The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the predominant Oriental Orthodox Christian church in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Church was administratively part of the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959, when it was granted its own Patriarch by Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa, Cyril VI. It should not be confused with the Ethiopian Catholic Church, which is a Chalcedonian church.
One of the few pre-colonial Christian churches of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Ethiopian Church has a membership of between 40 and 45 million, the overwhelming majority of whom live in Ethiopia, and is thus the largest of all Oriental Orthodox churches. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is a founding member of the World Council of Churches.
Tewahedo (Te-wa-hido) (Ge’ez modern pronunciation tewāhidō) is a Ge’ez word meaning “being made one” or “unified”. This word refers to the Oriental Orthodox belief in the one single unified Nature of Christ; i.e., a belief that a complete, natural union of the Divine and Human Natures into One is self-evident in order to accomplish the divine salvation of humankind, as opposed to the “two Natures of Christ” belief (unmixed, but unseparated Divine and Human Natures, called the Hypostatic Union) which is held by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Henotikon the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and many others, all refused to accept the “two natures” doctrine decreed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, thus separating them from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox — who themselves separated from one another later on in the East-West Schism in 1054, although not over Christological views.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches, which today include the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Church of India, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, are referred to as “Non-Chalcedonian”, and, sometimes by outsiders as “monophysite” (meaning “One Single Nature”, in reference to Christ). However, these Churches themselves describe their Christology as miaphysite (meaning “One United Nature”, in reference to Christ; the translation of the word “Tewahedo”).
The Ethiopian Church claims its earliest origins from the royal official said to have been baptized by Philip the Evangelist (not to be confused with Philip the Apostle), one of the seven deacons:
Then the angel of the Lord said to Philip, Start out and go south to the road that leads down from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he set out and was on his way when he caught sight of an Ethiopian. This man was a eunuch, a high official of the Kandake (Candace) Queen of Ethiopia in charge of all her treasure. (Acts, 8:26-27)
The passage continues by describing how Philip helped the Ethiopian treasurer understand a passage from Isaiah that the Ethiopian was reading. After the Ethiopian received an explanation of the passage, he requested that Philip baptize him, and Philip did so. The Ethiopic version of this verse reads “Hendeke” Queen Gersamot Hendeke VII was the Queen of Ethiopia from ca. 42 to 52.
Orthodox Christianity became the established church of the Ethiopian Axumite Kingdom under king Ezana in the 4th century through the efforts of a Syrian Greek named Frumentius, known in Ethiopia as Abba Selama, Kesaté Birhan (“Father of Peace, Revealer of Light”). As a youth, Frumentius had been shipwrecked with his brother Aedesius on the Eritrean coast. The brothers managed to be brought to the royal court, where they rose to positions of influence and converted Emperor Ezana to Christianity, causing him to be baptised. Ezana sent Frumentius to Alexandria to ask the Patriarch, St. Athanasius, to appoint a bishop for Ethiopia. Athanasius appointed Frumentius himself, who returned to Ethiopia as Bishop with the name of Abune Selama.
From then on, until 1959, the Pope of Alexandria, as Patriarch of All Africa, always named an Egyptian (a Copt) to be Abuna or Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church.
Union with the Coptic Orthodox Church continued after the Arab conquest of Egypt. Abu Saleh records in the 12th century that the patriarch always sent letters twice a year to the kings of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Nubia, until Al Hakim stopped the practice. Cyril, 67th patriarch, sent Severus as bishop, with orders to put down polygamy and to enforce observance of canonical consecration for all churches. These examples show the close relations of the two churches concurrent with the Middle Ages.
In 1439, in the reign of Zara Yaqob, a religious discussion between Abba Giyorgis and a French visitor had led to the dispatch of an embassy from Ethiopia to the Vatican.
The period of Jesuit influence, which broke the connection with Egypt, began a new chapter in Church history. The initiative in the Roman Catholic missions to Ethiopia was taken, not by Rome, but by Portugal, as an incident in the struggle with the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Sultanate of Adal for the command of the trade route to India by the Red Sea.
In 1507 Matthew, or Matheus, an Armenian, had been sent as an Ethiopian envoy to Portugal to ask for aid against the Adal Sultanate. In 1520 an embassy under Dom Rodrigo de Lima landed in Ethiopia (by which time Adal had been remobilized under Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi). An interesting account of the Portuguese mission, which lasted for several years, was written by Francisco Álvares, the chaplain.
