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When Emperor Susenyos implemented these changes, civil war erupted. Distraught, Susenyos abdicated in favor of his son, who restored the Orthodox Church. Susenyos died two years later. In 1636, the Jesuit patriarch was expelled and the Orthodox union with Rome was dissolved. Later emperors burned Catholic works, expelled or executed Catholic missionaries and forbade Catholics to enter the country.

Soured by its experiences with Christian Europe, Orthodox Ethiopia retrenched, jealously guarding its borders and culture as the rest of the continent fell to Europe’s colonizers. Not until the late 19th century would a powerful Ethiopian state, buttressed by its Orthodox monasteries, emerge from centuries of self-imposed isolation.

Modern challenges. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ethiopia’s emperors enlisted the aid of Orthodox clergy to reach out to non-Orthodox Ethiopian peoples, such as the Kunama, to deepen among them a sense of national identity. This attempt to assimilate some of Ethiopia’s estimated 100 distinct ethnic groups — who speak at least 80 languages — coincided with the call for greater autonomy for Ethiopia’s church from the Coptic. Prominent members of the court lobbied especially for the appointment of native bishops.

In 1929, the Coptic Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Addis Ababa ordained four Ethiopian monks as bishops. Later, with the support of Emperor Haile Selassie, an agreement was reached for the election of an ethnic Ethiopian as metropolitan archbishop upon the death of the Coptic incumbent.

In 1948, the Coptic pope chose the ichage, or head, of the Debre Libanos Monastery as the first Ethiopian archbishop of Addis Ababa. Eleven years later, Abune Basilios was elevated to the rank of patriarch in Cairo’s Cathedral of St. Mark. Today Abune Paulos, who was elected in 1992, guides what remains Ethiopia’s largest and most influential religious community.

Ethiopia is celebrated for its many ancient monasteries, foundations established by men who, in the footsteps of the early desert fathers, fled the world to fast, pray and celebrate the Qeddase, the eucharistic liturgy of the Ethiopian church. These monasteries also played a significant role in shaping the development of the Ethiopian nation, culture and identity. Monks even participated in the nation’s volatile political life.

In the 19th century, as Ethiopia’s emperors and nobles waged war to defend or extend the nation’s borders, large monastic estates provided entire communities with education, employment, security and social assistance. With their vast landholdings, significant social prominence and influence with the court, monasteries wielded considerable power and eventually earned the enmity of jealous rivals.

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Tags: Ethiopia Church history Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity