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The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church


Christianity in Eritrea, which is located along the southwest coast of the Red Sea, dates back to at least the 4th century when the ancient Christian kingdom of Aksum flourished in what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia. Christian practices in the land of Eritrea began through interaction of traders and visitors who traveled to and from the Mid-Orient, using the ancient port at Adulis on the Red Sea. The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church was formally founded in 329 AD under the fatherhood of St Frumentius (Abba Selama) the first bishop assigned by St Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. (Tewahdo (Te-wa-hido) (Ge'ez ተዋሕዶ tawāhidō) is a Ge'ez word meaning "being made one".)

Origins

The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church became the established church of the Axumite Kingdom under king Ezana in the 4th century through the efforts of a Syrian Greek named Frumentius, known in the church as Abba Selama, Kesaté Birhan ("Father of Peace, Revealer of Light"). As a boy, 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 Axum. Athanasius appointed Frumentius himself, who returned to Axum as Bishop with the name of Abune Selama.

By 333 A.D churches were built and the Gospel was heard in the high land area, namely in Akeleguzai, Hamasien, and Serae. The Orthodox Church has grown tremendously in the high lands of Eritrea and the Good news spread very fast to the part of Eritrea, and the neighboring country, Ethiopia.
In Tigray, northern part of Ethiopia, there was a newly formed Kingdom under the leadership of King Ezana which the sun and the moon were commonly worshipped in the area, and Christianity was new to them. King Ezana was very impressed with the spiritual movement in Eritrea and therefore, sent a special invitation to Abrha and Asbeha to the Axumite Kingdom and the new Eritrean Priests who were ordained by Abrha and Asbeha. Soon Christianity was adopted by King Ezana as the official religion of the Kingdom of Axum.

The kingdom began to decline in the 7th century in the wake of Muslim invasions, but a portion of the Eritrean population always remained Christian. Subsequently the coastal areas were dominated by various regional powers, and fell under Ottoman rule in the 16th century.

Colonial years

Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941, when it was captured by the British.

In the 1920s the Italian colonial power in Eritrea started the first attempts to found a separate Eritrean Orthodox Church. Until then the Orthodox Church in Eritrea was practically part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, with a strong link to Aksum in Tigray as the traditional centre of the Church structure. This was, however, against the interest of the colonizer: Eritrea as a separate colony was supposed to have a church independent from the neighbor's influence, in order to be fully integrated into the colonial system. The separate Eritrean Church was short-lived. When it was still not fully established, the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935, and then formed a unified territory called Africa Orientale Italiana, encompassing Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somalia. Eritrea was unified with the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, and both Orthodox Churches unified. This unification remained valid even after the defeat of the Italians and their loss of the whole territory in 1941.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was granted autocephaly by Pope Joseph II of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in 1950. At that time Eritrea was a separate colonial territory under British administration, but nevertheless the Orthodox Church in Eritrea was simply made a division of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as the British had no interest to strongly separate the Eritrean highlands from the Ethiopian highlands, corresponding to their politics of unification of the highlands (with the option of separation of the Muslim lowlands of Eritrea and their inclusion into the British Sudan).

The Eritrea entered a federation with Ethiopia in 1952, and was annexed as an Ethiopian province in 1962. A lengthy struggle for self-rule culminated with the country's declaration of independence on May 24, 1993. At that time the country’s Orthodox population formed a single diocese within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Autocephaly after independence of Eritrea
His Holiness Shenouda III, the Pope of the Coptic
 Orthodox Church (L) crowns the first Patriarch
of the Eritrean Orthodox Church,
His Holiness Abune Philippos

In July 1993, the bishops of the Eritrea appealed to Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church to obtain separation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and autocephalous status. The process of the establishment of an independent Eritrean Orthodox Church took place in accord with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In early September 1993 Ethiopian Patriarch Paulos and Archbishop Philippos of Asmara sanctioned jointly the separation of their churches, while stating their desire to work closely together. On September 28, 1993, the Coptic Holy Synod responded favorably to the request of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church and authorized the training in Coptic monasteries of as many as ten future bishops for the Eritrean Church. In February 1994 the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches signed an agreement in Addis Ababa that reaffirmed the autocephalous status of both churches, and recognized a primacy of honor of the Coptic Church among the Oriental Orthodox churches in Africa. On June 19, 1994, Pope Shenouda ordained five new Eritrean bishops in Cairo.
His Holiness Abune Philippos, the first Patriarch
of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (left) and His
Holiness Shenouda III, the Pope of the Coptic
Orthodox Church, sign a protocol of cooperation
 between the Holy Synods of the Eritrean and
 Coptic churches May 8, 1998 in Cairo, Egypt.

After intensive prayer and discussions among church leaders in April 1998, Abba Philipos, the bishop of Asmara, was chosen as the first Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. He was installed as Patriarch by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III in Cairo on May 8, 1998. A protocol between the Holy Synods of the Eritrean and Coptic churches was also signed at that time. It provided for close cooperation between the two churches, including the holding of a common general synod at least every three years, the commemoration of the heads of both churches in all liturgies, the formation of a common delegation in theological dialogues with other churches, and the establishment of a standing committee of the two synods to promote cooperation in such areas as theological education, social services, and development projects.
His Holiness Abune Filipose (R) with His
 Holiness Abune Paulos (L)-Photo BBC

The Patriarch His Holiness Abune Phillipos did visit Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, during joint efforts by the Ethiopian-Eritrean Churches to explore a possible resolution to a border conflict that had broken out between the two countries in 1998.

The Patriarch His Holiness Abune Philippos passed away on September 18, 2002, at the age of 101. On December 4, 2002, the Holy Synod elected Abune Yacob as his successor. He passed away on December 2, 2003. Eritrea's first two Patriarchs were originally Archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The two churches remain in full communion with each other and with the other Churches of Oriental Orthodoxy.

His Holiness Abune Philippos I
On March 4, 2004 Bishop Antonios of Hamasiye was elected as the third Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church by the joint vote of the Holy Synod, representatives of all dioceses, and delegates from the Holy Synod of the Egyptian Orthodox Church. His holiness Abune Antonios I was enthroned as the third Patriarch of Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Eritrea on 24 April 2004. Pope Shenouda III presided at the ceremony in Asmara, together with the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and a Coptic Orthodox Church delegation.

His holiness Abune Antonio had increasingly resisted the government’s unwarranted intervention in church affairs, for example, by refusing to close down a renewal movement(Medhane Alem renewal movement, an Orthodox Sunday School movement) that had attracted thousands of young people. When the Patriarch objected to the detention in November 2004 of three Orthodox priests from the Medhane Alem Church, and accused the government of interfering in church affairs, for the first time ever the traditional Orthodox Annual Christmas message was not aired on national media in January 2005.

In August 2005 the Eritrean Government intervened in the church’s affairs by limiting the powers of the patriarch and designating a layman, Yoftahe Dimetros, to oversee it. Shortly thereafter, the Pro-Government Bishops, supposedly under pressure from the Eritrean government, charged the Patriarch Antonios with heresy and removed him from office. As a leader of the country's largest religious community, the Patriarch's summary dismissal shocked the nation. The government then proceeded to put him under house arrest and appoint a layman, Yoftahe Dimetros, as administrator of the Church.

In January 2006 Antonios sent a letter to the Holy Synod in which he denied the charges against him and excommunicated several synod members as well as Yoftahe Dimetros, stating that their actions and those of the government violated the constitution and bylaws of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, on April 19, 2007, the Pro-Government Bishops elected Abune Dioskoros as rival patriarch. The other Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church continued to recognize Antonios as Patriarch.
His Holiness Abune Yacob I

The Orthodox make up about 30% of Eritrea’s 4.9 million inhabitants. About 60% are Sunni Muslim, 5% Catholic and 2% Protestant. Most of the Orthodox belong to the Tigrinya ethnic group centered in the central and southern highlands. Today the Eritrean Orthodox Church has approximately 1,500 churches, 22 monasteries, and 15,000 priests.

Eritrean Orthodox faithful in Great Britain are under the pastoral care of Bishop Markos, who resides in London and has responsibility for the diaspora. St. Michael’s Eritrean Orthodox Church, 78 Edmund St, London, SE5 7NR, became the first Eritrean Orthodox church in Europe when it was consecrated in 1997. There is an Eritrean Orthodox Diocese of North America that includes 18 parishes in the United States and one in Canada. They are now split into two groups, one that continues to recognize Patriarch Antonios, and another that follows Bishop Sinoda in Washington, DC, who was appointed by the government-controlled church in Eritrea.

Biblical canon
The Tewahedo Church Biblical Canon contains 81 books, all of which are accepted by other Orthodox and Oriental Christians.
His holiness Abune Antonios I
• The Narrower Canon also contains Enoch, Jubilees, and three books of the Meqabyan;
• The Broader Canon includes all of the books found in the Narrower Canon, as well as the two Books of the Covenant, Four Books of Sinodos, a Book of Clement, and Didascalia;
There have been no printings of the Broader Canon since the beginning of the twentieth century. The Haile Selassie Version of the Bible, which was published in 1962, contains the Narrower Canon.
Language
The Divine Liturgy and other religious services of the Eritrean 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 version was translated into Ge'ez. Sermons are delivered in the local language.


Based in: Eritrea
Present in:
Primate: Patriarch Antonios I (born 1927, elected 2004)
Title: Patriarch of Eritrea
Residence: Asmara, Eritrea
Membership: 25,000,000
Clergy: 15000
Congregations: 1500
Member of: World Council of Churches -  WCC (2003)
  All Africa Conference of Churches - AACC
  Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa (FECCLAHA)
Periodicals: Finote Birhan A.Bisrate Gazan (monthly magazines)
Website: http://www.tewahdo.org

RELATED INTERNET LINKS:

wikipedia page

WCC page

Eritrea church leader 'dismissed'

Eritrea denies patriarch sacked

Eritrea's 'spiritual father' dies

Christians protest over Eritrea

Religious persecution in Eritrea

Eritrean Orthodox patriarch Abune Antonios put under house arrest by the government

His Holiness Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewhado Church

Photos of Patriarch Antonios

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