Ethiopian Church History - 19th to Middle 20th Century

ETHIOPIAN ORTHODOX CHUCH HISTORY (19th - Middle 20th Century) #


The Emperor Tewodros and his religious policy 1855-1868 #

After the death of Abuna Qerillos (the Coptic Archbishop - Metropolitan for Ethiopia) about 1828, Ethiopia remained without a Bishop until the appointment from the Coptic Patriarchate of Abuna Salama in 1841. The new Bishop was a young, energetic man who had attended a Protestant college in Cairo. In Ethiopia, many problems awaited the young Bishop, the chief among them being the political instability of the country, widespread doctrinal controversies within the Church and the activities of foreign missionaries. Bishop Salama demonstrated ability as an administrator of Church affairs and considerable political skill during a very trying period, while endeavoring to solve as many of the problems as he could with caution and wisdom.

His arrival in Ethiopia occurred during the period of Ethiopian history known as the “Era of the Princes,” when strong central government had broken down and the Emperors were puppets in the hands of ambitious nobles vying for power. During this difficult time, when the various provinces of the Empire were ruled by different local lords, the Orthodox Tewahedo Church had remained one of the few unifying forces in the country. Unfortunately the Church herself was divided by a doctrinal controversy over the Nature - Person of Christ, which flourished throughout the Alexandrian teaching on this matter and to persuade Church scholars to accept it and renounce erroneous beliefs. With regard to the problems posed by foreign Missionaries, Bishop Salama assigned to them certain spheres of influences where they could teach but not Baptize; he required new converts to be Baptized by Ethiopian Orthodox Priests.

Abuna Salama was, of course, unable to restore political unity to Ethiopia; this was the task undertaken by the Emperor Tewodros II. His reign inaugurated a new era in the history of Ethiopia, in both a political and a religious sense. After his Coronation by Bishop Salama in 1855, he set out to reunite the divided Kingdom and to restore Ethiopia to her ancient glory. A fundamental aim of his policy was to put an end to religious controversy in the Empire and to consolidate the Orthodox Faith. To this end, in 1855, he reaffirmed the teaching on the Nature and Person of The Lord Jesus Christ, as taught by the Undivided Orthodox Church Councils held in Nicaea, Constantinople & Ephesus and the Father’s St. Cyril of Alexandria when he wrote: “the one Incarnate Nature of God the Word.”

At the beginning of his reign, the Emperor Tewodros showed deep religious faith and strict adherence to Christian moral standards. He and his wife received Holy Communion and in his conduct he became an example to all the Christians in the Empire. Many followed his example and began to lead a good Christian life. In the sphere of missionaries' work, the Emperor strongly supported the Monastics who devoted their lives to evangelizing the pagan inhabitants in certain areas of the country. Many people, including numerous Moslems, voluntary converted to Orthodox Christianity.

The Emperor Tewodros II maintained a good relation with the Church until he initiated certain innovations in Church organization. In order to carry out his far-reaching policies of modernization and reform, Tewodros II desperately needed finance. Like other European Kings had done in the past, the Emperor sadly He planned to raise money by taking control of the Church. His idea was to restrict the number of Priests, Deacons, and other ranks of Clergy allowed to serve in each Church to two Priests and three Deacons. The remaining Clergy would have to work and pay taxes like other people and some Church lands would be given to ordinary farmers, who would pay taxes on them. This proposal was unacceptable to the Clergy and these and other actions exposed Tewodros II to harsh criticism, so much so that the people in general supported the Church against him. In the latter part of his reign, Tewodros' II personality and conduct changed radically; he lost the high moral standards which had characterized the early part of his reign and grew harsh and bitter. Finally he became completely alienated from both the Church and the ordinary people he took revenge against Bishop Salama himself having him imprisoned at Maqdala, where he died in 1867.

