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Eritrean Orthodox Church

Though Eritrea’s political history began a mere 13 years ago, this east African nation has rich cultural roots dating back some 3,000 years, when Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula first crossed the Red Sea and settled in the Horn of Africa. These cultural roots are not exclusively Eritrean, but a shared legacy with its symbiotic neighbor to the south, Ethiopia.

While Eritreans and Ethiopians have a common history and culture, many Eritreans nevertheless emphasize how they differ. Perhaps the single greatest element binding the two nations – religion and its cultural expression – may best have influenced the evolution of Eritrean self-determination.

Of the nation’s 3.8 million people, roughly 45 percent are Sunni Muslim, while about 45 percent belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Catholics, evangelical Protestants, animists and unbelievers make up the balance of the population. And while historically there have been some tensions, particularly with the recent influx of evangelical Christian missionaries from the United States, generally these communities coexist harmoniously.

Aksum. A thousand years before the birth of Christ, Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula crossed the Red Sea, settled in the Horn of Africa (modern Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia) and intermarried with the local African Hamitic people. From this civilization emerged an empire centered in Aksum (a city now in northeastern Ethiopia). The Aksumite empire, which for seven centuries controlled the trade routes between Africa and Asia, is thought to have stretched from Mecca to the Nile at its zenith in the first few centuries after the birth of Christ.

Little historical documentation remains of the empire’s formative centuries, but this changed 300 years after the birth of Christ when an Aksumite emperor, Ezana, declared Christianity the empire’s official religion. Influenced by his tutor St. Frumentius, a Christian from Tyre (now in modern Lebanon), Ezana embraced the Christian faith as a boy.

As emperor Ezana installed Frumentius as Aksum’s first bishop. Ordained to the episcopacy by St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (one of the Roman Empire’s principal cities, located in modern Egypt), Frumentius established bonds with the Egyptian church, maintained even now.

Emperor Ezana is also credited with securing Aksum’s greatest relic, the Ark of the Covenant (which enshrined the Ten Commandments), from the empire’s Falasha, or Jewish community. According to an ancient tradition, the Falasha had protected the Ark on an island refuge after it was carried to Aksum from Jerusalem by Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a figure claimed as their own by modern Eritreans and Ethiopians.

More than a century after Ezana and Frumentius, groups of Syrian monks, fleeing the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) authorities, who sought to impose the doctrines decreed at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, settled in Aksum. Among these monks were the “Nine Saints,” who made a profound impact on the life of the church of Aksum, consequently shaping the destinies of its modern heirs, the churches of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In addition to their monastic way of life, the Nine Saints brought with them the unique Christology, liturgy and customs of the non-Greek-speaking Christian community of the Eastern Mediterranean, thus forging even stronger links between the Copts of Egypt and Aksum, while severing ties with the churches of Rome and Constantinople.

Islam and Aksum. Though it is often reported that the rise of Islam in the neighboring Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century contributed to the decline of Christian Aksum, the hospitality rendered by the Aksumite emperor to the family of the Prophet Muhammad, who fled persecution in Arabia, may have contributed to the preservation of the Christian faith in the Horn of Africa.

According to tradition, the pagan princes of Arabia offered the Aksumite emperor, Armah, a large bounty for the repatriation of the Prophet’s family. Armah refused to betray the exiles. According to the Imperial Crown Council of Ethiopia, “this act was possibly a key event in the survival of the young Islamic religion; the Prophet deeply appreciated this act of compassion. He explicitly instructed his followers to leave the ‘Ethiopians’ [from the Greek meaning ‘land of burnt faces’] in peace, and exempted Ethiopia from jihad. This in turn allowed Ethiopian Christianity to survive intact.”

Nevertheless, Arab Muslim merchants wrested control of the Africa-Asia trade routes from the Christian Aksumites, who consequently migrated from the Red Sea coast to the interior, seeking refuge in the highlands. Eventually, this “Ethiopian kingdom” lost control of what is today Eritrea, ties to Europe dissolved and a thousand-year process of southern expansion began. The peoples of the Red Sea coast (from which derives the word “Eritrea,” Greek for red) gravitated to the Muslim world, living for centuries under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.

Western rediscovery. European knowledge of a rich African Christian kingdom never evaporated. As hunger for riches intensified, ushering in the age of exploration, Europeans searched for this “lost” kingdom. Missionaries accompanied merchants and soldiers and, in the 16th century, Portuguese Jesuits launched a campaign to win for Rome the Christians of ancient Aksum.

In line with the spirit and theology of the time, the Jesuits failed to enculturate Catholicism, ignoring the ancient Christian traditions in their attempt at reform modeled on the Church of Rome.

