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As the country begins to look inward for its national identity, Eritrea’s Orthodox Church is trying to improve its already good relations with the leadership of other faiths, especially Eritrean Catholics, who share the rites and traditions of the Orthodox, but are in full communion with the Church of Rome.

The country’s total population of 3.8 million is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The vast majority of Christians – some 1.4 million – are Orthodox, with Catholics making up only 3 percent of the total population.

The strong relations between the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Eritrea stand in contrast to other countries where sectarian tension exists and creates political and social divisions.

According to the U.S. State Department’s annual report on religious freedom, “[in Eritrea] church leaders of most denominations, in particular, leaders of the Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Islamic and Protestant denominations, meet routinely and engage in ongoing efforts to foster cooperation and understanding between religions.”

Serving the faithful. With its 1,500 churches and 15,000 priests, the Eritrean Orthodox Church is also strengthening its role in shaping the course of daily life for the nation’s Christian community.

National festivals and cultural practices remain intimately connected with the calendar and rituals of the church. Many Eritreans, even irregular churchgoers, forgo meat and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays, traditional days of fasting and abstinence in the Orthodox calendar.

But while the Eritrean Orthodox Church aspires to play a dominant role in preserving the country’s ancient Christian heritage, a chronic shortage of funds has undermined its ability to serve members.

“While the church has a great many followers,” Abba Tekleafa said, “it does not have a lot of money.” Responsible for nearly 200 parishes, the priest must rely on public buses to visit them and often faces difficult funding choices to support their activities.

The church had historically depended on its role as a landowner for its primary source of income. But the decision of the Ethiopian government in 1975 to nationalize the land has forced the church to subsist on donations from its members, who make up one of the world’s poorest countries.

These days Orthodox bishops and priests are appointed and paid by the state. Since the state is poor and has other priorities, the church also remains poor. “The church has no problem,” said Abune Yohannes of Anseba, “in raising funds to build new churches, but the people don’t understand if you ask for money for administrative offices or meeting rooms.”

According to Abune Yohannes, the Eritrean Orthodox Church is still reliant on traditional methods of teaching and preaching, with itinerant priests and novices traveling from village to village begging for alms.

Preparing for the future. Some signs of modernization are in the air, though many planned projects are stalled or have yet to get off the ground due to a lack of financial resources.

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