The Expansion of The Church (1872-1913) #

In the last years of the 19th century the Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia was engaged in consolidation and missionary activities. In the work of consolidation the policy applied was the same as in the first part of Emperor Tewodros' II reign. Doctrinal differences had once again become a subject of discussion in certain places. The new Emperor Yohannes and Prince Menelik of Shoa called a Church Council at Boru Meda, in Wollo Province, in 1878 at which many learned Scholars of the Church participated. By coincidence there was no Bishop in Ethiopia at the time to preside at this Council (the late Bishop Salama having died during his imprisonment by the late Emperor Tewodros II) but this was not considered an impediment to the holding of the Council. The Emperor Yohannes had already acquired a letter from the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria in which the official teaching of the Orthodox Church in regards to the Nature and Person of “The Christ” was spelled out, and this was accepted as binding by the Clergy on all Christians.

The Council was summoned in order to promote harmony and peace within the Church itself and thus to facilitate the missionary activities of the Church. The attention of the Church was concentrated on the Wollo region for historical reasons. The whole of Wollo had been a Christian centre with many historic Churches and Monasteries before the sixteenth century. In that century, however, the population was forced to convert to Islam by Ahmed Gragn, who gained control of that particular area of the country. Later on, when the Moslem pagans were driven out of Ethiopia, the Orthodox Christian religion was restored; the population however, remained predominantly Moslem. Both the Emperor Yohannes and Menelik II encouraged the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to carry on missionary work in this region. They themselves took an active role by becoming the godfathers of prominent Moslem rulers of Wollo. The Emperor Yohannes attended the Baptism of Mohamed Ali of Ras. The conversion of the Moslem leaders had far-reaching effects on the population of the region. Many followed the example of their leaders and embraced Orthodox Christianity. Aleka Akale Wold, a well-known scholar, was selected to assist in the consolidation of the Christian Church in Wollo. He founded a centre of learning at Boru Meda itself. Boru Meda Selassie became renowned a centre of higher Church education and students flocked there from all over the country.

In southern, western and eastern Ethiopia, missionary work was encouraged by Menelik II and many Churches were built in different areas, which had become cut off from the Christian heartland of Ethiopia during the period of conflict. The re-integration into the Empire of these regions by Menelik revealed the ruins of many Churches in addition to numerous ecclesiastical objects, evidence that these regions were once Christian and therefore Menelik insisted that they should be evangelized. A number of witness have described the joy with which the arrival of fellow-Christians was received by scattered communities which had endeavored to cling to Orthodox Christianity, although without Priests and without the Sacraments, since their separation from the Northern provinces.

Ecclesiastical Autonomy 1926-1929 #

In order to strengthen the organization of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and facilitate evangelistic activities, the Emperor Yohannes succeeded in obtaining the appointment of four Bishops from the Patriarchate of Alexandria. This was the first occasion that more than one Bishop had been appointed for the Ethiopian Church since the reign of Emperor Zar’a Ya’iqob (1434-1468), who had the privilege of acquiring no less than three Bishops simultaneously. In 1881, the new Bishops arrived in Ethiopia. They were Abuna Petros, the Archbishop -Metropolitan, and Abuna Mattewos, Abuna Lukas and Abuna Yohannes. Abuna Petros remained close to the Emperor, while Abuna Mattewos was sent to Menelik II in Shoa, Abuna Lukas to Gojjam and Abuna Yohaness to Simen-Begemder, where his career was cut short by his untimely death.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a new wave of independence arose in the Ethiopian Church. For over fifteen hundred years not one single native Ethiopian had ever been raised to the Office of Bishop. Ethiopians were told that a “canon” from the Council of Nicaea forbid such; this canon after modern scholarly research was proven apocryphal. Moreover it was strongly felt that reform and modernization of the Church within Ethiopia could not be achieved by Bishops who neither spoke the vernacular Amharic or the Liturgical Ge’ez language. This made the Bishop from Egypt out of touch with national life and problems. The common consensus was that the Ethiopian Church must be freed from the supremacy of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria.

