Ethiopia’s Oriental Orthodox Church (Orthodox Church in Ethiopia) is autocephalous, which means appointing its own head, not subject to the authority of an external patriarch or archbishop. And the headquarter resides in the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. The Ethiopia Orthodox Tewahdo church is the largest branch of Oriental Orthodox Christian churches in Ethiopia. The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, one of the few pre-colonial Christian churches in Sub-Saharan Africa, dates back thousands of years and has a current membership of around 36 million people, the majority of whom live in Ethiopia.
It is a member of the World Council of Churches since its inception. After gaining autocephaly in 1959, the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia joined forces with the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia was administratively part of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria from the first half of the fourth century until 1959, when Saint Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria granted it autocephaly with its patriarch, Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Ethiopia is just the second nation in history to declare Christianity as its official religion, after Armenia (in AD 333).
The Ge’ez word tewahedo means “united as one.” This term refers to the Oriental Orthodox belief in Christ’s one perfectly united existence; that is, a complete unification of the divine and human natures into one nature is self-evident to achieve the divine redemption of humanity, as opposed to the “two natures of Christ” belief held by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as Anglican, Lutheran, and most Protestant churches.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches adopt Cyril of Alexandria’s miaphysitic Christological view, which advocates one nature of the Word of God incarnate and a hypostatic union, as advocated by Cyril of Alexandria, the leading protagonist in the Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries. This position differed in that the incarnate Christ has one nature, but that nature is made up of the two natures, divine, and human, and retains all of their characteristics after the union.
Miaphysitism holds that divinity and humanity are joined in one nature in the one individual of Jesus Christ, where Christ is consubstantial with God the Father, without division, misunderstanding, modification, or mixing. About 500 bishops from the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem declined to embrace the dyophysitism (two natures) doctrine decreed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, leading the Roman Empire’s main church to split for the second time.
History of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia
When did Ethiopia become Orthodox?
According to tradition, St. Matthew and St. Bartholomew were the first to evangelize Ethiopia in the first century CE, and the first Ethiopian convert was the eunuch in Jerusalem mentioned in The Acts of the Apostles (8:27–40). St. Frumentius later consecrated the first Ethiopian bishop, and Aedesius, two men (likely brothers) from Tyre, further Christianized Ethiopia in the 4th century CE.
They gained the king’s confidence and were granted permission to evangelize in Aksum (a powerful kingdom in northern Ethiopia). Frumentius baptized the succeeding king, Ezana, and Christianity became the state religion. Nine Syrian monks are said to have introduced monasticism to Ethiopia at the end of the fifth century, promoting the translation of the Bible into the Ge’ez language.
In opposing the Christological decision issued by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE that the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ were equally present in one person without commingling, the Ethiopian church adopted the Coptic (Egyptian) church (now called the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria).
The Coptic and Ethiopian churches, in contrast to this dyophysitism, or two-species doctrine, claimed that the human and divine natures were equally present through the mystery of the Incarnation within a single nature.
The Roman and Greek churches interpreted this position, known as miaphysitism or single-nature doctrine, as a heresy known as monophysitism, or the idea that Christ had only one divine nature. The Ethiopian church adopted the term tewahedo, which is a Geez word that means “unity” and reflects the church’s miaphysite values.
It was cut off from dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, including other so-called non-Chalcedonian (also known as Oriental Orthodox) churches, until the mid-twentieth century, when many of the Christological conflicts that resulted from Chalcedon were resolved through ecumenical dialogue.
The conquests of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century cut off the Ethiopian church from much of its Christian neighbors. In the decades that followed, the church absorbed different syncretic doctrines, but communication with the outside Christian world was preserved via the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem.
The patriarch of Alexandria appointed the Ethiopian archbishop, known as the abuna (Arabic: “our father”), who was always an Egyptian Coptic monk, beginning in the 12th century; this created a rivalry with the powerful Ethiopian monastic community’s native itshage (abbot general).
Attempts to abolish Egyptian Coptic rule were made from time to time, but it wasn’t until 1929 that an agreement was reached: an Egyptian monk was re-appointed abuna, but four Ethiopian bishops were consecrated as his auxiliaries.
In 1950, a native Ethiopian abuna, Basil, was appointed, and in 1959, an autonomous Ethiopian patriarchate was created, despite the church’s continued recognition of the Coptic patriarch’s honorary primacy. When Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, it petitioned Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic church’s patriarch, for autocephaly. This was granted in 1994, and the Ethiopian church agreed to the new Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church’s independence in 1998.
