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The Ge’ez Catholic Church

Widely celebrated for its coffee and long-distance runners, but notorious for its extreme poverty, Ethiopia is the only sub-Saharan nation with a Christian culture dating to the earliest days of the church – a little known fact that it shares with Eritrea, its former province and northern neighbor. About 50 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 77 million people belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a dominant force that, with Ethiopia’s monarchy, had defined this ancient land and its people for more than 16 centuries.

But the entrenched church is losing ground to a burgeoning Sunni Muslim population in the country’s south and southwest – who now account for almost half of the nation’s people – and to successful proselytizing efforts among the Orthodox by evangelical Christians from the West.

Some 500 years ago Ethiopia’s distinctive Orthodox Christian community faced the Counter Reformation zeal of the Jesuits, who worked to restore full communion between the Roman Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The Jesuits failed and Ethiopia slipped into civil war. Once the dust settled, hundreds of Catholic missionaries were expelled or put to death. Europeans were forbidden to enter this “African Zion,” which, more than any other factor, preserved Ethiopia’s independence during Europe’s empire-building land grab centuries later.

Modern Ethiopia’s small Ge’ez Catholic Church, led by Metropolitan Archbishop Berhaneyesus D. Souraphiel, C.M., is often perceived as an affront to the dominant church. And while relations between Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and some members of the Catholic Church are warm, the Ethiopian Orthodox remain guarded.

Through its schools, clinics and other social service institutions, the Ge’ez Catholic Church, which includes three eparchies in Ethiopia and three in Eritrea, plays a disproportionately influential role in the lives of these strategically important nations.

Christian origins. More than a thousand years before the birth of Christ, Semitic settlers from the Arabian Peninsula crossed the Red Sea, landed in the Horn of Africa – modern Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia – and intermarried with the African Hamitic population. From these people emerged a civilization that, at its height in the sixth century A.D., stretched from the Nile River across the Red Sea to Arabia and controlled the trade routes linking Rome and India.

Little remains of the Aksumite Empire, named for its capital of Aksum, now a sleepy town of 41,000 people in northern Ethiopia. And, as tradition would have it, had it not been for the actions of one man, perhaps Aksum would be just another civilization lost in the annals of history.

In A.D. 330, the newly baptized emperor of Aksum, Ezana, declared Christianity the official religion of the empire. Eager to evangelize his people, Ezana dispatched his former tutor – Frumentius, a Christian from Tyre, an ancient city in modern Lebanon – to the renowned Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. The patriarch ordained him to the episcopacy and, returning him to Aksum, commissioned Frumentius with building the church in Aithiopia, a Greek word meaning “land of burnt faces.”

Ezana is also credited with obtaining Aksum’s greatest treasure – the Ark of the Covenant – from the empire’s Jewish community. Medieval Ethiopian accounts relate the ancient belief that Aksum’s Jews had custody of the Ark after it was carried from Jerusalem to Aksum by Menelik, the son of Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba. Historians dispute the location of Sheba, but most agree Sheba encompassed parts of modern Yemen, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

About 150 years after Ezana’s reign, Christian monks sought sanctuary in Aksum from the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) authorities, who were imposing the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. Among these monks were the Nine Saints, men who made a profound impact on the church in Aksum. In addition to their monastic way of life, the Nine Saints brought with them a conservative understanding of Jesus’ nature (a Christology incorrectly identified as Monophysite) and translated into Ge’ez, the vernacular of Aksum, the books of the Bible and many patristic works.

Though dependent on the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria for its abune, or presiding bishop, the Church of Aksum developed independently from the established churches of the Mediterranean world, in particular the churches of Constantinople and Rome.

The emperors of Aksum used their Judeo-Christian culture and faith to forge a distinct nation from a bewildering number of ethnic and linguistic groups, expanding to the south and west from their traditional stronghold in the Ethiopian highlands. As their influence spread, Aksum’s leaders took the name negusa nagast, or king of kings, to signify their rule over vassals still untouched by Aksum’s distinct Semitic Christian culture and language.

By the eighth century, however, the Aksumites began to lose control of the East-West trade routes to the ascendant power of the eastern Mediterranean world, the Muslim tribes of Arabia. Eventually, Aksum’s borders contracted, its power and wealth dissipated, internecine strife deposed Aksum’s Solomonic line of kings and its people retreated inland, finding security far from the Red Sea coast.

Exactly how and when the Christian state of Aksum collapsed is obscure. But Christian Ethiopia survived. Its remote monastic centers, such as Debre Damo, remained centers of faith and culture until the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty of Aksum in 1270.

First contacts with Catholics. Though largely isolated from the Christian world, Ethiopia remained more than a legend. In the 14th century, Dominicans traveled there with the hope of establishing communion between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches; their mission failed.