Matters came to a head in 1926 with the death of the Bishop Mattewos, the last of the four Bishops who had been appointed in 1881. The Ethiopian Church fathers approached the Coptic Patriarch with a request that authority should be delegated to whomever would be appointed the new Metropolitan for Ethiopia; that this Metropolitan would have the authority to consecrate Bishops for Ethiopia. A lengthy exchange of views took place between officials of the Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Government. Finally in 1929, a new Coptic Archbishop - Metropolitan, Abuna Qerillos, was appointed and it was agreed that five Ethiopian monks should be Consecrated as Diocesan Bishops. Five distinguished monks of irreproachable moral integrity were selected by a Church council in Addis Ababa. They were Abba Abraham, Abba Isaac, Abba Michael, Abba Petros and Abba Sawiros, who sadly, died shortly after his appointment. Edit Text

Fascist Invasion - World War II #

During the period commonly known as the “Italian occupation” from 1935-1941, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church went through a very difficult period. The Fascist Italian policy was aimed at undermining the immense influence wielded by the Church as a factor of Ethiopian unity. Bishop Petros and Bishop Michael paid with their lives (becoming Martyrs) for the steadfast patriotism and devotion to the Church. The great Monastery of Debra Libanos was attacked and many of the Monastics were massacred in 1937 along with other believers suspected of sympathy with the national resistance movement were likewise Martyred.

The Fascist Italian government wished to isolate the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by serving its ties with the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Archbishop - Metropolitan Qerillos refused to be party to this (he was a Copt) and was sent to Rome; he later retired to Cairo in self-imposed exile. Thus the Church of Ethiopia remained without a Archbishop - Metropolitan, adding a canonical crisis to the moral crisis already prevailing in the country. Taking advantage of this, the Fascist regime forced the aged and ailing Bishop Abraham to take the place of Archbishop Qerillos and declare the Ethiopian Church independence of Alexandria. The Patriarch of Alexandria on hearing this news formally excommunicated Bishop Abraham and all who followed him.

Meanwhile the Church in exile was doing marvelous work abroad. The second highest-ranking ecclesiastical dignitary, the Ethiopian Archbishop of Jerusalem, who was late Patriarch of Ethiopia, Abuna Basilios, had his seat at Jerusalem and from there he dispatched Priests to minister to the Christians in exile elsewhere and to convoy to them messages of consolation and hope. With the Emperor Haile Selassie I in exile in England, there was a sizable Ethiopian community. To them, Bishop Basilios sent five Monk - Priests with the necessary sacred objects to administer the Holy Sacraments. He also used to send messages to the patriots of the Ethiopian resistance movement urging them to continue struggle. The qualities of moral authority and integrity evinced by the Archbishop of Jerusalem during this period helped to create a positive attitude of unity, enthusiasm and purpose among Christians in all walks of life and accelerated the movement towards the independence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

After the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941, the Coptic Archbishop - Metropolitan Qerillos returned to Addis Ababa and negotiations were resumed between the Ethiopian Church and the Patriarchate of Alexandria. The Ethiopians called for the granting of autonomy and the lifting of the ban of excommunication imposed in the time of Bishop Abraham. After very lengthy negotiation, agreement was finally reached in 1948 when the Coptic Holy Synod decreed that Ethiopian Monks might be appointed as Bishops during the lifetime of Metropolitan Qerillos, and upon his death, an Ethiopian Metropolitan would be elected and be consecrated. These concessions were accepted by the Ethiopian Clergy as providing a solid basis for autonomy. Five learned Monks were chosen by the Church council to be Bishops; among them were the late Patriarch of Ethiopia, Abuna Basilios and his successor the Archbishop of Harar, Patriarch Abuna Theophilos. Upon the death of Abuna Qerillos in 1951, Abuna Basilios was chosen as Metropolitan of Ethiopia by Clergy and Laity and thus the full autonomy of the Ethiopian Church was established. The movement of the autonomy was fully supported by the Ethiopian government from 1926 onwards and His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, played an outstanding role in this matter.