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In 1974, a group of military officers overthrew the aged Haile Selassie and, in a 17-year period, instituted a number of harsh, Marxist-inspired economic and social reforms. Known as the Derg, the revolutionaries eliminated the monarchy and the nobility and stripped the monasteries of their land and their traditional privileges and rights, “thus depriving them of the resources and rights necessary to look after orphans, support the underprivileged, supply emergency aid and provide leadership in community affairs,” writes one scholar of the period, Joachim Persoons. “In many cases,” he continues, the “monasteries’ role as protectors of the nation’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage was seriously affected as well.

“Within one generation, the general public has taken for granted that monasteries are impoverished and regard monks as alien to society, which is not historically correct.”

Because of this Marxist rupture, tensions are now developing between the Ethiopian Orthodox clergy and its faithful. In the past, the priest or monk functioned as the community’s leader and adviser. Today, Ethiopia’s young Orthodox Christians no longer perceive the priest as the only source of wisdom. Often better educated than the clergy, they turn to their own experiences to find answers to life’s complexities. Meanwhile, as in the rest of Africa, evangelical Christians are succeeding in winning new converts.

Some attribute the success of the evangelical movements to the effective use of women evangelizers who engage in one-on-one outreach efforts, particularly with those who find themselves in difficult circumstances. Some converts — many of whom feel marginalized from the dominant Amhara and Tigre groups — also believe the Western-funded evangelical movements are more dynamic and possess a clergy better equipped to help them negotiate their Christian identity with the modern world.

To counter this trend, the Orthodox Church has initiated a program to strengthen the education of its priests and deacons, sponsoring clergy training centers throughout the country, but focusing on the rural clergy. Currently, eight centers operate in various eparchies and plans to create an additional 15 centers are in the works. Each center conducts two four-monthlong training sessions per year. Each session enrolls up to 60 participants, all of whom are under the age of 40 and have an eighth-grade education or higher.

While traditional priestly formation in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church emphasizes memorization, celebration of the liturgy and the administration of sacraments, program participants learn about alleviating poverty, gender equality issues, public health concerns and environmental conservation. They also learn about modern agricultural techniques and about the importance of speaking with parishioners about taboo subjects, such as sexual behavior and H.I.V./AIDS. The program also hopes to strengthen clergy’s interpersonal and communication skills as well as deepen their own spiritual lives.

“Our clergy [need] to be more aware of what’s going on around the world rather than just the Ethiopian situation,” says Dr. Nigussu Legesse, who until recently served as the commissioner of the Development and Interchurch Aid Commission of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, which sponsors the clergy training centers.

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Tags: Ethiopia Church history Ethiopian Orthodox Church Ethiopian Christianity