church land was nationalized. This signaled the beginning of a campaign against all the religious groups in the country.

Following the collapse of the communist government in May 1991, Patriarch Merkorios (elected in 1988) was accused of collaboration with the Mengistu regime. In September, under pressure, he resigned. On July 5, 1992, the Holy Synod elected Abune Paulos as fifth Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He had been imprisoned for seven years by the Marxist authorities after Patriarch Theophilos (deposed in 1976 and murdered in prison in 1979) ordained him a bishop without government approval in 1975. Paulos had been released in 1983 and had spent the intervening years in the United States.

Meanwhile, Patriarch Merkorios, who initially took refuge in Kenya and moved to the United States in 1997, refused to recognize the election of Paulos. Archbishop Yesehaq of the Western Hemisphere (based in New York) followed suit and broke communion with the Patriarchate. Archbishop Yesehaq, who died in 2005, took a large part of the Ethiopian Orthodox faithful in the western hemisphere with him. He formed an alliance with former Patriarch Merkorios and a number of other Ethiopian exiled bishops who had come to the United States. The bishops loyal to Merkorios now formed “The Legitimate Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church” based in Oakland, California. Patriarch Paulos died on August 16, 2012. On February 28, 2013, a church assembly elected Archbishop Matthias of Jerusalem as the church’s sixth patriarch. The new Patriarch had fled Ethiopia during the communist regime, and had served as a bishop in the United States from 1992 to 2006.

This schism between the Synod in Ethiopia and the Synod abroad would persist until 2018. In July of that year delegations from both sides met in Washington, DC. They reached an agreement that provided for the return of Patriarch Merkorios to Ethiopia to become co-patriarch along with Patriarch Matthias. The two patriarchs would be of equal dignity, with Patriarch Matthias carrying out administrative duties. All the bishops of both synods would be mutually recognized, and all excommunications would be lifted. Thus there will be one Ethiopian Church and one Holy Synod. The Ethiopian Prime Minister was present in Washington to attend the celebrations that consummated the agreement.

Holy Trinity Theological College, the leading Orthodox faculty of theology in the country, was founded as a high school in 1942 by Emperor Haile Selassie. In 1961 it was transformed into a college level department of the National University of Ethiopia. In 1974 the communist government forced it to close. In the same year, in order to continue to provide theological education for candidates for the priesthood, the church established St. Paul Theological College in Addis Ababa. In 1994 Patriarch Paulos presided over the reopening of Trinity Theological College; it now has plans to expand into a university to serve the modernization of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church through theological, management and leadership training.

It has long been common for many Ethiopian Orthodox men to seek ordination; it was estimated in 1988 that there were 250,000 clergymen in the country. In order to provide them with an adequate level of education, Clergy Training Centers have been established in various parts of Ethiopia. Every parish is now expected to have a Sunday School program.

This church is unique in retaining a number of Jewish practices such as circumcision and the observance of dietary laws and Saturday as well as Sunday sabbath. This is probably due to the fact that Christianity arrived in Ethiopia directly from Palestine in a form that was still strongly influenced by its Jewish roots. There is also a tradition that Judaism was practiced by some Ethiopians even before the arrival of Christianity.

The Ethiopian liturgy is of Alexandrian (Coptic) origin and influenced by the Syriac tradition. The liturgy was celebrated in the ancient Ge’ez language until recent times. Today a translation of the liturgy into modern Amharic is being used increasingly in the parishes. A strong monastic tradition continues.

Especially in recent years, the Ethiopian Church has assumed an active role in serving those in need. It has sponsored relief efforts on behalf of refugees and victims of drought, and a number of church-sponsored orphanages have been set up.

According to the most recent Ethiopian census (2007), out of a total population of about 94 million, 44 percent belonged to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, concentrated in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara. Approximately 34 percent was Sunni Muslim, centered in the eastern Somali and Afar regions, as well as Oromia. Another 19 percent of the population was Christian Evangelical and Pentecostal, the fastest growing religious group in the country. Catholics number around 750,000.

Location: Ethiopia, small diaspora
Two Co-Patriarchs:
– Patriarch Matthias (born 1934, elected 2013)
– Patriarch Merkorios (born 1938, elected 2009)
Title: Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
Residence: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Membership: 36,000,000

Last Modified: 21 November 2020

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