Later, Ignatius Loyola wished to take up the task of conversion, but was forbidden. Instead, the pope sent out João Nunes Barreto as patriarch of the East Indies, with Andre de Oviedo as bishop; and from Goa envoys went to Ethiopia, followed by Oviedo himself, to secure the king’s adherence to Rome. After repeated failures some measure of success was achieved under Emperor Susenyos, but not until 1624 did the Emperor make formal submission to the pope. Susenyos made Roman Catholicism the official state religion, but was met with heavy resistance by his subjects, and the authorities of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and eventually had to abdicate in 1632 to his son, Fasilides, who promptly restored the state religion to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. He then expelled the Jesuits in 1633, and in 1665, Fasilides ordered that all Jesuit books (the Books of the Franks) be burned.
In recent years, the Ethiopian church experienced a series of reforms. The earliest was in the 19th century with the publication of an Amharic translation of the Bible. Largely the work of Abu Rumi, who worked on this monumental effort for ten years in Cairo, this version, with some changes, held sway until Emperor Haile Selassie ordered a new translation which appeared in 1960/1. Haile Selassie also played a prominent role in further reforms of the church, which included encouraging the distribution of Abu Rumi’s translation throughout Ethiopia, as well as his promotion of improved education of clergy, the founding of the Theological College of the Holy Trinity Church in December 1944 being a significant step in the Emperor’s effort. A third development came after his restoration to Ethiopia, when Emperor Haile Selassie issued on 30 November 1942 a new law reforming the Church, Decree Number 2 of 1942. The primary objectives of this decree were to put the finances of the church in order, to create a central fund for its activities, and to set forth requirements and steps for the appointment of clergy—which had been embarrassingly lax until then.
The Coptic and Ethiopian Churches reached an agreement on 13 July 1948 that led to autocephaly for the Ethiopian Church. Five bishops were immediately consecrated by the Coptic Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa, empowered to elect a new Patriarch for their church, and the successor to Abuna Qerellos IV would have the power to consecrate new bishops. This promotion was completed when Coptic Orthodox Pope Joseph II consecrated an Ethiopian-born Archbishop, Abuna Basilios, and 14 January 1951. Then in 1959, Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria crowned Abuna Baslios as the first Patriarch of Ethiopia.
Patriarch Abune Basilios died in 1971, and was succeeded that year by Patriarch Abune Tewophilos. With the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was disestablished as the state church. The new Marxist government began nationalising property (including land) owned by the church. Patriarch Abune Tewophilos was arrested in 1976 by the Marxist Derg military junta, and secretly executed in 1979. The government ordered the church to elect a new Patriarch, and Abune Takla Haymanot was enthroned. The Coptic Orthodox Church refused to recognize the election and enthronement of Abune Tekle Haymanot on the grounds that the Synod of the Ethiopian Church had not removed Abune Tewophilos and that the government had not publicly acknowledged his death, and he was thus still the legitimate Patriarch of Ethiopia. Formal relations between the two churches were halted, although they remained in communion with each other. Formal relations between the two churches resumed on July 13, 2007.
Patriarch Abune Tekle Haymanot proved to be much less accommodating to the Derg regime than it had expected, and so when the Patriarch died in 1988, a new Patriarch with closer ties to the regime was sought. The Archbishop of Gondar, a member of the Derg-era Ethiopian Parliament, was elected and enthroned as Patriarch Abuna Merkorios. Following the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, and the coming to power of the EPRDF government, Patriarch Abune Merkorios abdicated under public and governmental pressure. The church then elected a new Patriarch, Abune Paulos, who was recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria. The former Patriarch Abune Merkorios then fled abroad, and announced from exile that his abdication had been made under duress and thus he was still the legitimate Patriarch of Ethiopia. Several bishops also went into exile and formed a break-away alternate synod. This exiled synod is recognized by some Ethiopian Churches in North America and Europe who recognize Patriarch Abune Merkorios, while the synod inside Ethiopia continues to uphold the legitimacy of Patriarch Abune Paulos.
Following the independence of Eritrea as a nation in 1993, the Coptic Orthodox Church in 1994 appointed an Archbishop for the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which in turn obtained autocephaly in 1998 with the reluctant approval of its mother synod. That same year the first Eritrean Patriarch was consecrated.
As of 2005, there are many Ethiopian Orthodox churches located throughout the United States and other countries to which Ethiopians have migrated (Archbishop Yesehaq 1997). The church claims more than 38 million members in Ethiopia, forming about half the country’s population.
