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Ancient Church in a Young Nation

Eritrean Orthodox Church seeks to strengthen its role in the country’s future

Even in the relative cool of an early spring morning it is still a grueling two-hour climb to Debra Bizen, an Orthodox monastery in Eritrea’s central highlands. At the start of a stony, serpentine path that rises steeply from the valley floor a sign bluntly warns: “No females beyond this point. Of any species. Turn back now.”

Atop a narrow ridge 2,700 feet above sea level, looking out toward the distant Red Sea, lie the scattered buildings of the monastery, one of Eritrea’s most revered. It was founded in 1361 by Abune (or Bishop) Philipos, who chose the monastery’s remote location to avoid the distractions of village girls. The Bishop declared that he would “rather stare into the face of a lion than into a woman’s eyes.”

Centuries later, another Philipos, Eritrea’s first Orthodox Patriarch and spiritual leader of Eritrea’s independence movement, was ordained a priest at Debra Bizen. It is also where he was laid to rest last September.

Past to present. Eritrea, a former Ethiopian province, achieved independence from its larger neighbor to the south in 1993 after a 31-year war, but both countries continue to share cultural practices, languages and traditions that date to the Horn of Africa’s early Christian past.

Liturgies in both Eritrea and Ethiopia are celebrated in Ge’ez, the language of ancient Aksum, a Christian kingdom that flourished in Ethiopia’s northern highlands from the third century until its conquest by Muslim invaders at the end of the seventh century. The sermons are delivered in Tigrinya, the vernacular of the Eritrean and northern Ethiopian highlands, where different and sometimes competing tribes have been united for centuries by a common Christian heritage.

When Eritrea was a province of Ethiopia, particularly during the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, monasteries were often used as havens for fighters from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which led the independence movement. Ethiopian authorities distrusted the monks, their lands were confiscated and some monks fled to the forests to escape persecution for collaboration.

With its commanding views of the surrounding region, Debra Bizen was used – with the monks’ blessing – by the Front’s radio operators in the late 1970’s to transmit signals to fellow Eritrean fighters. In 1983, the Ethiopian Army fired mortar rounds at Debra Bizen in an effort to root them out. The Ethiopians then occupied the monastery from 1984 to 1991.

Today, Debra Bizen houses some 100 monks in one-room huts made of stone, with life there not unlike that of early Christian ascetics. More austere hermits, nominally attached to the monastery, pass their days on narrow ledges in the cliff face.

There are also a few bare classrooms and three churches in the complex, the newest of which has a sanctuary with a conical roof, built in 1968 during the reign of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

The sprawling site has clearly suffered with time. Some buildings lie in ruins, others need urgent repair. In its heyday the monastery housed more than 900 monks (some sources claim 3,000), but changing social, political and religious conditions have reduced it to a more modest retreat.

Opinions differ on how Debra Bizen and the country’s 21 other Orthodox monasteries are faring in independent Eritrea.

“Monasteries are declining and the number of monks decreasing,” said Abba Ghirmai Tekleafa of the Gash Barka Diocese. “Most monks are old men. Today’s student monks don’t want to live in remote areas away from towns and villages.”

At the Orthodox Patriarchate in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, Abune Yoftahe Dimetros, Secretary General of the Holy Synod, casts contemporary monasticism in a more positive light.

“Now,” he said, “the monasteries are being re-established and Debra Bizen and others are starting to attract more and more younger monks.”

A national role. Although there is a lack of statistics on the number of young Eritreans called to monasticism, monasteries continue to play a leading role in the development of an independent Orthodox Church and an independent Eritrea.

In July 1993, Eritrean Orthodox bishops, who are all drawn from monasteries, asked Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church – the mother church for both the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox churches – to sanction their separation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The independence of the Eritrean Orthodox Church was subsequently recognized, and the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo authorized the theological training of future Eritrean bishops in Coptic monasteries.

“The church became a symbol of freedom,” said Abune Dimetros. “Like the independence of the nation, the church is now our church, rather than just a jurisdiction dependent on others, namely the leadership in Ethiopia.”

Eritrea’s first Patriarch, Philipos, who was crowned in May 1998 at the age of 97, was heralded by his countrymen as an early advocate of independence. When he died last year, government officials described him as “the father of resistance to Ethiopian oppression,” although as Patriarch he had encouraged reconciliation between the two warring countries – a direction followed by his newly elected successor, Yacob.

