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

In July 1993, with the support of the government, the Eritrean Orthodox appealed to Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church for separation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and autocephalous status. 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 Eritrea’s request 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.

After intensive discussions among government and church leaders in April 1998, Archbishop Philippos of Asmara was chosen as the first Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. He was installed as Patriarch by 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. In view of the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 and continued tensions between them, relations between the churches of those two countries have remained difficult.

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