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The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

Ethiopia, from the Greek meaning “land of burned faces,” possesses one of the world’s oldest cultures. Though it has survived the tumultuous 20th century intact, this ancient Judeo-Christian culture has entered the new millennium weakened by the encroaching forces of modernity, especially globalization and secularization.

About 43 percent of the nation’s 78 million people belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a dominant force that has shaped Ethiopia’s people and defined its culture for more than 16 centuries. Yet, this church is losing ground to the proselytization among its members by evangelical Christians from the West — whose numbers have tripled in less than 15 years — and to a burgeoning Sunni Muslim population in the country’s south and southwest, who now account for more than a third of Ethiopia’s people.

Christian origins. A thousand years before Christ, Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula crossed the Red Sea, settled in the Horn of Africa (modern Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) and intermarried with the local people.

From the city of Aksum, a civilization emerged and expanded, encompassing territory (at its peak around the year A.D. 500) from the southern Arabian Peninsula to the source of the Nile. Little evidence of early Aksum remains, but some historians believe that this empire also controlled the trade routes between Africa and Asia for centuries.

The character of Aksum changed in the early fourth century when the emperor, Ezana, declared Christianity the official state religion. Influenced by his tutor, Frumentius, Ezana had embraced the Christian faith and later installed his former tutor as Aksum’s first bishop. Ordained to the episcopacy by Athanasius, the sainted patriarch of the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Frumentius established filial bonds with the Egyptian church that remained for centuries. Until the middle of the 20th century, a Coptic (derived from the Greek for “Egyptian”) metropolitan archbishop governed the Ethiopian church.

Ezana is also credited with obtaining the most important symbol of Ethiopian Christianity, the Ark of the Covenant. According to an ancient Ethiopian tradition, the Jews of Aksum guarded the Ark on an island refuge. It had been carried from Jerusalem to Aksum by Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a figure Ethiopians and Eritreans claim as their own.

A century after Ezana and Frumentius, Aksum received a number of Syrian monks who opposed the Christological decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451). Among these monks were nine men who made a profound impact on the life of the church of Aksum. In addition to their monastic way of life, these “Nine Saints” brought with them the Christology, liturgy and customs of the Syriac church of the Eastern Mediterranean world. They also bolstered links with Chalcedon’s Coptic opponents in Egypt and severed ties with the churches of Rome and Constantinople, which supported Chalcedon.

The Ethiopian Orthodox rejection of Chalcedon is remembered even today. The church’s official name includes the word “Tewahedo,” which in the liturgical language of Ge’ez means “being made one” and refers to the unity of Christ’s humanity and divinity in one nature. Today, theologians agree this conservative Christological position — which is shared by the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Eritrean, Malankara and Syriac Orthodox churches — reflects cultural, linguistic and philosophic differences more than differences in matters of faith.

Decline. It has often been reported that the rise of Islam in the neighboring Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century led to the decline of Christian Aksum. Yet the hospitality offered by the emperor of Aksum to the family of the Prophet Muhammad — who fled pagan 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 Aksum a large bounty for the repatriation of Muhammad’s family, but Aksum’s emperor 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 instructed his followers to leave the Ethiopians in peace and exempted Ethiopia from jihad. This in turn allowed Ethiopian Christianity to survive intact.”

Nevertheless, Arab Muslim merchants eventually wrested control of the Africa-Asia trade routes from Christian Aksum, whose residents later abandoned their ports on the Red Sea coast and migrated to the interior, settling in the highlands. Eventually, the Ethiopians lost control of what is now the Eritrean coast, ties to Europe were dissolved and a process of southern expansion began. As the former capital of Aksum declined, Christian monks in the 10th century moved the Ark of the Covenant to the uninhabited island of Tullu Gudo, where it remained in secret for generations.

The Zagwe dynasty, a family of kings who ruled Ethiopia after the ninth or tenth centuries, governed what remained of Christian Ethiopia from the town of Roha. The name of the capital was later changed to honor King Lalibela (who reigned in the late 12th and early 13th centuries), who is now famous for commissioning the city’s rock-hewn churches.

In a dream, the king envisioned a “New Jerusalem,” a city of churches built in his realm to compensate for the loss of Jerusalem to Islamic forces in 1187. The king assembled a massive crew of laborers, which included the best available masons and craftsmen in the world, who excavated from the earth the complex of ten churches. His queen is credited with an additional church, which she commissioned to honor her husband after his death.

The churches of Lalibela display remarkably different architectural styles — confusing experts for decades. Strolling through the maze of churches, the visitor encounters imposing fortresslike structures, classic basilicas and tiny chapels. Classical columns support the edifices of some, while carved Arabesque windows adorn others.

Crises. Though largely isolated from the Christian world, Ethiopia remained a part of Europe’s consciousness. In the 14th century, Dominicans traveled there with the hope of establishing communion between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic churches; their mission failed.

Ethiopia’s contacts with Christian Europe increased during the reign of Emperor Zara Yacob (died 1468). Known for his statecraft, Zara Yacob also reformed the Ethiopian church and lent his support to its monastic and 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, where in 1439 a council was held to discuss the reunification of the various Eastern churches with Rome. These few representatives of the Ethiopian church declared the healing of the breach, but real communion between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic churches never took place.

Long periods of harmony, punctuated by occasional scuffles involving matters of trade, marked 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, Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, a Muslim general from the Ethiopian vassal state of Adal, ravaged the Ethiopian realm, sacked its cities, pillaged its churches and monasteries — including Aksum’s Church of Mariam Zion — and forced thousands 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 country’s Orthodox Church. They translated the Catholic catechism into Amharic (the vernacular of the Amhara people, who dominated Ethiopian culture), set up schools for the nobility and formed alliances with the politically influential.

