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Crises. Though largely isolated from the Christian world, Ethiopia remained a part of Europe’s consciousness. In the 14th century, Dominicans traveled there with the hope of establishing communion between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic churches; their mission failed.

Ethiopia’s contacts with Christian Europe increased during the reign of Emperor Zara Yacob (died 1468). Known for his statecraft, Zara Yacob also reformed the Ethiopian church and lent his support to its monastic and missionary efforts. He instituted the feast of Mariam Zion that, in its commemoration of the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant and in the Virgin Mary, illustrates best the unique spirituality of Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

Invited by Pope Eugene IV to full unity with the Catholic Church, Zara Yacob sent a delegation of clergy to Florence, where in 1439 a council was held to discuss the reunification of the various Eastern churches with Rome. These few representatives of the Ethiopian church declared the healing of the breach, but real communion between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Catholic churches never took place.

Long periods of harmony, punctuated by occasional scuffles involving matters of trade, marked premodern Ethiopia’s relations with Islam. Muhammad instructed his followers to live in peace with the Christians of Ethiopia, “a land of righteousness where no one was wronged.” But his words were not always heeded.

Beginning in 1529, Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, a Muslim general from the Ethiopian vassal state of Adal, ravaged the Ethiopian realm, sacked its cities, pillaged its churches and monasteries — including Aksum’s Church of Mariam Zion — and forced thousands to submit to Islam. The general’s victories nearly destroyed Christian Ethiopia.

Eventually, the beleaguered Ethiopian emperor, Dawit II, appealed to the Portuguese for military assistance. The Portuguese arrived in 1540, too late to save the emperor, who died in battle five months earlier, but not too late to save Ethiopia. The Portuguese killed al-Ghazi and his army collapsed.

The Portuguese envoy included a company of Jesuits, who quickly began to challenge the position of the country’s Orthodox Church. They translated the Catholic catechism into Amharic (the vernacular of the Amhara people, who dominated Ethiopian culture), set up schools for the nobility and formed alliances with the politically influential.

To preserve the integrity of Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Emperor Gelawdewos authored his Confessions, in which he outlined the fundamental faith and dogma of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia. His efforts, however, failed to prevent his successors, emperors Za Dengel and Susenyos, from embracing Catholicism.

In a public ceremony in 1626, a Portuguese Jesuit, Affonso Mendes, formally declared the union of the Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Appointed patriarch by Pope Gregory XV, the Jesuit latinized the Ethiopian liturgy, aligned Ethiopian customs and disciplines with Rome and replaced the Ethiopian calendar with the Gregorian.

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Tags: Ethiopia Church history Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity