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The enigmatic world of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Greek Business File Magazine

There is a degree of solemnity to this year’s Orthodox Easter celebrations as its congregation grapples with the fallout of a war in Europe that has very much divided and exposed deep schisms within the ancient religious order.  But while its European cousin has gotten all the attention, a civil war in Ethiopia and the subsequent break between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and its Tigrayan cousin, arguably one of the oldest centres of Orthodoxy centred around Aksum, has caused just as much grief and strife in the Orthodox world.

     And so it should.  For Ethiopia is home to the second-largest Orthodox community after Russia with 36 million followers.  By all accounts, the Ethiopian Church is also its most devout and outwardly its most proactive in its worship too.  A 2017 Pew Research Center study highlighted just how involved Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are, with 78% claiming to attend church at least once a week and a full 98% claiming that their religion is very important to them, Greece a distant second with 59% citing their religion’s importance to them.  Part of the lack of interest in the current upheaval in Ethiopia stems from the church itself has been very much misunderstood and misinterpreted, especially in other Orthodox centres such as Greece and Russia.   Counted as one of the five “oriental” Orthodox traditions that includes the Coptic one centred in Alexandria in Egypt, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian, Syriac and Eritrean Orthodox church, the Ethiopian Orthodox church continues to be regarded dismissively as separate from mainstream Orthodox tradition with very different customs and theology. 

     By far the biggest bone of contention is the idea that the Ethiopian church, in the same vein as other oriental Orthodox traditions, is based on the idea of miaphysitism, that is, the belief in the single nature of Christ, both divine and human in one body.  Historically, ever since the Council of Chalcedon in fact, the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian church held in 451 AD, this was a controversial issue in Orthodoxy and rejected by the main Eastern Orthodox traditions as a form of mysticism.  But in recent years, many a theologian and even clergy from both sides have argued that this division was very much moot, the difference in theology not as different as was claimed in the past.

Dr Romina Istratii , Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and currently based in Ethiopia and who has studied the religion for almost six years strongly reiterated this point.  “Having engaged with this tradition since 2015 and having read church and canonical books in Amharic, I haven’t found something to say OK, this definitely not Orthodox.  I haven’t found something that sounds categorically different from the Greek Orthodox tradition that I was exposed to.”  She has been trying to raise awareness of the realities of the Ethiopian Orthodox church to a largely uninterested Greek public. 

       The idea that the Ethiopian church grew independently and therefore was outside mainstream Orthodox church tradition has not been helped by a lack of research and consensus.  This especially applies to the church’s origins which are still very much shrouded in mystery.  There is a biblical reference to the Ethiopian church’s founding by an Ethiopian eunuch who met the evangelist Philip on his travels and baptised him and who then went on to spread the faith in his country in around 43AD.  But in proven historical terms, what is not in doubt is that by the fourth century the church had been established amongst the Tigrayan people in the north of Ethiopia in the kingdom of Aksum.    Closer to the truth is that Christianity spread slowly over a long period from the first century onwards as interaction between the Roman and Byzantine empires and the nobility in the Kingdom of Aksum, mainly through trade, increased.  “The Ethiopians maintained their rights to the Red Sea and had good relations with the Romans.” Dr Istratii highlighted, “ And it wasn’t an unequal relationship or a relationship of subjugation, because the kingdom of Aksum was very powerful actually at the time.”  

     The idea that the Ethiopian Church had intricate links with early Christianity is not something many Ethiopians themselves speak openly about, that also adds to the idea of an independent church with no relation to other traditions.  “There is a bit of hesitation in the country to acknowledge the interactions with the Roman civilisation, because people are very cautious not to be misunderstood and that the tradition is not indigenous.”  Dr Istratii added. 

     Christianity only really took off in the wider population after the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century when many monks who felt ostracised by the controversy over miaphysitism fled to countries like Ethiopia and established monasteries and took up the task of translating Christian texts into Ge’ez, the ancient ecclesial language in Ethiopia.

     The idea of a church that had to be defended as its own and very much native was also borne out of the fact it was forever overshadowed by the Coptic Church of Alexandria under whose auspices it was governed right up until 1959 when it was granted its own autocephaly.  But in reality, the Coptic church didn’t have as much influence as it seemed over the years.  “The Coptic Bishops who were assigned to Ethiopia often took years to be deployed.”  Dr Istratii said, “So there were years during which Ethiopia did not have Bishops and when they did, they tended not to speak the local languages,” she added.  “So the extent of their influence is actually questionable, because if you don’t speak the language and cannot communicate with the communities, how much influence can you have at the end of the day.”

     In fact, it was in this vacuum that the monks and the monasteries wielded greater influence in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition from the time of Chalcedon.  One of the side effects of this was that old testament tradition became far more prevalent in the wider population as monks tended to focus as much on Old Testament teachings as they were to focus on the New Testament.  Many continued to circumcise their boys as in Hebraic tradition and baptised boys after 40 days and girls after 80 as the Old Testament Leviticus code dictated. 

     This connection between Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Judaism though is far more complex and deeper than mere cultural practices.  The idea of a connection to the Holy Land was enshrined early on in the Holy Book called “Kabra Nagast” or “Glory of Kings” that created a narrative that intertwined Ethiopia to Israel to the time of King Solomon and sought to establish an identity for Ethiopians as the new chosen people of God who brought back the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia itself.    

    While again, Old Testament influences on the church have to be dealt carefully in the context of not undermining the Ethiopian Orthodox churches New Testament credentials, for Dr Istratii at least there is something beautiful in this ancient manifestation of the evolution of Judaic tradition in early Christianity.  “Christianity came from the Jewish people after all.  That Judaic predecessor is part of the tradition, and part of what it considers to be its identity.  And I think that is beautiful.  That is lovely.” 

     In many ways, Ethiopian Orthodoxy is Christianity frozen in time from those early years of Christianity.  It is a more innocent version, strewn of the prejudices and divisions that the passage of history forced upon the religion over millennia.   And in such dark times for the Church, its teachings from a bygone should be a beacon of light throughout the Orthodox World, if only better understood and appreciated. 

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