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The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Ethiopia, from the Greek meaning “land of burned faces,” possesses one of the world’s oldest cultures. Though it has survived the tumultuous 20th century intact, this ancient Judeo-Christian culture has entered the new millennium weakened by the encroaching forces of modernity, especially globalization and secularization.

About 43 percent of the nation’s 78 million people belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a dominant force that has shaped Ethiopia’s people and defined its culture for more than 16 centuries. Yet, this church is losing ground to the proselytization among its members by evangelical Christians from the West — whose numbers have tripled in less than 15 years — and to a burgeoning Sunni Muslim population in the country’s south and southwest, who now account for more than a third of Ethiopia’s people.

Christian origins. A thousand years before Christ, Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula crossed the Red Sea, settled in the Horn of Africa (modern Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) and intermarried with the local people.

From the city of Aksum, a civilization emerged and expanded, encompassing territory (at its peak around the year A.D. 500) from the southern Arabian Peninsula to the source of the Nile. Little evidence of early Aksum remains, but some historians believe that this empire also controlled the trade routes between Africa and Asia for centuries.

The character of Aksum changed in the early fourth century when the emperor, Ezana, declared Christianity the official state religion. Influenced by his tutor, Frumentius, Ezana had embraced the Christian faith and later installed his former tutor as Aksum’s first bishop. Ordained to the episcopacy by Athanasius, the sainted patriarch of the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Frumentius established filial bonds with the Egyptian church that remained for centuries. Until the middle of the 20th century, a Coptic (derived from the Greek for “Egyptian”) metropolitan archbishop governed the Ethiopian church.

Ezana is also credited with obtaining the most important symbol of Ethiopian Christianity, the Ark of the Covenant. According to an ancient Ethiopian tradition, the Jews of Aksum guarded the Ark on an island refuge. It had been carried from Jerusalem to Aksum by Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a figure Ethiopians and Eritreans claim as their own.

A century after Ezana and Frumentius, Aksum received a number of Syrian monks who opposed the Christological decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451). Among these monks were nine men who made a profound impact on the life of the church of Aksum. In addition to their monastic way of life, these “Nine Saints” brought with them the Christology, liturgy and customs of the Syriac church of the Eastern Mediterranean world. They also bolstered links with Chalcedon’s Coptic opponents in Egypt and severed ties with the churches of Rome and Constantinople, which supported Chalcedon.

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Tags: Ethiopia Church history Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity