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“Monasteries are declining and the number of monks decreasing,” said Abba Ghirmai Tekleafa of the Gash Barka Diocese. “Most monks are old men. Today’s student monks don’t want to live in remote areas away from towns and villages.”

At the Orthodox Patriarchate in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, Abune Yoftahe Dimetros, Secretary General of the Holy Synod, casts contemporary monasticism in a more positive light.

“Now,” he said, “the monasteries are being re-established and Debra Bizen and others are starting to attract more and more younger monks.”

A national role. Although there is a lack of statistics on the number of young Eritreans called to monasticism, monasteries continue to play a leading role in the development of an independent Orthodox Church and an independent Eritrea.

In July 1993, Eritrean Orthodox bishops, who are all drawn from monasteries, asked Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church – the mother church for both the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox churches – to sanction their separation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The independence of the Eritrean Orthodox Church was subsequently recognized, and the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo authorized the theological training of future Eritrean bishops in Coptic monasteries.

“The church became a symbol of freedom,” said Abune Dimetros. “Like the independence of the nation, the church is now our church, rather than just a jurisdiction dependent on others, namely the leadership in Ethiopia.”

Eritrea’s first Patriarch, Philipos, who was crowned in May 1998 at the age of 97, was heralded by his countrymen as an early advocate of independence. When he died last year, government officials described him as “the father of resistance to Ethiopian oppression,” although as Patriarch he had encouraged reconciliation between the two warring countries – a direction followed by his newly elected successor, Yacob.

Partner for peace. Having played an integral role in the independence movement, leaders of the Eritrean Orthodox Church have also worked with their counterparts in Ethiopia to improve bilateral relations and to encourage an end to the border war that began in 1997. In July 2000, leaders of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, along with co-nationals of other faiths, met with their Ethiopian counterparts for the fourth time in an interreligious effort to resolve the conflict, which had left tens of thousands dead. Some five months later, the two countries agreed to a cease-fire.

With the United Nations poised to demarcate the 600-mile-long border zone, the country stands at a “crossroads,” Shumdehan Hailemichael, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Eritrea, said during a recent trip to New York.

“For a long time the national focus was on resistance and independence from Ethiopia,” he said. “Now that we have our own independent country, we are ready to ask ourselves what kind of nation we want to have, especially in terms of important national institutions, including the church.”

However, he warned that “a great deal still depends on a successful demarcation of the disputed border and the permanent end of hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which will allow both countries to move forward.”

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