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Pope Shenouda subsequently recognized their request while the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church authorized the formation of future Eritrean church leaders in Coptic monasteries. A signed protocol provided for strengthening cooperation between the two churches, including a joint general synod at least every three years; the formation of a common theological dialogue team; and the creation of a permanent committee to tackle theological formation, catechetics, youth and family programs, social services and development projects.

The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, also sanctioned the Eritrean Orthodox Church’s self-governance and issued a joint statement with Abune Philipos pledging mutual support.

In July 1994 Pope Shenouda consecrated five bishops, all drawn from Eritrea’s monasteries, who were elected to serve as diocesan bishops. These five men formed the nucleus of a synod that eventually elected the 96-year-old Abune Philipos, heralded by Eritreans as “the father of resistance to Ethiopian oppression,” as Patriarch in 1998.

Patriarch Antonios (elected in 2004 after the deaths of Eritrea’s second patriarch, the 79-year-old Yacob, and his predecessor, Philipos) leads a community of more than 1.4 million members with an estimated 1,500 churches, 22 monasteries, 7 bishops and 15,000 priests. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors (both of whom were elected despite their advanced ages), Antonios is working to improve the formation of Eritrea’s clergy – most of whom are still apprenticed to a senior priest and taught to memorize the Qeddase, or eucharistic liturgy (which is celebrated in ancient Ge’ez and the modern vernacular, Tigrinya) – erecting and staffing a theological college in Asmara.

An uphill challenge. Despite its rich legacy, Eritrea is one of the poorest nations in the world. With little time to recover from their 30-year war, Eritrea and Ethiopia entered into a border conflict in 1998, settling nothing. Deforestation, drought, endemic poverty, famine and war-damaged infrastructure remain constant concerns that have yet to be addressed.

Eritrea’s Orthodox Church works to alleviate some of these problems, but a tremendous amount of work remains in building up the people of Eritrea.

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Executive Editor Michael La Civita is a 15-year veteran of the magazine.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Eritrea Church history