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The Ethiopian Catholic Church

Catholic missionaries arrived in Ethiopia in the 14th century, and Pope Eugenius IV sent a letter to the Ethiopian Emperor on August 28, 1439, inviting him to unity with the Catholic Church, but such efforts were unsuccessful. In the 16th century, Islamic attacks, culminating in 1531, threatened the very existence of Christian Ethiopia. The Emperor appealed for assistance to the Portuguese, who sent sufficient military support from Goa to defeat the Islamic armies definitively in 1543.

The Portuguese in Ethiopia were accompanied by Jesuit missionaries, who began an effort to bring the Ethiopian Orthodox Church into union with the Catholic Church. They focused their activity on the political elite of the country including the Emperor himself. Largely through the efforts of Fr. Peter Paez, Emperor Susenyos converted and declared Catholicism the state religion in 1622. The following year Pope Gregory XV appointed another Portuguese Jesuit, Affonso Mendez, as Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. A formal union was declared when Mendez arrived in the country in 1626. But this union was to last only ten years. Mendez imposed a series of latinizations on the Ethiopian liturgy, customs, and discipline, which Susenyos then tried to enforce with cruelty and bloodshed. This led to a violent public reaction. Susenyos died in 1632. In 1636 his successor expelled Mendez, dissolved the union, and either expelled or executed the Catholic missionaries. The country was closed to Catholic missionary activity for the next 200 years.

In 1839 limited activity was resumed by the Lazarists and Capuchins, but public hostility was still very strong. It was only with the accession of King Menelik II to the throne in 1889 that Catholic missionaries could again work freely in the country. Catholic missionary activity expanded in Ethiopia during the Italian occupation from 1935 to 1941, as it had earlier in Eritrea which had been under Italian control since 1889.

The present ecclesiastical structure of the Ethiopian Catholic Church dates from 1961, when a metropolitan see was established at Addis Ababa with suffragan dioceses in Asmara and Adigrat. The largest concentrations of Catholics are in Addis Ababa and Asmara. After Eritrea achieved independence on May 24, 1993, about half the faithful found themselves within that new country. Two new dioceses were created in Eritrea in 1995, at Keren and Barentu, from territory taken from the diocese of Asmara. Thus there are now three dioceses in Ethiopia and three in Eritrea.



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