Though Eritrea’s political history began some 23 years ago, this northeast 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 share many elements of a common history and culture, Eritreans have forged a separate identity. Perhaps the single greatest element binding the two nations — the Christian faith and its cultural expression — may best have influenced the evolution of Eritrean self-determination.
Of the nation’s 6.3 million people, more than 50 percent are Christian. Although Catholics and evangelical Protestants are prominent in various ministries, most Christians belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. About 45 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim; animists and unbelievers make up the balance of the population. There have been some tensions among the religious communities, particularly with the influx of evangelical Christian missionaries from the United States, but generally these communities coexist harmoniously.
Historically, Eritrea’s Orthodox Christians have played a prominent role: advocating common bonds with Ethiopians; condemning Ethiopian atrocities and 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, Eritrea’s Orthodox Christians formed a single diocese of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In July 1993 — just a few months after Eritreans overwhelmingly approved independence from Ethiopia — a delegation of Eritrean Orthodox Christians, 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. 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, catechesis, youth and family programs, social services and development projects.
The then patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Paulos, also sanctioned the new 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.
Click here to read more about the church and its subsequent development.