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The Ge’ez Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Widely celebrated for its coffee and long-distance runners, but notorious for its extreme poverty, Ethiopia is the only sub-Saharan nation with a Christian culture dating to the earliest days of the church – a little known fact that it shares with Eritrea, its former province and northern neighbor. About 50 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 77 million people belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a dominant force that, with Ethiopia’s monarchy, had defined this ancient land and its people for more than 16 centuries.

But the entrenched church is losing ground to a burgeoning Sunni Muslim population in the country’s south and southwest – who now account for almost half of the nation’s people – and to successful proselytizing efforts among the Orthodox by evangelical Christians from the West.

Some 500 years ago Ethiopia’s distinctive Orthodox Christian community faced the Counter Reformation zeal of the Jesuits, who worked to restore full communion between the Roman Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The Jesuits failed and Ethiopia slipped into civil war. Once the dust settled, hundreds of Catholic missionaries were expelled or put to death. Europeans were forbidden to enter this “African Zion,” which, more than any other factor, preserved Ethiopia’s independence during Europe’s empire-building land grab centuries later.

Modern Ethiopia’s small Ge’ez Catholic Church, led by Metropolitan Archbishop Berhaneyesus D. Souraphiel, C.M., is often perceived as an affront to the dominant church. And while relations between Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and some members of the Catholic Church are warm, the Ethiopian Orthodox remain guarded.

Through its schools, clinics and other social service institutions, the Ge’ez Catholic Church, which includes three eparchies in Ethiopia and three in Eritrea, plays a disproportionately influential role in the lives of these strategically important nations.

Christian origins. More than a thousand years before the birth of Christ, Semitic settlers from the Arabian Peninsula crossed the Red Sea, landed in the Horn of Africa – modern Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia – and intermarried with the African Hamitic population. From these people emerged a civilization that, at its height in the sixth century A.D., stretched from the Nile River across the Red Sea to Arabia and controlled the trade routes linking Rome and India.

Little remains of the Aksumite Empire, named for its capital of Aksum, now a sleepy town of 41,000 people in northern Ethiopia. And, as tradition would have it, had it not been for the actions of one man, perhaps Aksum would be just another civilization lost in the annals of history.

In A.D. 330, the newly baptized emperor of Aksum, Ezana, declared Christianity the official religion of the empire. Eager to evangelize his people, Ezana dispatched his former tutor – Frumentius, a Christian from Tyre, an ancient city in modern Lebanon – to the renowned Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. The patriarch ordained him to the episcopacy and, returning him to Aksum, commissioned Frumentius with building the church in Aithiopia, a Greek word meaning “land of burnt faces.”

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Tags: Ethiopia Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity Ethiopian Catholic Church The Ge'ez Catholic Church