Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

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The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (in Amharic: Yäityop'ya ortodoks täwahedo bétäkrestyan) is an Oriental Orthodox church in Ethiopia that was part of the Coptic Church until 1959, when it was granted its own Patriarch by Coptic Pope Cyril VI. The only pre-colonial Christian church of Sub-Saharan Africa, it claims a membership of close to 36 million people worldwide, and is thus the largest of all Oriental Orthodox churches. Its most recent primate was His Holiness Abune P'awlos (born 1935, elected 1992), Patriarch of Addis Ababa and All Ethiopia, who reposed on August 18, 2012.


Tewahedo (Ge'ez tawāhidō, modern pronunciation tewāhidō) is a Ge'ez word meaning "being made one"; it is related to the Arabic word توحيد tawhid, meaning "monotheism," or more literally "unification." This refers to the Oriental Orthodox belief in the one single unique Nature of Christ (i.e., a belief that a complete, natural union of the Divine and Human Natures into One is self-evident in order to accomplish the divine salvation of humankind), as opposed to the "two Natures of Christ" belief (unmixed, separated Divine and Human Natures, called the Hypostatic Union) promoted by today's Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Henoticon [1]: the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and many others, all refused to accept the "two natures" doctrine decreed by the Byzantine Emperor Marcian's Council of Chalcedon in 451, thus separating them from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, who themselves separated from one another later in the Great Schism (1054). The Oriental Orthodox Churches, which today include the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Church of India, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, are referred to as "Non-Chalcedonian", and, sometimes by outsiders as "monophysite" (meaning "One Nature", in reference to Christ; a rough translation of the name Tewahido). However, these Churches themselves describe their Christology as Miaphysite.

The Church of Ethiopia claims its origins from Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8). It became the established church of the Ethiopian Axumite Kingdom under king Ezana in the 4th century through the efforts of a Syrian Greek named Frumentius, known in Ethiopia as Abba Selama, Kesaté Birhan ("Father of Peace, Revealer of Light"). As a boy, Frumentius had been shipwrecked with his brother Aedesius on the Eritrean coast. The brothers managed to be brought to the royal court, where they rose to positions of influence and converted Emperor Ezana to Christianity, causing him to be baptized. Ezana sent Frumentius to Alexandria to ask the Patriarch, St. Athanasius, to appoint a bishop for Ethiopia. Athanasius appointed Frumentius himself, who returned to Ethiopia as Bishop with the name of Abune Selama. For centuries afterward, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria always named a Copt (an Egyptian) to be Abuna or Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church.

Jesuit interim

Little else is known of church history down to the period of Jesuit influence, which broke the connection with Egypt. Union with the Coptic Church continued after the Arab conquest in Egypt.

Abu Saleh records in the 12th century that the patriarch always sent letters twice a year to the kings of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Nubia, until Al Hakim stopped the practice. Cyril, 67th patriarch, sent Severus as bishop, with orders to put down polygamy and to enforce observance of canonical consecration for all churches. These examples show the close relations of the two churches concurrent with the Middle Ages. But early in the 16th century the church was brought under the influence of a Portuguese mission.

In 1439, in the reign of Zera Ya'iqob, a religious discussion between Abba Giyorgis and a French visitor had led to the dispatch of an embassy from Ethiopia to the Vatican; but the initiative in the Roman Catholic missions to Ethiopia was taken, not by Rome, but by Portugal, as an incident in the struggle with the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Sultanate of Adal for the command of the trade route to India by the Red Sea.

In 1507 Matthew, or Matewos, an Armenian, had been sent as Ethiopian envoy to Portugal to ask aid against Adal. In 1520 an embassy under Dom Rodrigo de Lima landed in Ethiopia (by which time Adal had been remobilized under Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi). An interesting account of the Portuguese mission, which remained for several years, was written by Francisco Alvarez, the chaplain.

