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More than a century after Ezana and Frumentius, groups of Syrian monks, fleeing the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) authorities, who sought to impose the doctrines decreed at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, settled in Aksum. Among these monks were the “Nine Saints,” who made a profound impact on the life of the church of Aksum, consequently shaping the destinies of its modern heirs, the churches of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In addition to their monastic way of life, the Nine Saints brought with them the unique Christology, liturgy and customs of the non-Greek-speaking Christian community of the Eastern Mediterranean, thus forging even stronger links between the Copts of Egypt and Aksum, while severing ties with the churches of Rome and Constantinople.

Islam and Aksum. Though it is often reported that the rise of Islam in the neighboring Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century contributed to the decline of Christian Aksum, the hospitality rendered by the Aksumite emperor to the family of the Prophet Muhammad, who fled persecution in Arabia, may have contributed to the preservation of the Christian faith in the Horn of Africa.

According to tradition, the pagan princes of Arabia offered the Aksumite emperor, Armah, a large bounty for the repatriation of the Prophet’s family. Armah refused to betray the exiles. According to the Imperial Crown Council of Ethiopia, “this act was possibly a key event in the survival of the young Islamic religion; the Prophet deeply appreciated this act of compassion. He explicitly instructed his followers to leave the ‘Ethiopians’ [from the Greek meaning ‘land of burnt faces’] in peace, and exempted Ethiopia from jihad. This in turn allowed Ethiopian Christianity to survive intact.”

Nevertheless, Arab Muslim merchants wrested control of the Africa-Asia trade routes from the Christian Aksumites, who consequently migrated from the Red Sea coast to the interior, seeking refuge in the highlands. Eventually, this “Ethiopian kingdom” lost control of what is today Eritrea, ties to Europe dissolved and a thousand-year process of southern expansion began. The peoples of the Red Sea coast (from which derives the word “Eritrea,” Greek for red) gravitated to the Muslim world, living for centuries under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.

Western rediscovery. European knowledge of a rich African Christian kingdom never evaporated. As hunger for riches intensified, ushering in the age of exploration, Europeans searched for this “lost” kingdom. Missionaries accompanied merchants and soldiers and, in the 16th century, Portuguese Jesuits launched a campaign to win for Rome the Christians of ancient Aksum.

In line with the spirit and theology of the time, the Jesuits failed to enculturate Catholicism, ignoring the ancient Christian traditions in their attempt at reform modeled on the Church of Rome.

The Jesuits focused their attentions on the elite, which culminated in 1622 with the conversion of the Ethiopian emperor, Susenyos, and his subsequent declaration of Catholicism as the state religion. The emperor’s forced implementation of a latinized liturgy prompted a bloody five-year civil war. After the abdication and death of the emperor, his successor expelled or executed all Catholic religious in the country. For more than 200 years, Catholic missionary activity in the region was banned.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Eritrea Church history