The Amhara and Tigray communities of Ethiopia’s northern and central highlands have traditionally been the church’s most devoted followers, and the church’s religious forms and values have dominated Amhara society. The Ethiopian Orthodox church was proclaimed the country’s state church under the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian monarchy, and it was a bulwark of Emperor Haile Selassie I’s regime.
The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia was disbanded in 1974, shortly after the country’s monarchy was abolished and socialism was instituted. The church was deprived of its large landholdings and its patriarch was executed. Despite being put on an equal footing with Islam and other religions in the region, the church remained Ethiopia’s most powerful religious body.
Priests administer worship services and perform exorcisms; deacons assist in the services; and debtera, who, though not ordained, perform music and dance associated with church services and also act as astrologers, fortune-tellers, and healers, are all members of the priesthood. Ethiopian Christianity incorporates pre-Christian beliefs of benevolent and malevolent spirits and imps with Christian notions of saints and angels.
The Hebrew Bible is given a lot of coverage (Old Testament). Furthermore, the church accepts a larger corpus of scripture that contains apocalyptic scriptures including the First Book of Enoch. Circumcision is almost uniformly practiced; some devout believers observe the Saturday Sabbath (in addition to Sunday); an ark is an important object in every church, and strict fasting is still practiced.
The Ethiopian church’s priesthood is not studied in general, but there are theological seminaries in Addis Ababa and Harar. Individual monasteries also teach special subjects in theology or church music, and monasticism is widespread.
Each community also has its church school, which provided Ethiopian education until 1900. The liturgy and scriptures are traditionally written in Ge’ez, but both have been translated into Amharic, Ethiopia’s main modern language. In Ethiopia, the church claimed more than 30 million followers in the early twenty-first century.
Traditions in the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia
Orthodox Ethiopian Christians’ religion and practice combine elements of Miaphysite Christianity as it has evolved in Ethiopia over the centuries. Christian beliefs include, among other things, belief in the Lord, veneration of the Virgin Mary, angels, and saints.
What does the Ethiopian Orthodox Church believe?
According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the faith includes no non-Christian elements other than those contained in the Old Testament, which are supplemented by those found in the New Testament. When an Ethiopian Christian is in need, he or she refers to a hierarchy of Kidusan (angelic messengers and saints) who conveys the faithful’s prayers to God and carries out the divine will.
Priests speak on behalf of the congregation through more formal and frequent ceremonies, and only priests are allowed to join the inner sanctum of the normally circular or octagonal building, which houses the Tabot (“ark”) dedicated to the church’s patron saint. The Tabot is placed on the head of a priest and escorted in procession outside the church on major religious holidays. The Tabot is the one who is consecrated, not the church. Most parishioners stay in the outer ring throughout several services, where Debteras sing hymns and dance.
Objectives of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia
- To make it possible to promote and strengthen Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christianity (Orthodox Church in Ethiopia).
- Conduct and preserve divine worship and religious observance services following the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia’s rites and values.
- To provide services that promote love and solidarity among the laity; to increase Ethiopian pride and love for their homeland by providing cultural and educational services that promote religious values.
- To create and maintain a place of religious worship following the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia’s adoption of Christian teachings.
- To provide Orthodox Church in Ethiopia Christianity believers with Baptism, Christening, Marriage, and Burial rites (faith).
- To safeguard, defend, and control the church’s ecclesiastical objects and resources.
- To carry out peacekeeping missions that demonstrate an unwavering commitment to the well-being of all Ethiopians in Ethiopia and abroad, especially the poor and in need, and to ensure that their basic human rights, such as religious freedom, are met and protected.
- To create a strong orthodox community that promotes Our Lord’s teachings and mutual love while rejecting ethnicism, tribalism, and racism.
Ark of the Covenant and Orthodox Church in Ethiopia
Is Ark of Covenant in Ethiopia?
The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia says that the original Ark of the Covenant, which Moses brought with the Israelites during the Exodus, is located in one of its churches, Our Lady Mary of Zion. Due to biblical warnings of risk, only one priest is allowed into the building where the Ark is kept. As a result, foreign scholars are doubtful that the original Ark exists, despite claims made by many writers, including Graham Hancock in his book The Sign and the Seal.