Later, Ignatius Loyola wished to essay the task of conversion, but was forbidden. Instead, the pope sent out Joao Nunez Barreto as patriarch of the East Indies, with Andre de Oviedo as bishop; and from Goa envoys went to Ethiopia, followed by Oviedo himself, to secure the king's adherence to Rome. After repeated failures some measure of success was achieved under Emperor Susniyos, but not until 1624 did the emperor make a formal submission to the Pope of Rome. Susniyos made Roman Catholicism the official religion of the state, but was met with heavy resistance by his nobles and subjects and eventually had to abdicate in 1632 in favor of his son, St. Fasiledes, who promptly restored Orthodoxy and the union of the Church of Ethiopia with Alexandria. He then expelled the Jesuits in 1633 and, in 1665, Fasilides ordered that all Jesuit books (the 'books of the Franks') be burned.

Recent History

The Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches reached an agreement on July 13, 1948, that led to autocephaly for the Church of Ethiopia. Five bishops were immediately consecrated by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, empowered to elect a new patriarch for their church. It was also agreed that the successor to Archbishop Abuna Qerilos IV, a Copt, would have the power to consecrate new bishops. This promotion was completed when Coptic Pope Yosab of Alexandria consecrated an Ethiopian-born bishop, Abune Basilyos, on January 14, 1951. Then in 1959 Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria enthroned Abune Basilyos as the first Patriarch of Ethiopia.

Patriarch Abune Basilyos died in 1971 and was succeeded that year by Patriarch Abune Tewoflos. With the fall of Emperor Haile Silase in 1974 the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church was disestablished as the state church. The new Marxist government began nationalizing property (including land) owned by the Church and in 1976 Abune Tewoflos was arrested by the Communist Derg regime. He was secretly executed later that year. The government subsequently ordered the Church to elect a new patriarch and a simple monk from the countryside, Abune Tekle Haimanot II, was enthroned. The Coptic Orthodox Church refused to recognize the election and enthronement of Abune Tekle Haimanot on the grounds that the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had not removed Abune Tewoflos and that the government had not publicly acknowledged his death, and that he was thus still the legitimate patriarch of Ethiopia. Formal relations between the two churches were stopped, although they remained in communion with each other, and were resumed on July 13, 2007[1]

Archbishop Anastasios of Albania visits with Abune P'awlos at the 2008 Central Committee meeting of the World Council of Churches

Patriarch Abune Tekle Haimanot proved to be much less accommodating to the Derg regime than it had expected, and so when the patriarch died in 1988 a new patriarch with closer ties to the regime was sought. Archbishop Abune Merqoriyos of Gonder, a member of the Derg-era Ethiopian Parliament, was therefore elected and enthroned as patriarch. Following the fall of the Derg regime in 1991 and the coming to power of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Patriarch Abune Merqoriyos abdicated under governmental pressure and was replaced by the new government's candidate, Abune P'awlos.

Following the enthronement of Abune P'awlos, Abune Merqoriyos fled abroad, first to Kenya and later to the United States, and announced that his abdication had been forced and that he was therefore the legitimate Patriarch of Ethiopia. Several other archbishops also went into exile in 1992 and together with Abune Merqoriyos and an Ethiopian Orthodox archbishop in the Caribbean formed the Holy Synod in Exile of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This Synod in Exile is recognized by a number of Ethiopian Orthodox churches in Kenya, North America, Western Europe, and Australia that do not recognize the legitimacy of Abune P'awlos' election as patriarch.

After Eritrea became an independent country the Coptic Orthodox Church granted autocephaly to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church with the reluctant approval of its mother, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church. Unliek the Church of Ethiopia, the Church of Eritrea is only in practice partially autocephalous due to the nature of the agreement on communion between it and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

As of 2005 there are many Ethiopian Orthodox churches located throughout the United States and other countries to which Ethiopians have migrated. Roughly 40% of Ethiopia, around 35 million people, are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Distinctive traits

Biblical canon

The Canon of the Tewahedo Church is looser than for most other traditional Christian groups. The Ethiopian "narrow" Old Testament Canon includes the books found in the Septuagint accepted by the Orthodox plus Enoch, Jubilees, 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras, 3 books of Maccabees, and Psalm 151. However, their three books of the Maccabees are identical in title only, and quite different in content from those of the other Christian churches which include them. The order of the other books is somewhat different from other groups', as well. This Church also has a "broader canon" that includes more books.


