Ethiopian Orthodox tewahedo church

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
The earliest contacts of Ethiopia with the Christian faith may have been in the first century: the New Testament records that an Ethiopian eunuch returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem met the apostle Philip on the road, receiving baptism at his hands (Acts 8:26-39). The eunuch was said to be an official in the court of the queen of Ethiopia, and tradition holds that upon his return he became the first to preach Christianity there. A separate tradition also records that the apostle Matthew himself visited Ethiopia in the course of his missionary travels. The great turning point in Ethiopian religious history, however, was not until the fourth century, when the king of Axum proclaimed Christianity the state religion.

The Axumite Empire was at that time a formidable kingdom stretching across present-day Eritrea, parts of present-day Ethiopia, and additional territories along the Red Sea (Molnar 2). According to legend, it had been founded in about 1000 B.C. by Menelik I, a son of King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba; indeed, down to the twentieth century emperors of Ethiopia continued to regard themselves as heirs to the throne of Solomon, Haile Selassie (reigned 1930-1974) being accounted 111th in the succession. The semi-historical Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings), a medieval work usually cited as the textual source for this tradition, further records the intriguing legend that soon after Menelik’s anointing the Ark of the Covenant was brought from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. There are many who believe the Ark is still there to this day, carefully guarded in a sanctuary near the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum.

The fourth-century conversion of the Axumite king to Christianity is credited to St. Frumentius, a Phoenician-born bishop ordained by St. Athanasius of Alexandria to minister to the faithful in Axum. Since that time, the Ethiopian Church has been closely tied to the Coptic Church, with the Patriarch of Alexandria overseeing the appointment of bishops until recent times; only in 1959 did the church receive full independence. Occasionally the Christians of Ethiopia are still incorrectly referred to as “Coptic Christians,” a label that belies not only the church’s autocephaly but also its distinctive heritage.

Together with the Coptic and other Oriental Orthodox Churches, Ethiopia rejected the Council of Chalcedon (451), which proclaimed Christ to have two distinct natures, human and divine. Wishing to stress that Christ has only one, simultaneously human and divine nature, the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia also refers to itself as the Tewahedo (also spelled tewahido), or “Made One / Unity,” Church. Non-Chalcedonian Christianity in Ethiopia was further strengthened in the late fifth century, when a group of exiles fleeing persecution under the Chalcedonian-leaning Byzantine Empire came to Ethiopia. These men, known as the “Nine Saints,” translated the Bible and important works of theology into Ge’ez (the language of Ethiopia at the time), established monasteries, and worked to convert the remaining pagans in the land.

In the seventh century Islam began its rapid spread through North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Ethiopia was exempted from jihad, perhaps at the order of the Prophet Muhammad, some of whose companions and relatives are said to have received shelter and religious protection from the king of Axum; but the surrounding conquests left the Christians of Ethiopia relatively isolated. The church continued to be governed by Coptic bishops, though the dangers of the road from Egypt to Axum at times left the see unoccupied (ibid. 6). Beginning in the thirteenth century, Ethiopia faced intermittent conflicts with regional Muslim states, culminating with a devastating series of attacks led by the sixteenth-century ruler Ahmad ibn Ibrahim. With Portuguese assistance, Ethiopia eventually repelled Ahmad’s armies, but only after years of violence in which many churches, along with some of Ethiopia’s greatest artistic treasures, were destroyed.

The work of Jesuit missionaries during this period led to deep tensions within the church. In the early seventeenth century, Emperor Susneyos of Ethiopia converted to Catholicism, ordering the persecution of those who refused to accept Chalcedonian christology. A bloody rebellion followed, ending with the ascent to power of Susneyos’s son Fasiladas, who expelled the Jesuits from the country and proclaimed the restoration of Orthodoxy; for the next two hundred years, further missionary efforts were strictly suppressed.

In the twentieth century, with political support from Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian Church began pushing for greater independence from the Coptic Church. In 1948, the Coptic Church agreed to consecrate an Ethiopian rather than a Copt as the next metropolitan of Ethiopia. The Egyptian-born metropolitan died in 1950, and the Ethiopian-born Archbishop Basilios succeeded him the following year. In 1959, the move was made complete, as Basilios was elevated to the rank of patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. Henceforth, Ethiopia was fully independent from the Coptic Church, although it continued to accord to Alexandria a primacy of honor. In 1993, after the political independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Church was in turn to recognize the autocephaly of the Eritrean Church, which had previously been a province under the jurisdiction of the Ethiopian patriarch.

A Marxist revolution in 1974 led to the overthrow of Haile Selassie and the official separation of church and state. The years following the coup were marked by severe persecution of Christians: church properties were seized by the state, and as many as tens of thousands of Ethiopians were killed during a period known as the “Red Terror.” The communist government of Ethiopia fell in 1991, and this in turn led to a schism within the church, with Patriarch Merkorios being accused of collaboration with the communists and forced to resign. In 1992 Patriarch Paulos was consecrated in his place, but Merkorios refused to recognize the election. Merkorios, taking refuge first in Kenya and then the United States, established the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Exile; as of 2004, the division between the followers of the Patriarchal church in Ethiopia and the Synod in Exile remains unhealed. Together, members of the two groups number approximately 30 million believers throughout the world.