Orthodoxy in Africa

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Outline of the history of the Orthodox Church in Africa

The Orthodox Church in Africa traces its origins to St Mark, who planted the church in the city of Alexandria in AD 42 or thereabouts.

Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city, established by Alexander the Great, whose successors established the Ptolemaic dynasty, and ruled Egypt until they were conquered by the Romans.

Towards the end of the 2nd century Christianity spread rapidly among the native Egyptian population, and the scriptures and liturgical texts were translated into several vernacular languages. This expansion led to an increase in the number of bishops, and the bishop of Alexandria, as the senior bishop, began to be referred to by the title "Pope" (before the bishops of Rome began using that title). With the establishment of the Alexandrian Catechetical School, Alexandria became an important an important intellectual centre for Christianity as well.

Persecutions in the 3rd century gave rise to the monastic movement, as people fled from the cities into the desert, and when the persecutions abated, some remained in the desert to pray. St Antony and St Pachomius organised and regularised the monastic life, and it spread from Egypt to other parts of the Christian world.

In the 4th century Africa became the scene of theological controversies that shaped the history of Christianity. The teaching of Arius was rejected by St Athanasius, and the First Ecumenical Council was called to deal with it in AD 325, at Nicaea, though it was originally a local African doctrinal dispute. The result was the Nicene Creed, which was eventually expanded to become the Symbol of Faith ratified by the Fourth Ecumenical council at Chalcedon in 451.

Following the Council of Chalcedon, however, the Church in Egypt was divided: some supported the teaching of the council, others did not. Each group tried to control the Church, and get their candidates as Pope and Patriarch. Eventually in the 6th century, the split became a schism, and since then there have been Chalcedonian ("Melkite" or "Greek") and non-Chalcedonian (Coptic) popes and patriarchs.

One of the consequences of the split was divided missions being sent to Nubia, where the Northern and Southern kingdoms were evangelised by non-Chalcedonian missionaries sponsored by the Empress St Theodora, and the central kingdom was evangelised by a Chalcedonian mission sponsored by the Emperor St Justinian I. The rivalry between the missions meant that they also used Greek and Coptic as liturgical languages, and did not follow the principle of translating into the vernacular. The result was that the Nubian Church eventually disappeared in about the 15th century, and the people (in what is today Sudan) became Muslims. The Ethiopian Church was more successful, but it was aligned to the Coptic group, and remained so aligned after the schism.

In the 7th century Muslim Arabs invaded North Africa, and conquered it, which made Christians, after 300 years of freedom, second-class citizens. The church in North-West Africa (today Tunisia and Morocco), which looked to Rome and the West for leadership, disappeared even faster than the church in Nubia. Only the Christians in Ethiopia remained free.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, then, like those of Antioch and Jerusalem, could not do much more than hold on. Mission was out of the question in a society in which the conversion of a Muslim to Christianity was punishable by death. Most of the conversions went the other way.

In the 19th century things began to change. Large numbers of Greeks settled in Alexandria, which helped to revitalise the Church there. Also Greek and Syrian traders began settling in other parts of Africa, establishing Orthodox communities. At the same time, Western missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, began evangelising in sub-Saharan Africa. Some Africans who had become Christian, however, began studying Church history, and discovered that the Orthodox Church was the original one, and therefore sought to become Orthodox. Different groups in East and West Africa made such discoveries independently of each other, and sought to be united to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. This led to a great growth in Orthodoxy around Lake Victoria, in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and later in other parts of tropical Africa as well, especially in the second half of the 20th century.

Patriarch Pope Petros VII, who was elected in 1997, actively encouraged mission until his untimely death in a helicopter crash on 11 September 2004, along with three other bishops, including Bishop Nectarios, a pioneer missionary in Madagascar. The new Patriarch, His Beatitude Pope Theodoros, himself has missionary experience, having been Archbishop of Cameroun and later Zimbabwe.