The Jesuits focused their attentions on the elite, which culminated in 1622 with the conversion of the Ethiopian emperor, Susenyos, and his subsequent declaration of Catholicism as the state religion. The emperor’s forced implementation of a latinized liturgy prompted a bloody five-year civil war. After the abdication and death of the emperor, his successor expelled or executed all Catholic religious in the country. For more than 200 years, Catholic missionary activity in the region was banned.

Italian occupation. Merchants from the Italian peninsula followed the Portuguese, setting up colonies along the Red Sea. As the strength of a unified Italian state developed, so too did its hold on Eritrea. The Italians, who annexed Eritrea in 1890, used their merchant bases there to subdue and colonize the rest of the Horn of Africa.

While the Italian occupation did have its imperialist tendencies, the Italians, at least up until the rise of Fascism, favored established Orthodox and Muslim communities, to the extent to which they helped pacify the colony.

The Italians built roads, improved communications, instituted agricultural reform and introduced modern medical services, heretofore unknown. Catholic priests and religious, based first in the town of Keren, and then in the capital city of Asmara, eventually assumed control of education and schools were built throughout the colony. Paradoxically, by uniting Eritrea, the Italians gave birth to an Eritrean national consciousness spanning even sectarian lines.

Independence. After World War II the United Nations recognized the aspirations of most Eritreans but, wary of authorizing complete independence, established Eritrea as a semiautonomous territory of Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie (who claimed dynastic descent from Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), did not respect this special status, forcing its legislature to approve the annexation of Eritrea in 1962. A war of liberation ensued, which outlasted the emperor’s reign and the Marxist regime that deposed him in 1974.

The 1991 collapse of this regime, coupled with the military and diplomatic successes of the Eritrean opposition, led to Eritrean independence, sanctioned by popular referendum in 1993. A border conflict with Ethiopia culminated in another war five years later. Thousands of soldiers and civilians are thought to have been killed. Land mines remain in the countryside, maiming people daily. Orphaned children flock to Eritrea’s cities (particularly the port of Massawa, where they are “sold” on the black market) while food and medical supplies dwindle.

The Orthodox Church and its national role. Orthodox Christians have historically played a prominent role in Eritrea: advocating common bonds between Eritreans and Ethiopians; condemning Ethiopian war atrocities; sheltering soldiers in monasteries in times of war; issuing calls for peace with their Ethiopian colleagues; providing care to all Eritreans in need, regardless of creed. Since independence, Eritrea’s Orthodox Church has been reorganized, its strengthened administrative structure poised to make an even greater impact.

Until 1991, Eritrean Orthodox formed a single diocese of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In July 1993 – just a few months after Eritreans overwhelmingly approved independence – a delegation, bearing a letter of support from Eritrea’s respected Orthodox leader, Abune Philipos, visited the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, in Cairo. They appealed for his support for the canonical erection of an independent Eritrean Orthodox Church that would nevertheless remain in full communion with the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Pope Shenouda subsequently recognized their request while the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church authorized the formation of future Eritrean church leaders in Coptic monasteries. A signed protocol provided for strengthening cooperation between the two churches, including a joint general synod at least every three years; the formation of a common theological dialogue team; and the creation of a permanent committee to tackle theological formation, catechetics, youth and family programs, social services and development projects.

The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, also sanctioned the Eritrean Orthodox Church’s self-governance and issued a joint statement with Abune Philipos pledging mutual support.

In July 1994 Pope Shenouda consecrated five bishops, all drawn from Eritrea’s monasteries, who were elected to serve as diocesan bishops. These five men formed the nucleus of a synod that eventually elected the 96-year-old Abune Philipos, heralded by Eritreans as “the father of resistance to Ethiopian oppression,” as Patriarch in 1998.

Patriarch Antonios (elected in 2004 after the deaths of Eritrea’s second patriarch, the 79-year-old Yacob, and his predecessor, Philipos) leads a community of more than 1.4 million members with an estimated 1,500 churches, 22 monasteries, 7 bishops and 15,000 priests. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors (both of whom were elected despite their advanced ages), Antonios is working to improve the formation of Eritrea’s clergy – most of whom are still apprenticed to a senior priest and taught to memorize the Qeddase, or eucharistic liturgy (which is celebrated in ancient Ge’ez and the modern vernacular, Tigrinya) – erecting and staffing a theological college in Asmara.

An uphill challenge. Despite its rich legacy, Eritrea is one of the poorest nations in the world. With little time to recover from their 30-year war, Eritrea and Ethiopia entered into a border conflict in 1998, settling nothing. Deforestation, drought, endemic poverty, famine and war-damaged infrastructure remain constant concerns that have yet to be addressed.

Eritrea’s Orthodox Church works to alleviate some of these problems, but a tremendous amount of work remains in building up the people of Eritrea.

Executive Editor Michael La Civita is a 15-year veteran of the magazine.

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