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The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

According to an ancient tradition, the first great evangelizer of the Ethiopians was St. Frumentius, a Roman citizen from Tyre who had been shipwrecked along the African coast of the Red Sea. He gained the confidence of the emperor at Aksum and eventually brought about the conversion of his son, who later became Emperor Ezana. Ezana later introduced Christianity as the state religion around the year 330. Frumentius was ordained a bishop by St. Athanasius of Alexandria and returned to Ethiopia to help with the continued evangelization of the country.

Around the year 480 the “Nine Saints” arrived in Ethiopia and began missionary activities. According to tradition they were from Rome, Constantinople and Syria. They had left their countries because of their opposition to Chalcedonian christology and had probably resided for a time at St. Pachomius monastery in Egypt. Their influence, along with the church’s strong links with the Copts in Egypt, probably explains the origin of the Ethiopian Church’s rejection of Chalcedon’s teaching that there are two natures in Christ. Indeed, the word “Tewahedo” that is included in the official name of the church today, means “being made one” or “unified,” and expresses the unity of Christ’s humanity and divinity in a single nature. The Nine Saints are credited with largely wiping out the remaining paganism in Ethiopia, with introducing the monastic tradition, and with making a substantial contribution to the development of Ge’ez religious literature by translating the Bible and religious works into that classical Ethiopian language. Monasteries quickly sprang up throughout the country and became important intellectual centers.

The Ethiopian Church reached its zenith in the 15th century when much creative theological and spiritual literature was produced and the church was engaged in extensive missionary activity.

The very negative experience of contact with Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th century Ethiopian Catholic Church] was followed by centuries of isolation from which the Ethiopian Church has only recently emerged.

This church is unique in retaining several Jewish practices such as circumcision and the observance of dietary laws and Saturday as well as Sunday sabbath. This is probably due to the fact that Christianity arrived in Ethiopia directly from Palestine in a form that was still strongly influenced by its Jewish roots. There is also a tradition that Judaism was practiced by some Ethiopians even before the arrival of Christianity.

The Ethiopian liturgy is of Alexandrian (Coptic) origin and influenced by the Syriac tradition. The liturgy was always celebrated in the ancient Ge’ez language until very recent times. Today a translation of the liturgy into modern Amharic is being used increasingly in the parishes. A strong monastic tradition continues.

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Tags: Ethiopia Africa Maronite Church Ethiopian Christianity Ethiopian Catholic Church