Orthodox churches in Ethiopia are not considered churches until a Tabot, a copy of the tablets in the original Ark of the Covenant is issued to them by the local bishop. The Tabot is made of alabaster, marble, or wood and is at least six inches (15 cm) square. It is still kept on the altar in ornate coverings.
The Tabot can only be touched by priests. On the feast day of the church’s namesake, the Tabot is brought around the outside of the church in an elaborate procession accompanied by joyful singing. On the great Feast of T’imk’et, also known as Epiphany or Theophany in Europe, a group of churches sends their tabot to a popular location where a pool of water or a river can be found to commemorate the occasion.
Exorcisms and the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia
Exorcisms in the Ethiopia orthodox Tewahido church are performed by priests on behalf of those who are thought to be possessed by demons or Buda. According to a Pew Research Center survey from 2010, 74% of Ethiopian Christians have undergone or witnessed an exorcism.
People who have been possessed by demons are taken to a church or a prayer meeting. When a patient’s illness does not lead to modern medical care, demons are often blamed. Unusual or extremely perverse deeds, especially when done in public, are signs of a demoniac. The afflicted exhibit superhuman strength, such as breaking one’s bonds, as mentioned in the New Testament accounts, as well as glossolalia.
The Ge’ez language is used to commemorate the Ethiopian Church’s divine services. Since the advent of the Nine Saints (Pantelewon, Gerima (Isaac, or Yeshaq), Aftse, Guba, Alef, Yem’ata, Liqanos, and Sehma), who escaped persecution by the Byzantine Emperor after the Council of Chalcedon, it has been the liturgical language of the church.
The Greek Septuagint was the Old Testament edition that was originally translated into Ge’ez, but later revisions indicate that Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic sources were used. In the nineteenth century, a man known as Abu Rumi was the first to translate it into modern vernacular. During his reign, Haile Selassie funded two Amharic translations of the Ge’ez Scriptures, one before World War II and the other after. Today, most sermons are delivered in the local language.
The architecture of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia
Ethiopia has many monolithic (rock-hewn) churches, the most prominent of which are the eleven churches at Lalibela. Aside from these, there are two major styles of architecture: basilican and local. Though the early basilicas are nearly all in ruins, the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum is an example of the basilican style.
These examples reflect the influence of the architects who designed the basilicas in San and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century. Native churches are divided into two types: oblong churches, which are historically found in Tigray, and circular churches, which are traditionally found in Amhara and Shewa (though either style may be found elsewhere).
The sanctuary is square and clear in the middle in both ways, and the arrangements are based on Jewish custom. Frescoes can be seen on the walls and ceilings. The body of the church is surrounded by a circular or rectangular courtyard.
Modern Ethiopian churches may use basilican or native architectural styles, as well as modern construction techniques and materials. The church and outer court in rural areas are often thatched, with mud-built walls. The church buildings are normally surrounded by a forested area, which acts as a biodiversity reservoir in areas of the world that are otherwise deforested.
What Bible do Ethiopian Orthodox use?
There are 81 books in the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia Canon. The books approved by other Orthodox Christians are included in this canon.
Enoch, Jubilees, and I II III Meqabyan are also included in the Narrower Canon. (These are unrelated to the Greek Maccabees I, II, and III, with which they are often confused.) The canonical Enoch varies from foreign scholars’ editions of the Ge’ez manuscripts (A-Q) in the British Museum and elsewhere (OTP).
Some sources refer to the Wider Canon, which is said to contain all of the Narrower Canon as well as additional New Testament books 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 or may not be closely related to works with similar titles that are well-known in the West.
The ‘Pseudo-Josephus,’ an eight-part Ethiopic version of the Jewish people’s history written by Joseph ben Gorion, is considered part of the larger corpus, though it would be considered an Old Testament work.
Similarity to Judaism and Islam
The orthodox church in Ethiopia places a greater focus on Old Testament teachings than Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant churches, and its members adopt Orthodox or Conservative Judaism in some practices.
Ethiopia Ortodox Tewahedo church Christians, like some other Eastern Christians, have historically followed dietary laws similar to Jewish Kashrut, especially when it comes to animal slaughter.
Pork is also forbidden, though Ethiopian cuisine, unlike Rabbinical Kashrut, combines dairy products with meat, making it much closer to Karaite and Islamic dietary rules. Women are not allowed to enter the church temple when they are menstruating, and they must cover their hair with a big scarf (or shash) while in church, according to 1 Corinthians chapter 11.