Partner for peace. Having played an integral role in the independence movement, leaders of the Eritrean Orthodox Church have also worked with their counterparts in Ethiopia to improve bilateral relations and to encourage an end to the border war that began in 1997. In July 2000, leaders of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, along with co-nationals of other faiths, met with their Ethiopian counterparts for the fourth time in an interreligious effort to resolve the conflict, which had left tens of thousands dead. Some five months later, the two countries agreed to a cease-fire.

With the United Nations poised to demarcate the 600-mile-long border zone, the country stands at a “crossroads,” Shumdehan Hailemichael, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Eritrea, said during a recent trip to New York.

“For a long time the national focus was on resistance and independence from Ethiopia,” he said. “Now that we have our own independent country, we are ready to ask ourselves what kind of nation we want to have, especially in terms of important national institutions, including the church.”

However, he warned that “a great deal still depends on a successful demarcation of the disputed border and the permanent end of hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which will allow both countries to move forward.”

As the country begins to look inward for its national identity, Eritrea’s Orthodox Church is trying to improve its already good relations with the leadership of other faiths, especially Eritrean Catholics, who share the rites and traditions of the Orthodox, but are in full communion with the Church of Rome.

The country’s total population of 3.8 million is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The vast majority of Christians – some 1.4 million – are Orthodox, with Catholics making up only 3 percent of the total population.

The strong relations between the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Eritrea stand in contrast to other countries where sectarian tension exists and creates political and social divisions.

According to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on religious freedom, “[in Eritrea] church leaders of most denominations, in particular, leaders of the Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Islamic and Protestant denominations, meet routinely and engage in ongoing efforts to foster cooperation and understanding between religions.”

Serving the faithful. With its 1,500 churches and 15,000 priests, the Eritrean Orthodox Church is also strengthening its role in shaping the course of daily life for the nation’s Christian community.

National festivals and cultural practices remain intimately connected with the calendar and rituals of the church. Many Eritreans, even irregular churchgoers, forgo meat and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays, traditional days of fasting and abstinence in the Orthodox calendar.

But while the Eritrean Orthodox Church aspires to play a dominant role in preserving the country’s ancient Christian heritage, a chronic shortage of funds has undermined its ability to serve members.

“While the church has a great many followers,” Abba Tekleafa said, “it does not have a lot of money.” Responsible for nearly 200 parishes, the priest must rely on public buses to visit them and often faces difficult funding choices to support their activities.

The church had historically depended on its role as a landowner for its primary source of income. But the decision of the Ethiopian government in 1975 to nationalize the land has forced the church to subsist on donations from its members, who make up one of the world’s poorest countries.

These days Orthodox bishops and priests are appointed and paid by the state. Since the state is poor and has other priorities, the church also remains poor. “The church has no problem,” said Abune Yohannes of Anseba, “in raising funds to build new churches, but the people don’t understand if you ask for money for administrative offices or meeting rooms.”

According to Abune Yohannes, the Eritrean Orthodox Church is still reliant on traditional methods of teaching and preaching, with itinerant priests and novices traveling from village to village begging for alms.

Preparing for the future. Some signs of modernization are in the air, though many planned projects are stalled or have yet to get off the ground due to a lack of financial resources.

“We have started instructing priests already in service, with three-month formation periods twice a year,” said Abune Dimetros. “With this instruction comes a modern and efficient concept of church administration.”

The Orthodox Secretariat also has more ambitious plans to build the country’s first Orthodox Theological College in Asmara. “One barrier has always been language due to a lack of proper education,” Abune Dimetros said of the clergy. “Our communication skills are not good, but they are rapidly improving.”

Helping out with the formation of Orthodox priests is CNEWA, which is providing funds to construct an Orthodox minor seminary in the mountain town of Keren.

By improving the quality of its clergy, the Orthodox Church of Eritrea is hoping not only to increase and improve the services it provides believers, but also to continue its prominent role in the future of the young country.

In providing leadership, monasteries like Debra Bizen have faithfully served the cause of independence. These ancient centers of learning and piety are now poised to join other communities in building a nation worthy of Eritrea’s unique Christian past, multiconfessional present and hope-filled future.

Chris Hellier covers social and cultural issues across the developing world.

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