To preserve the integrity of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Emperor Gelawdewos authored his Confessions, in which he outlined the fundamental faith and dogma of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia. 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 Mendes, formally declared the union of the Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Appointed patriarch by Pope Gregory XV, the Jesuit latinized the Ethiopian liturgy, aligned Ethiopian customs and disciplines with Rome and replaced the Ethiopian calendar with the Gregorian.

When Emperor Susenyos implemented these changes, civil war erupted. Distraught, Susenyos abdicated in favor of his son, who restored the Orthodox Church. Susenyos died two years later. In 1636, the Jesuit patriarch was expelled and the Orthodox union with Rome was dissolved. Later emperors burned Catholic works, expelled or executed Catholic missionaries and forbade Catholics to enter the country.

Soured by its experiences with Christian Europe, Orthodox Ethiopia retrenched, jealously guarding its borders and culture as the rest of the continent fell to Europe’s colonizers. Not until the late 19th century would a powerful Ethiopian state, buttressed by its Orthodox monasteries, emerge from centuries of self-imposed isolation.

Modern challenges. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ethiopia’s emperors enlisted the aid of Orthodox clergy to reach out to non-Orthodox Ethiopian peoples, such as the Kunama, to deepen among them a sense of national identity. This attempt to assimilate some of Ethiopia’s estimated 100 distinct ethnic groups — who speak at least 80 languages — coincided with the call for greater autonomy for Ethiopia’s church from the Coptic. Prominent members of the court lobbied especially for the appointment of native bishops.

In 1929, the Coptic Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Addis Ababa ordained four Ethiopian monks as bishops. Later, with the support of Emperor Haile Selassie, an agreement was reached for the election of an ethnic Ethiopian as metropolitan archbishop upon the death of the Coptic incumbent.

In 1948, the Coptic pope chose the ichage, or head, of the Debre Libanos Monastery as the first Ethiopian archbishop of Addis Ababa. Eleven years later, Abune Basilios was elevated to the rank of patriarch in Cairo’s Cathedral of St. Mark. Today Abune Paulos, who was elected in 1992, guides what remains Ethiopia’s largest and most influential religious community.

Ethiopia is celebrated for its many ancient monasteries, foundations established by men who, in the footsteps of the early desert fathers, fled the world to fast, pray and celebrate the Qeddase, the eucharistic liturgy of the Ethiopian church. These monasteries also played a significant role in shaping the development of the Ethiopian nation, culture and identity. Monks even participated in the nation’s volatile political life.

In the 19th century, as Ethiopia’s emperors and nobles waged war to defend or extend the nation’s borders, large monastic estates provided entire communities with education, employment, security and social assistance. With their vast landholdings, significant social prominence and influence with the court, monasteries wielded considerable power and eventually earned the enmity of jealous rivals.

In 1974, a group of military officers overthrew the aged Haile Selassie and, in a 17-year period, instituted a number of harsh, Marxist-inspired economic and social reforms. Known as the Derg, the revolutionaries eliminated the monarchy and the nobility and stripped the monasteries of their land and their traditional privileges and rights, “thus depriving them of the resources and rights necessary to look after orphans, support the underprivileged, supply emergency aid and provide leadership in community affairs,” writes one scholar of the period, Joachim Persoons. “In many cases,” he continues, the “monasteries’ role as protectors of the nation’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage was seriously affected as well.

“Within one generation, the general public has taken for granted that monasteries are impoverished and regard monks as alien to society, which is not historically correct.”

Because of this Marxist rupture, tensions are now developing between the Ethiopian Orthodox clergy and its faithful. In the past, the priest or monk functioned as the community’s leader and adviser. Today, Ethiopia’s young Orthodox Christians no longer perceive the priest as the only source of wisdom. Often better educated than the clergy, they turn to their own experiences to find answers to life’s complexities. Meanwhile, as in the rest of Africa, evangelical Christians are succeeding in winning new converts.

Some attribute the success of the evangelical movements to the effective use of women evangelizers who engage in one-on-one outreach efforts, particularly with those who find themselves in difficult circumstances. Some converts — many of whom feel marginalized from the dominant Amhara and Tigre groups — also believe the Western-funded evangelical movements are more dynamic and possess a clergy better equipped to help them negotiate their Christian identity with the modern world.

To counter this trend, the Orthodox Church has initiated a program to strengthen the education of its priests and deacons, sponsoring clergy training centers throughout the country, but focusing on the rural clergy. Currently, eight centers operate in various eparchies and plans to create an additional 15 centers are in the works. Each center conducts two four-monthlong training sessions per year. Each session enrolls up to 60 participants, all of whom are under the age of 40 and have an eighth-grade education or higher.

While traditional priestly formation in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church emphasizes memorization, celebration of the liturgy and the administration of sacraments, program participants learn about alleviating poverty, gender equality issues, public health concerns and environmental conservation. They also learn about modern agricultural techniques and about the importance of speaking with parishioners about taboo subjects, such as sexual behavior and H.I.V./AIDS. The program also hopes to strengthen clergy’s interpersonal and communication skills as well as deepen their own spiritual lives.

“Our clergy [need] to be more aware of what’s going on around the world rather than just the Ethiopian situation,” says Dr. Nigussu Legesse, who until recently served as the commissioner of the Development and Interchurch Aid Commission of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, which sponsors the clergy training centers.

“We’ve had a social revolution in this country,” he adds. “That’s why we’re trying to expand this program. Clergy members don’t have to be left behind in their parishes and monasteries. We want to bring them back to the mainstream of education and development in the country.”

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s assistant secretary for communications.

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