The faith and practice of most Orthodox Ethiopian Christians includes elements from Miaphysite Christianity as it has developed in Ethiopia over the centuries. Christian elements include God (in Ge’ez / Amharic, ′Egziabeher, lit. “Lord of the Universe”), the angels, and the saints, besides others. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church itself, there are no non-Christian elements in the religion other than those from the Old Testament, or Higge ‘Orit to which are added those from the New Testament, or Higge Wongiel. A hierarchy of “Kidusan” (angelic messengers and saints) conveys the prayers of the faithful to God and carries out the divine will, so when an Ethiopian Christian is in difficulty, he or she appeals to these as well as to God. In more formal and regular rituals, priests communicate on behalf of the community, and only priests may enter the inner sanctum of the usually circular or octagonal church where the tabot (“ark”) dedicated to the church’s patron saint is housed. On important religious holidays, the tabot is carried on the head of a priest and escorted in procession outside the church. It is the tabot, not the church, which is consecrated. Only those who feel pure, have fasted regularly, and have generally conducted themselves properly may enter the middle ring to receive communion. At many services, most parish members remain in the outer ring, where debteras sing hymns and dance.
Ethiopian Orthodox believers are strict Trinitarians, maintaining the Orthodox teaching that God is united in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This concept is known as səllasé, Ge’ez for “Trinity”.
Weekly services constitute only a small part of an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian’s religious observance. Several holy days require prolonged services, singing and dancing, and feasting. An important religious requirement, however, is the keeping of fast days. All devout believers are to maintain the full schedule of fasts, comprising 250 days.
Fast for Hudadi or Abiye Tsome (Lent), 56 days.
Fast of the Apostles, 10–40 days, which the Apostles kept after they had received the Holy Spirit. It begins after Pentecost.
The fast of Assumption, 16 days.
The Gahad of Christmas (on the eve of Christmas).
The fast preceding Christmas, 40 days (Advent). It begins with Sibket on 15th Hedar and ends on Christmas Eve with the feast of Gena and the 28th of Tahsas.
The Fast of Nineveh, commemorating the preaching of Jonah. It comes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the third week before Lent.
The gahad of Epiphany, fast on the eve of Epiphany.
In addition to standard holy days, most Christians observe many saint’s days. A man might give a small feast on his personal saint’s day. The local voluntary association (called the maheber) connected with each church honors its patron saint with a special service and a feast two or three times a year.
Priests intervene and perform exorcisms on behalf of those believed to be afflicted by demons or buda. According to a 2010 Pew Research Centre study, 74% of Christians in Ethiopia claim to have experienced or witnessed an exorcism. Demon-possessed persons are brought to a church or prayer meeting. Often, when an ill person has not responded to modern medical treatment, the affliction is attributed to demons. Unusual or especially perverse deeds, particularly when performed in public, are symptomatic of a demoniac. Superhuman strength – such as breaking one’s bindings, as described in the New Testament accounts – along with glossolalia are observed in the afflicted. Amsalu Geleta, in a modern case study, relates elements that are common to Ethiopian Christian exorcisms:
It includes singing praise and victory songs, reading from the Scripture, prayer and confronting the spirit in the name of Jesus. Dialogue with the spirit is another important part of the exorcism ceremony. It helps the counselor (exorcist) to know how the spirit was operating in the life of the demoniac. The signs and events mentioned by the spirit are affirmed by the victim after deliverance.
The exorcism is not always successful, and Geleta notes another instance in which the usual methods were unsuccessful, and the demons apparently left the subject at a later time. In any event, “in all cases the spirit is commanded in no other name than the name of Jesus.”
The Tewahedo Church Canon contains 81 books. This canon contains the books accepted by other Orthodox Christians.
The Narrower Canon also contains Enoch, Jubilees, and I II III Meqabyan. (These are unrelated to the Greek I, II, III Maccabees with which they are often confused.) The canonical Enoch differs from the editions of the Ge’ez manuscripts in the British Museum and elsewhere (A-Q) used by foreign scholars (OTP), for example in treatment of the Nephilim of Genesis 6. The current 81 book version was published in 1986, containing the same text as previously published in the Haile Selassie Version of the Bible, only with some minor modifications to the New Testament translation.
Some sources speak of the Broader Canon, which has in fact never been published as a single compilation, but is said to include all of the Narrower Canon, as well as additional New Testament books said to have been used by the early church: two Books of the Covenant, four Books of Sinodos, an Epistle of Peter to Clement–also known as “Ethiopic Clement,” and the Ethiopic Didascalia. These may not all bear close resemblance to works with similar titles known in the west. An eight-part, Ethiopic version of the history of the Jewish people written by Joseph be Gorion, known as the Pseudo-Josephus is also considered part of the broader canon, though it would be considered an Old Testament work.
The divine services of the Ethiopian Church are celebrated in the Ge’ez language, which has been the language of the Church at least since the arrival of the Nine Saints (Abba Pantelewon, Abba Gerima (Isaac, or Yeshaq), Abba Aftse, Abba Guba, Abba Alef, Abba Yem’ata, Abba Liqanos, and Abba Sehma), who fled persecution by the Byzantine Emperor after the Council of Chalcedon (451) The Septuagint Greek version was originally translated into Ge’ez, but later revisions show clear evidence of the use of Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic sources. The first translation into a modern vernacular was done in the 19th century by a man who is usually known as Abu Rumi. Later, Haile Selassie sponsored Amharic translations of the Ge’ez Scriptures during his reign, one before World War II and one afterwards. Sermons today are usually delivered in the local language.
