The Egyptian and Ethiopian Churches: Bound by history

30-09-2015 03:54 PM

Michael Victor

“A little girl does not stay forever in her mother’s arms. She grows and, at some point, leaves her mother and becomes an independent woman in her own right. This does not mean she does away her mother; she still needs her advice, guidance, and comfort. But she has become independent.” This is how Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Tawahedo Church who passed away in 2012, described the relation between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Church.
Abune Paulos knew very well what he was talking about. Throughout his lifetime he had said so many prayers and exerted tireless efforts to heal the rift between the two sister Churches who had started out as mother and daughter.


Shared traditions
The story goes back in time to the 4th century when St Athanasius the Apostolic, the 20th Pope of Alexandria, consecrated Fromentius as the first Bishop of Ethiopia in 329 under the name Abune Salama. This was upon the request of the two Ethiopian Christian kings Abraha and Atsbeha. Today, Abune Salama is venerated as a saint.
Ethiopia thus became a bishopric under the Church of Alexandria, part of the See of St Mark. The Coptic Church continued to consecrate bishops to the seat of Ethiopia which, over the years, grew and needed wider service. The bishopric expanded into a metropolitan, and the Alexandrian Church consecrated the metropolitan and bishops to serve Ethiopia.
Throughout the centuries and to this day, the Ethiopian Church acquired the Coptic tradition in prayers, services, rituals, and even adopted the Egyptian calendar that goes back to ancient Egypt—this year is the 6257th Egyptian Year, the 1732 Year of the Martyrs. Ethiopians celebrate 1 Tut as New Year Day. They make pilgrimage to Egypt, performing a ceremony they especially cherish at the Monastery of the Holy Virgin of Muharraq in Assiut, some 350km south of Cairo, on 6 Hatour, 15 November, every year.
In the 20th century, the call for independence form the Coptic Church gained force.
In 1929, the Alexandrine Church allowed the Ethiopian clergy to participate in running the affairs of their own Church, and the first native Ethiopian metropolitan was enthroned in 1930. The Church of Ethiopia thus became autonomous.
Negotiations for full independence started in 1941 and, in 1959 the Ethiopian Church was granted independence. Abune Basilios was enthroned the first Patriarch of Ethiopia.


Since that time, it became the custom of the Coptic Church to appoint the heads of the Ethiopian Church. The custom ended with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. In the 1970s, the new Marxist government nationalised all land, including those of the Church. In 1976, Patriarch Theophilos, the last patriarch appointed by the Egyptian Coptic Church was arrested. He was executed in secret in 1977.
The Ethiopian government had the Church elect a new patriarch, Tekle Haymanot. The new patriarch, however, resisted the dictates of the government, and relations between Church and government became strained.
When Haymanot died in 1988, Abune Mercurius, a parliamentarian with close connections with the government, was appointed in his place. After the fall of Mengistu’s regime in 1991, Mercurius was dismissed. He fled the country to create a synod in exile, one that is recognised by several Churches in North America and Europe.
In 1991, the communist regime in Ethiopia was overthrown. Abune Paulos was elected Patriarch in 1992. As an act of proving independence, no invitation was extended to the Coptic Church to participate in the enthronement of Abune Paulos. But the new patriarch cared very much to mend fences and, in 1993, dispatched an Ethiopian delegation to Cairo to resolve differences with the Coptic Church. In 1994, a protocol was signed by Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria and Abune Paulos that laid the groundwork for a good understanding between the two Churches.

Healing the rift
Unfortunately, the Ethiopian Eritrean war that followed again soured relations between the two Churches. In April 2004, however, Pope Shenouda took the initiative of visiting Ethiopia, and this had the effect of restoring the lost warmth. Some five visits followed by Abune Paulos to Cairo, and Pope Shenouda again visited Addis Ababa in 2008. The last visit by Abune Paulos was to pay his last respects to Pope Shenouda in March 2012. The Ethiopian Patriarch himself passed away in August the same year; the Coptic Acting Patriarch Anba Pachomeus took part in his funeral.
The new Ethiopian Patriarch Abune Mathias visited Egypt earlier this year, and his visit has been reciprocated by Pope Tawadros.
The Ethiopian Church follows the doctrine and rituals of the Egyptian Coptic Church. However, local norms and customs have influenced many of its rituals and practices.
Christians in Ethiopia now number some 45 million out of a total population of close to 100 million. The Ethiopian Church has nearly 50,000 churches and 1,200 monasteries, as well as three ecclesiastical colleges. And, links with her Coptic counterpart in Egypt continue to flourish.

Watani International
30 September 2015



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