ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Ethiopia’s Sleeping Giant

Finding new ways to spread the Good News

“Urggh!” exclaims 20-year-old Bethlehem, pulling her two fists apart from against her chest, struggling not to erupt into laughter.

“That’s it, good job; open your heart to the truth,” says Nancy Greenhaw, inviting some 200 other university students to join in playfully miming the act.

These young Ethiopian university students have come to the city of Bahir Dar — located about 250 miles northwest of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and famed for Lake Tana and its island monasteries — for a weekend catechetical program, albeit one with evangelical fervor.

The Catholic Eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie organized the program as part of an effort to address the growing phenomenon of young Ethiopians leaving the traditional sacramental Christianity of the Ethiopian Catholic and Orthodox churches for the evangelical Christianity preached by itinerant preachers scattered throughout Ethiopia.

“The Catholic Church belongs to you — it’s your church, you make it what you want it to be,” announces Mrs. Greenhaw’s husband, Lloyd, in a rich baritone. He points to the gathered students. “You can do away with the division and scandal in the church.”

With his commanding voice, white hair and beard, Mr. Greenhaw could do a passable impression of a latter-day Moses. This team of husband and wife, currently in their 70’s, has been working among young Catholics for more than 20 years. This work has often taken them far from their home near San Antonio, Texas — including Papua New Guinea and many interior states in Africa — and now Ethiopia, at the invitation of Abune Lesanu-Christos Matheos, bishop of Bahir Dar-Dessie.

The bishop understands well the challenges facing the Catholic and Orthodox churches today; prior to his ordination as a bishop, he served as a chaplain in Addis Ababa, a sprawling urban center that draws young men and women from throughout the largely rural and poor country.

“When people, especially the young, discover religion, it’s an emotional reaction and they want more. And if they don’t get it, they will look elsewhere — to other churches,” Abune Lesanu-Christos says of the growing phenomenon of the young embracing evangelical Christianity in a land where traditional sacramental Christianity has deep roots. The nation’s preeminent church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, has largely shaped Ethiopian culture, since its establishment in the fourth century.

According to the most recent census, the number of Ethiopians identifying as Orthodox has declined to 44 percent of the population; 18 percent now identifies as evangelical Protestant. About a third of the population identifies as Sunni Muslim, with indigenous tribal religions and Catholicism — always a tiny but disproportionately influential faith community due to its schools and social service institutions — making up the balance. Some observers contest these figures — especially in heated arguments between Orthodox Christians and Muslims. None dispute, however, that the number of self-identified evangelical Protestants continues to increase largely at the expense of the Orthodox and Catholic churches.

“The great expansion of universities in the country is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Catholic Church in Ethiopia,” says Argaw Fantu, regional director of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

“We need to accompany these educated faithful in their faith journey, enabling them to become the future church of this country.” Without such support, he says, “Catholics going to university may be drawn away from their ancestral faith by growing evangelical groups which are well poised to influence those with doubts about their faith.”

Whether or not they have any such doubts, the students gathered in Bahir Dar exhibit a clear desire to embrace and nourish their faith.

“I want to be a better Catholic,” says 20-year-old Rebecca Sisay. “I hear many questions from others about Catholicism. I don’t know what to say to them when they ask: ‘Why do you have idols? Why do you believe Mary is a virgin?’ ”

Bahir Dar, a sun-soaked city of wide avenues lined with palm trees overlooking the tea-colored waters of Lake Tana, is where in the 16th-century Portuguese Jesuits attempted to impose Catholicism on the Ethiopian people — firmly entrenched in their Orthodox faith for more than 1,000 years — with the disastrous consequence of a five-year civil war and, ultimately, the banishment of Catholics from the country until the 19th century.

Today, there still stands a crumbling, moss-covered building erected by the Spanish missionary Pedro Páez in the compound of St. George Orthodox Cathedral.

At lunchtime, it fills with Bahir Dar’s Orthodox faithful wearing various kinds of white shawls, all glowing in the sun: The men wrap gabi around their shoulders, while the woman wear netela around their heads, framing their faces and sometimes drawing the eye toward nikisat — traditional tattoos of crosses on foreheads and linear markings along jawlines.