There are many monolithic (rock-hewn) churches in Ethiopia, most famously twelve churches at Lalibela. Besides these, two main types of architecture are found—one basilican, the other native. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion at Axum is an example of the basilican design, though the early basilicas are nearly all in ruin. These examples show the influence of those architects who, in the 6th century, built the basilicas at Sanʻāʼ and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. There are two forms of native churches: one oblong, traditionally found in Tigray; the other circular, traditionally found in Amhara and Shewa (though either style may be found elsewhere). In both forms, the sanctuary is square and stands clear in the center, and the arrangements are based on Jewish tradition. Walls and ceilings are adorned with frescoes. A courtyard, circular or rectangular, surrounds the body of the church. Modern Ethiopian churches may incorporate the basilican or native styles, and utilize contemporary construction techniques and materials. In rural areas, the church and outer court are often thatched, with mud-built walls.
Ark of the Covenant
The Ethiopian church claims that one of its churches, Our Lady Mary of Zion, is host to the original Ark of the Covenant that Moses carried with the Israelites during the Exodus. However, only one priest is allowed into the building where the Ark is located, ostensibly due to dangerous biblical warnings. As a result, international scholars doubt that the original Ark is truly there, although a case has been put forward by controversial popular writer Graham Hancock in his book The Sign and the Seal.
Throughout Ethiopia, Orthodox churches are not considered churches until the local bishop gives them a tabot, a replica of the tablets in the original Ark of the Covenant. The tabot is at least six inches (15 cm) square and made from alabaster, marble, or wood (see acacia). It is always kept in ornate coverings on the Altar. Only priests are allowed to touch the tabot. In an elaborate procession, the tabot is carried around the outside of the church amid joyful song on the feast day of that particular church’s namesake. On the great Feast of T’imk’et, known as Epiphany or Theophany in Europe, a group of churches send their tabot to celebrate the occasion at a common location where a pool of water or a river is located.
Abun (in Europe erroneously known as Abuna, which is the status constructus form used when a name follows: Ge’ez abuna/abune, ‘our father’; Amharic and Tigrinya) is the honorific title used for any bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church as well as of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. It was historically used solely for the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Ethiopia during the more than 1000 years when the Patriarchate of Alexandria appointed only one bishop at a time to serve its Ethiopian flock. When referred to without a name following, it is Abun, and if a name follows, it becomes Abuna … (e.g., Abuna Pawlos).
Historically the Abun of the Ethiopian Church was appointed by the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa, who had diocesan authority over Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, at the request of the Emperor and, in historic times, after paying a substantial fee to the Muslim government for the privilege. The Abun would be selected from the membership of the Monastery of Saint Anthony. Although several Abuns might be appointed at one time, a request in 1140 to appoint enough to consecrate a metropolitan was refused.
The candidate frequently lacked knowledge of the native language and even with the local customs of the Ethiopian church. As a result, most Abuns had a minimal influence on both Ethiopian religion and politics. His authority eventually was filled in ecclesiastical matters by the Ichege or Abbot of the Monastery of Debre Libanos in Shewa, the sole possessor of this particular title in Ethiopia. (This title is now customarily held by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.)
Visitors to Ethiopia at this time, such as Francisco Álvares in the 16th century and Remedius Prutky in the 18th century, were amazed at the mass ordination of deacons and priests with little more than a wave of the cross and a prayer, which was the Abun’s principal duty.
After many centuries, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the last reigning Orthodox Christian monarch in the world, reached an agreement with the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt, on 13 July 1948. This led to the promotion of the Church of Ethiopia to the rank of an autocephalous Patriarchate. Five bishops were immediately consecrated by the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria. They later elected an Ethiopian patriarch for their church following the death of Abuna Qerellos IV, the last Copt to lead the Church of Ethiopia. The first Patriarch of Ethiopia was Abuna Basilios, who was consecrated 14 January 1951.
The current Patriarch of Ethiopia is Abune Paulos.
The Syriac-Aramaic word Abuna is used for bishops by Syriac Churches, literally meaning ‘our father’.
Abuna (Syriac: Abuna, Arabic:abūnā, literally ‘our father’) is also a title used among Syriac Christians and Coptic Christians to refer to a priest. The title is used either by itself or with the priest’s given name (for example, ‘Abuna Tuma’ for ‘Father Thomas’). This title is not used in self-reference, rather the priest would refer to himself as al-Ab al-’ab, literally ‘the father’).
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
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