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Eritrean Orthodox Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Though Eritrea’s political history began a mere 13 years ago, this east 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 have a common history and culture, many Eritreans nevertheless emphasize how they differ. Perhaps the single greatest element binding the two nations – religion and its cultural expression – may best have influenced the evolution of Eritrean self-determination.

Of the nation’s 3.8 million people, roughly 45 percent are Sunni Muslim, while about 45 percent belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Catholics, evangelical Protestants, animists and unbelievers make up the balance of the population. And while historically there have been some tensions, particularly with the recent influx of evangelical Christian missionaries from the United States, generally these communities coexist harmoniously.

Aksum. A thousand years before the birth of Christ, Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula crossed the Red Sea, settled in the Horn of Africa (modern Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia) and intermarried with the local African Hamitic people. From this civilization emerged an empire centered in Aksum (a city now in northeastern Ethiopia). The Aksumite empire, which for seven centuries controlled the trade routes between Africa and Asia, is thought to have stretched from Mecca to the Nile at its zenith in the first few centuries after the birth of Christ.

Little historical documentation remains of the empire’s formative centuries, but this changed 300 years after the birth of Christ when an Aksumite emperor, Ezana, declared Christianity the empire’s official religion. Influenced by his tutor St. Frumentius, a Christian from Tyre (now in modern Lebanon), Ezana embraced the Christian faith as a boy.

As emperor Ezana installed Frumentius as Aksum’s first bishop. Ordained to the episcopacy by St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (one of the Roman Empire’s principal cities, located in modern Egypt), Frumentius established bonds with the Egyptian church, maintained even now.

Emperor Ezana is also credited with securing Aksum’s greatest relic, the Ark of the Covenant (which enshrined the Ten Commandments), from the empire’s Falasha, or Jewish community. According to an ancient tradition, the Falasha had protected the Ark on an island refuge after it was carried to Aksum from Jerusalem by Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a figure claimed as their own by modern Eritreans and Ethiopians.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Church history Eritrea