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Italian occupation. Merchants from the Italian peninsula followed the Portuguese, setting up colonies along the Red Sea. As the strength of a unified Italian state developed, so too did its hold on Eritrea. The Italians, who annexed Eritrea in 1890, used their merchant bases there to subdue and colonize the rest of the Horn of Africa.

While the Italian occupation did have its imperialist tendencies, the Italians, at least up until the rise of Fascism, favored established Orthodox and Muslim communities, to the extent to which they helped pacify the colony.

The Italians built roads, improved communications, instituted agricultural reform and introduced modern medical services, heretofore unknown. Catholic priests and religious, based first in the town of Keren, and then in the capital city of Asmara, eventually assumed control of education and schools were built throughout the colony. Paradoxically, by uniting Eritrea, the Italians gave birth to an Eritrean national consciousness spanning even sectarian lines.

Independence. After World War II the United Nations recognized the aspirations of most Eritreans but, wary of authorizing complete independence, established Eritrea as a semiautonomous territory of Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie (who claimed dynastic descent from Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), did not respect this special status, forcing its legislature to approve the annexation of Eritrea in 1962. A war of liberation ensued, which outlasted the emperor’s reign and the Marxist regime that deposed him in 1974.

The 1991 collapse of this regime, coupled with the military and diplomatic successes of the Eritrean opposition, led to Eritrean independence, sanctioned by popular referendum in 1993. A border conflict with Ethiopia culminated in another war five years later. Thousands of soldiers and civilians are thought to have been killed. Land mines remain in the countryside, maiming people daily. Orphaned children flock to Eritrea’s cities (particularly the port of Massawa, where they are “sold” on the black market) while food and medical supplies dwindle.

The Orthodox Church and its national role. Orthodox Christians have historically played a prominent role in Eritrea: advocating common bonds between Eritreans and Ethiopians; condemning Ethiopian war atrocities; sheltering soldiers in monasteries in times of war; issuing calls for peace with their Ethiopian colleagues; providing care to all Eritreans in need, regardless of creed. Since independence, Eritrea’s Orthodox Church has been reorganized, its strengthened administrative structure poised to make an even greater impact.

Until 1991, Eritrean Orthodox formed a single diocese of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In July 1993 – just a few months after Eritreans overwhelmingly approved independence – a delegation, bearing a letter of support from Eritrea’s respected Orthodox leader, Abune Philipos, visited the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, in Cairo. They appealed for his support for the canonical erection of an independent Eritrean Orthodox Church that would nevertheless remain in full communion with the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

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