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Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

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This Ethiopian shows , the , and the .
This Ethiopian icon shows St. George, the Crucifixion, and the Virgin Mary.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church 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.



Tewahido is a Ge'ez word meaning "being made one"; it is related to the Arab term tawhid. This refers to the Oriental Orthodox belief in the one single unique Nature of Christ (a complete union of the Divine and Human Natures) as opposed to the two Natures of Christ doctrine (unmixed Divine and Human Natures) upheld by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The Oriental Orthodox Churches, namely the Coptic Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Church of India, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church all refused to accept the two natures doctrine proclaimed by the Council of Chalcedon which separated them from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. As such the Ethiopian Church is often referred to as "Non-Chalcedonian", and by its detractors as "monophysite".

The Ethiopian Church claims its origins from Philip the Evangelist (Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 8). It became the established church of the Ethiopian Axumite Kingdom under Emperor Ezana in the 4th century through the efforts of Frumentius, known in Ethiopia as Abune Selama, Kesatay Birhan (Our Father of Peace, Revealer of Light). As a boy, Frumentius had been shipwrecked with his brother Aedesius in Ethiopia. The brothers managed to be brought to the royal court, where they rose to positions of influence and converted Emperor Ezana to Christianity. 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 an Egyptian Copt to be Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church.

Jesuit interim: 1500 – 1633

Little else is known of church history down to the period of Jesuit rule, which broke the connection with Egypt from about 1500 to 1633. Union with the Coptic Church continued after the Arab conquest in Egypt.

Abu Sallh records in the 12th century that the patriarch always sent letters twice a year to the kings of Abyssinia 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 in 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 Zara Yakub , a religious discussion between Abba Giorgis and a French visitor had led to the dispatch of an embassy from Abyssinia to the Vatican; but the initiative in the Roman Catholic missions to Abyssinia 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 Matheus, 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 Abyssinia (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 Abyssinia, followed by Oviedo himself, to secure the king's adherence to Rome. After repeated failures some measure of success was achieved, but not until 1604 did the king make formal submission to the pope. Then the people rebelled and the king was slain. Fresh Jesuit victories were followed sooner or later by fresh revolt, and Roman rule hardly triumphed when once for all it was overthrown. In 1633 the Jesuits were expelled and allegiance to Alexandria resumed.

Recent history

Coptic Pope Yosab of Alexandria finally granted autocephaly to the Ethiopian Church with the appointment of an Ethiopian-born Archbishop, Abune Baslios , in 1951. Then in 1959, Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria crowned Abune Baslios as the first Patriarch of Ethiopia.

Patriarch Abune Baslios died in 1971, and was succeeded that year by Patriarch Abune Tewophilos . With the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church was disestablished as the state church. Patriarch Abune Tewophilos was arrested in 1977 by the Marxist Derg military junta, and secretly executed later that year. The government ordered the church to elect a new Patriarch, and Abune Tekle Haimanot was enthroned. The Coptic Church refused to recognize the election and enthronement of Abune Tekle Haimanot on the grounds that the Synod of the Ethiopian Church had not removed Abune Tewophilos and that the government had not been publicly aknowledged his death, and he was thus still legitimate Patriarch of Ethiopia. Formal relations between the two churches were severed, although they remained in communion with each other.

Patriarch Abune Tekle Haimanot proved to be much less accomodating 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. The Archbishop of Gondar, a member of the Derg-era Ethiopian Parliament, was elected and enthroned as Patriarch Abune Merkorios . Following the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, and the coming to power of the EPRDF government, Patriarch Abune Merkorios abdicated under public and governmental pressure. The church then elected a new Patriarch, Abune Paulos . The former Patriarch Abune Merkorios then fled abroad, and announced from exile that his abdication had been made under duress and thus he was still the legitimate Patriarch of Ethiopia. Several bishops also went into exile and formed a break-away alternate synod. This exiled synod is recognized by some Ethiopian Churches in North America and Europe who recognize Patriarch Abune Merkorios, while the synod inside Ethiopia continues to uphold the legitimacy of Patriarch Abune Paulos.

After Eritrea became an independent country, the Coptic Orthodox Church granted autocephaly to the Eritrean Orthodox Church with the reluctant approval of its mother synod, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church.


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 Maccabees, and Psalm 151; but their three books of the Maccabees are 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. See this webpage for much more detailed information on the Ethiopian Canon.


The divine services of the Ethiopian Church are celebrated in the Ge'ez language, which has been the language of the Church at least since the arrival of the Nine Saints (Abba Pantelewon, Abba Gerima (Issac, or Yeshaq), Abba Aftse, Abba Guba, Abba Alef, Abba Yemíata, Abba Liqanos, and Abba Sehma), who fled prosecution after the council of Chalcedon. The Septuagint version was translated into Ge'ez. Sermons are delivered in the local language.


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; e.g., that at Adulis (now in Eritrea) and that of Martula Mariam in Gojam, rebuilt in the 16th century on the ancient foundations. These examples show the influence of those architects who, in the 6th century, built the basilicas at SanaŠ 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 (for example, the congregation is separated according to gender). 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 utilize 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 boasts the claim that one of its churches, Our Lady Mary of Zion, 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 convincing case is put forward by Graham Hancock in his popular 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 Covenenant. The tabot is six inches (15 cm) square and made from alabaster, marble, or wood (see acacia). It is always kept in ornate coverings to hide it from public view. In an elaborate procession, the tabot is carried around the church courtyard on the feast day of that particular church's namesake, and also on the great Feast of T'imk'et (known as Epiphany or Theophany in Europe).

Rastafarian connection

Popular Jamaican musician Bob Marley was baptised into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in 1980 with the name Berhane Selassie (as of 2005, an effort to exhume Marley's body for reburial in Shashamane is underway). The Ethiopian Church remains involved in missionary efforts amongst the Rastafari of the Caribbean and has brought many of them to convert to the Ethiopian Orthodox Faith which their "god", the Emperor Haile Selassie, adhered to throughout his life.

External links

Last updated: 10-16-2005 16:41:14
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