After taking root during the fourth century in the northern Ethiopian capital city of Axum, Ethiopian Christianity developed in virtual isolation, hemmed in by countries embracing Islam from the seventh century onward. Before their zealous actions led to the final rupture between the churches of Ethiopia and Rome, Portuguese missionaries comprised one of the first major influences from the outside world, and helped Christian Ethiopia resist conquest by the indomitable Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi.

Now people speak again of Islam exerting pressure — bolstered with Saudi funding — while Ethiopia’s Christian community suffers growing internal division.

“Muslims are promising a better life to people — they sponsor a whole family, provide a car and shop, as long as you become Muslim,” says the major archbishop of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa. “Meanwhile Pentecostal churches are attracting youth, providing an emotional outlet for those who are sick or unemployed. They give hope and desire, even the possibility to go abroad and escape poverty.”

The church’s university chaplaincy program is not the only example of its commitment to strengthen sacramental Christianity; nor are its concerns limited to the Catholic Church. Upgrading the education and formation of the Orthodox clergy, particularly through the Orthodox Church’s clergy training centers, has received support from Ethiopia’s Catholic bishops, and from funding partners such as CNEWA.

The chaplaincy program for university students elicits a buoyant response. As the day progresses, however, the heat takes its toll, causing eyelids to droop. But Nancy has come prepared. Plugging her iPhone into a speaker, she tells the crowd to stand and join her in song and movement.

“Jesus is my rock and he rolls my blues away,” she sings, gesturing theatrically. “Now you do it!”

At other times, musical interludes take on a more Ethiopian flavor, accompanied by a keyboard and an impassioned student coordinator with a microphone at the front of the audience.

“Alsemam!” 24-year-old Ephrem Argaw exclaimed in Amharic, “I can’t hear you!”

The students spring to life — clapping along with song and dance rooted in a liturgical tradition they share with their Orthodox peers, just as they share a common liturgical language: Ge’ez.

Mr. Argaw believes Pentecostal preachers have been able to attract followers through such emotional worship. Catholic priests, he adds, might come across as less prepared by contrast. “Priests often have to focus on other things, such as running schools. They are few, and they have too much to do.”

For much of its recent history, Ethiopian culture has experienced tensions between conservative and rural religious values and the aspiration to be zemenawi — “modern,” in Amharic. Whereas the country has been shaped by faith for millennia, most of its people range from expressly devout to tolerant and respectful of religion. At the same time, however, the deep-seated belief in the value of modernization, held particularly by Ethiopia’s rulers, has often fostered suspicion toward traditional institutions such as churches and mosques.

The 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie — who personified Ethiopia as an African Zion -ushered in the Communist military dictatorship known as the Derg, leading to the suppression of the Orthodox Church, the nationalization of its lands and the imprisonment of many priests. Catholic churches continued to operate, primarily because of their support for public services, such as schools and hospitals. But the Derg took measures such as timing political rallies to clash with Sunday morning Orthodox and Catholic liturgies. Pentecostal churches benefited, not constrained by formalities and structured hierarchies.

Even before the Derg, the Orthodox Church operated at an agrarian level for more than a millennium. Now, however, it finds itself ill equipped to compete in a modern, rapidly urbanizing society in which greater integration with the West has brought about both a confident materialism and a rapid growth in Pentecostal Christianity.

“Globalization and urbanization mean that many people are more cut off from traditional support systems: family, society and religion — but the church doesn’t follow up,” says Joseph Alumansi, a Ugandan Catholic who, along with his wife, Serah, joined the Greenhaws for the program.

“Pentecostals come knocking at your door,” says Mrs. Alumansi, who was born in Kenya. “We are social beings, so it’s a very effective approach. In a Catholic parish, a new face often isn’t recognized; you have to make much more of an effort to be noticed. The church needs a fundamental change: to reach out.”

Others, however, caution against going too far in a bid to compete with Pentecostals and their energized preachers.

