Widely celebrated for its coffee and long-distance runners, but notorious for its 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 43 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 100 million people belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo 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 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, may have preserved Ethiopia’s independence during Europe’s empire-building land grab centuries later.
Modern Ethiopia’s small Ethiopian Catholic Church, led by its metropolitan archbishop of Addis Ababa, Cardinal Berhaneyesus D. Souraphiel, C.M., is often perceived as an affront to the dominant church. And while relations among some bishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with their Catholic peers are warm, the Orthodox leadership remains guarded.
The Ethiopian Catholic Church includes some 88,000 members in four eparchies in the country. (A separate Eritrean Catholic Church, which, along with the Ethiopian Catholic Church, adheres to the same traditional rites and liturgical language — known as Ge’ez — as its Orthodox counterpart, was erected by Pope Francis in January 2015.) Although tiny, the Ethiopian Catholic Church plays a disproportionately influential role in the lives of all Ethiopians through its schools, clinics and other social service institutions.
Click here for more on the Ethiopian Catholic Church from the pages of ONE magazine.