Ethiopia’s contacts with Christian Europe increased in the mid-15th century during the reign of Emperor Zara Yacob (died 1468). Best known for his statecraft, Zara Yacob also reformed the church and lent his support to the church’s missionary efforts. He instituted the feast of Mariam Zion that – in its commemoration of the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant and in the Virgin Mary – illustrates best the unique spirituality of Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

Invited by Pope Eugene IV to full unity with the Catholic Church, Zara Yacob sent a delegation of clergy to Florence in 1439, where a council was being held to discuss the reunification of the various Eastern churches with Rome. Though these few representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church declared the healing of the breach, real communion between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic churches never took place.

Muslims and Jesuits. Long periods of harmony, punctuated by occasional scuffles involving matters of trade, mark premodern Ethiopia’s relations with Islam. Muhammad instructed his followers to live in peace with the Christians of Ethiopia, “a land of righteousness where no one was wronged.” But his words were not always heeded.

Beginning in 1529, one Muslim general from the Ethiopian vassal state of Adal, Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, ravaged Ethiopia, sacked its cities, pillaged its churches and monasteries – including the hallowed Church of Mariam Zion in Aksum – and forced thousands of people to submit to Islam. The general’s victories nearly destroyed Christian Ethiopia.

Eventually, the beleaguered Ethiopian emperor, Dawit II, appealed to the Portuguese for military assistance. The Portuguese arrived in 1540, too late to save the emperor (who died in battle five months earlier), but not too late to save Ethiopia. The Portuguese killed al-Ghazi and his army collapsed.

The Portuguese envoy included a company of Jesuits, who quickly began to challenge the position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They translated the Roman Catholic catechism into Amharic (the vernacular of the Amhara people, who dominated Ethiopian culture), set up schools for the nobility and alliances with the politically influential.

To preserve the integrity of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the new emperor, Gelawdewos, commissioned the translation of the catechism into Amharic and authored his “Confessions,” in which he outlined the fundamental faith and dogma of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. His efforts, however, failed to prevent his successors, emperors Za Dengel and Susenyos, from embracing Catholicism.

In a public ceremony in 1626, a Portuguese Jesuit, Affonso Mendez, formally declared the union of the Roman Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Appointed patriarch by Pope Gregory XV, Mendez Latinized the Ethiopian liturgy, aligned Ethiopian customs and discipline with Rome and replaced the Ethiopian calendar with the Gregorian.

When Emperor Susenyos implemented the changes, civil war broke out. Distraught, Susenyos restored the Orthodox Church, abdicated in favor of his son and died two years later. In 1636, his son expelled Mendez and dissolved the union. Later emperors burned Catholic works, expelled or executed Catholic missionaries and forbade Catholics entry to the realm of African Zion for the next 200 years.

Modern developments. In 1839, an Italian Vincentian named Justin de Jacobis led a drastically different Catholic mission in Ethiopia from that of the Society of Jesus centuries earlier. Adapting the rites and traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the priest lived and worked among the people of the Ethiopian provinces of Eritrea and Tigray, winning allies and converts.

Eventually ordained bishop with faculties to administer the sacraments in the Ethiopian rite, de Jacobis was forced to work underground. The growth of his Catholic community (the “Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia”), which included a seminary for the formation of Catholic clergy, coincided with the Italian colonization of Eritrea and agitated the country’s emperor and patriarch. The advent of Italian Capuchins complicated matters further. In 1846, they erected a Latin apostolic vicariate to help their efforts with the Oromo people in Ethiopia’s south.

However, public hostility to the Catholic Church prevented these efforts from taking root until the reign of Emperor Menelik II, a zealous modernizer who in 1889 allowed Catholic missionaries to establish schools and other institutions throughout Ethiopia. Catholic apostolic activity expanded in Eritrea after it became an Italian colony in 1889. The Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1935 to 1941) boosted Catholic ministries, particularly education and health care, and led to the establishment of additional jurisdictions (prefectures and vicariates) by the Holy See in 1937 and 1940.

The organization of the Ge’ez Catholic Church as an autonomous (or sui iuris) metropolitan church dates to 1961, when Pope John XXIII established the metropolitan archeparchy of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital city) with suffragan sees in the Eritrean city of Asmara and the Tigrayan town of Adigrat. After Eritrea achieved independence in May 1993, Pope John Paul II created two additional Eritrean eparchies, Keren and Barentu. He later established the Eparchy of Emdibir, Ethiopia, in 2003.

In addition to the six eparchies of the Ge’ez Catholic Church (which total some 223,000 people), there are seven jurisdictions south of Addis Ababa that largely follow the rites and traditions of the Roman Church and include more than 500,000 people.

Until the migration of vast numbers of people from the countryside to Addis Ababa and Asmara some 30 years ago, the majority of Catholics lived in remote villages. Most were subsistence farmers, uneducated peasants, whose villages were dominated by Italianate church complexes. Today, Ethiopian Catholics are leaving behind their ancestral villages – many of them armed with high school certificates and college diplomas – for better opportunities in the cities or abroad.

In their relationships with peoples of other faiths, Orthodox, Protestant or Muslim, Ge’ez Catholics are urged wisely by their leaders to stress “what unites, not what divides” and “to grow in understanding and cooperation with everyone.” Indeed, counsel that could extend to people of every race and of every creed.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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