“I go the other way, and try to show the advantages of contemplation, and the fact that you don’t need me or my preaching,” says Abba Groum Tesfaye, spiritual director of the Eparchy of Bahir Dar-Dessie. “The solution isn’t in the preacher; people keep changing preachers, hoping to find a better one. Many worshipers have forgotten how to be silent, reflective, how to relish the words of Scripture. I try to show them how to do it for themselves — and it works, the students come and tell me.”

Recently he organized a meeting of dozens of lay catechists from across Ethiopia. Lay formation, he says, has become essential to compensate for the shortfall of priests.

“Some Catholics find it beneficial being coached in their faith by a layperson,” says Abba Tesfaye. “Things are going on fast around us, and youth are leaving because we didn’t attend; we didn’t show them you can be joyous and remain a Catholic.”

In early 2016, Pope Francis met Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch Abune Mathias in an expression of ecumenical solidarity in the face of similar, modern challenges. However, a long cultural memory sometimes hampers efforts to promote unity.

“One month ago, after priests came to visit us, a few Orthodox fanatics started throwing stones at the building where we met,” says 21-year-old Abunet Temesgen, attending the Bahir Dar program from Debre Tabor University, about 30 miles to the east. After local police said they could not guarantee their safety, the students stopped meeting at the building. “Now we just talk on the phone, we don’t meet — there’s nowhere to go.”

“Many Orthodox priests still think of the events of the 16th century, so we are trying to create an awareness of the contemporary special needs that exist between our sister churches,” says Argaw Fantu. To this end, Mr. Fantu says, CNEWA provides support for Orthodox Church’s Holy Trinity Theological College in Addis Ababa.

“It’s mutually beneficial for both churches,” says the school’s dean, Abune Timotewos, an Orthodox priest in his 70’s. “Better to be together than divided. And the Catholic and Orthodox churches share so many common traditions.”

The elephant in the room, however, remains the loss of parishioners to evangelical proselytism — the weight of which has been felt more acutely by the Orthodox Church.

“The Orthodox religion is a challenging one, it requires time and commitment,” says Girma Batu, vice academic dean at the college. “The preference among many youth today is for simplicity and enjoyment — they don’t want to do our 55 days of Lenten fasting, despite the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian: ‘Fasting is a feast for the soul.’ ”

Indeed, religious life on the whole has grown increasingly competitive. On the outskirts of Addis Ababa, about 200 yards from the entrance to the Capuchin Retreat and Research Centre is a newly built Pentecostal church. On the other side of the center’s grounds is a newly built Orthodox church, while the Muezzin’s Arabic call from a nearby mosque can be heard, followed by noisy Islamic preaching over a loudspeaker in Amharic — a new development.

“It might be better if religions used radio stations,” laments Abba Daniel Assefa, the 40-something director of the Capuchin center. Nevertheless, the bespectacled priest admits the center is also very much an active participant in this evangelistic milieu, helping Catholics better understand and deepen their faith.

“Through retreats we deal with the spiritual dimension, while our research aims to reveal the treasures, such as the literature and history, of Ethiopian Christianity. Both roles complement the other; we don’t keep them separate.”

On a Wednesday evening in Addis Ababa, a group of some 25 Catholic students, mostly members of the International Movement of Catholic Students, gather at a small chapel to pray the Stations of the Cross.

“Catholicism is about real love — it’s ecumenical, not about division. There’s room for everyone,” says 26-year-old Elizabet Ephrem, who works for the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat while studying for a master’s degree in human resource management. “What’s not to love about that?”

“I’m proud of the person I am; my personality has developed out of the Catholic Church,” says 30-year-old Dawit Derajay, a doctoral candidate in social anthropology.

Inside the simple red-bricked chapel, the students lead the Stations of the Cross by themselves — there is no priest present. Three students dressed in white vestments, one holding an intricate traditional Ethiopian metal cross flanked on either side by another holding a small candle, move from station to station as the rest of the students stand and kneel before them, praying in Amharic.

In acts such as these, Joseph Alumansi sees hope. “The church laity is a sleeping giant,” he says. “The sleeping giant in Ethiopia needs to rise up and become an evangelizer.”

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa. He writes about Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa for various international media, including BBC, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera and CNN.

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