The divine services of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are celebrated primarily in the Ge'ez language, which has been the language of the Church at least since the arrival of the Nine Saints (Abba P'entelewon, Abba Gerima (Issac or Yisihaq), Abba Zemika'el Aregawi, Abba Aftse, Abba Guba, Abba Alef, Abba Yem'ata, Abba Liqanos, and Abba Sehma), who fled persecution by the East Roman emperors after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Septuagint version of the Old Testament was translated into Ge'ez around the time of the Nine Saints. Services are also occasionally served in Amharic or English in the Ethiopian Diaspora and in Amharic at St. Stephen's Church in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. Sermons are delivered in the local languages of the Church's faithful, which include Amharic, Gambela, Gurage, Oromo, Sidama, and Tigrayan.


There are many monolithic churches in Ethiopia, most famously the twelve churches at Lalibela. After these, two main types of architecture are found—one basilican, the other native. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion at Axum is basilican, though the early basilicas are nearly all in ruin. These examples show the influence of those architects who, in the 6th century, built the basilicas at Sanaá and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. There are two forms of native churches -- one square or oblong, traditionally found in Tigray; the other circular, traditionally found in Amhara and Shewa (though either style may be found elsewhere). The square type may be due to basilican influence, the circular is an adaptation of the native hut. In both forms, the sanctuary is square and stands clear in the center and the arrangements are based on Jewish tradition. Walls and ceilings are adorned with frescoes. A courtyard, circular or rectangular, surrounds the body of the church. Modern Ethiopian churches may incorporate the basilican or native styles, and use contemporary construction techniques and materials. In rural areas, the church and outer court are often thatched with mud-built walls.

Ark of the Covenant

The Ethiopian church claims that one of its churches, Our Lady Mary of Zion (Maryam Tsiyon), is host to the original Ark of the Covenant that Moses carried with the Israelites during the Exodus. However, outsiders (and women, be they insiders or not) are not allowed into the building where the Ark is located, ostensibly due to dangerous biblical warnings. As a result, international scholars doubt that the real Ark is truly there, although a case has been put forward by controversial popular writer Graham Hancock in his book The Sign and the Seal.

Throughout Ethiopia, Orthodox churches are not considered churches until the local bishop gives them a tabot, a replica of the tablets in the original Ark of the Covenant. The tabot is six inches (15 cm) square and made from alabaster, marble, or wood (acacia). It is always kept in ornate coverings to hide it from public view. In an elaborate procession, the tabot is carried around the outside of the church amid joyful song and dance on the feast day of that particular church's namesake and also on the great Feast of T'imqet, known as Epiphany or Theophany.

Similarities to Judaism

The Church of Ethiopia places a heavier emphasis on Old Testament teachings than one might find in the Western churches and its followers adhere to certain practices that one only finds in Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. Ethiopian Christians, like some other Eastern Christians, traditionally follow dietary rules that are similar to Jewish kashrut, specifically with regard to how an animal is slaughtered. Similarly, pork is prohibited, though unlike kashrut, Ethiopian cuisine does mix dairy products with meat. Women are prohibited from entering the church during their period and, like married Orthodox Jewish women, are expected to cover their hair with a large scarf (or net'ela) while in church.

As with Orthodox synagogues, men and women are seated separately in Ethiopian Orthodox churches, with men on the left and women on the right (when facing the altar). However, women covering their heads and separation of the sexes in church is common to many Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Christians and not unique to Judaism. Ethiopian Orthodox worshipers remove their shoes when entering a church, in accordance with Exodus 3:5 (in which Moses, while viewing the burning bush, is commanded to remove his shoes while standing on holy ground). Furthermore, both the Sabbath (Saturday), and the Lord's Day (Sunday) are observed as holy, although more emphasis, because of the Resurrection, is laid upon the Sunday.



External links

Further Reading

  • Prof. Dr. Edward Ullendorff (British Academy). Ethiopia and the Bible. Oxford University Press, 1968. 173 pp. ISBN 9780197260760

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