A Look at the Church in Ethiopia
ENDURING bumpy roads into remote areas, slippery pathways along narrow edges, adventurous climbs on dangling rope ladders and many other inconveniences, thousands of tourists have gone in search of Ethiopia’s unique rock-churches and hidden monasteries.
In Tigre Province they saw churches skillfully hewn into rock walls. In the remote town of Lalibela they discovered “monolithic” churches, which are structures carved in one piece out of solid rock by isolating a huge block of granite and then shaping it both inside and out.
Religion comes to mind also when one meets the people of Ethiopia. Men bear names such as Habteyesus (“Gift of Jesus”), Haile Selassie (“Power of the Trinity”), Woldemariam (“Son of Mary”), or Gebremikael (“Servant of Michael”). Some women display on their foreheads large tattooed crosses. Customary greetings include phrases such as: “May God give you health!” “Thanks to God, I am well. How are you?” Some Ethiopian towns bear Biblical names.
Clearly, the Ethiopian Church has had a powerful influence on a country with now more than 25 million people. Let us take a closer look at this church.
SOME ANCIENT HISTORY
Prior to the fourth century of the Common Era animism prevailed in much of what is now modern-day Ethiopia. This is the belief that conscious, personal life exists in animals, plants and other objects of nature. Especially prominent was worship of serpents. In time, immigrants from southern Arabia introduced worship of sun, moon and star gods.
Besides these primitive beliefs, Hebrew religion had an effect on the people of Ethiopia. Bible readers remember the good services of the Ethiopian eunuch Ebed-melech to Jeremiah. (Jer. 38:7-13) Also, Ethiopia was one of the lands among which Jewish exiles were scattered after the Babylonian conquest of Judah.—Isa. 11:11, New American Bible.
Shortly after the Christian congregation was established in 33 C.E., Philip was directed by Jehovah’s angel to witness to “an Ethiopian eunuch, a man in power under Candace queen of the Ethiopians.” Philip baptized the eunuch, who then “kept going on his way rejoicing,” and undoubtedly he gave expression to that joy by proclaiming the “good news” in Ethiopia. (Acts 8:26-39) However, Ethiopia became a part of Christendom’s domain, at the latest in the fourth century, when Frumentius was ordained by Orthodox Archbishop Athanasius in Alexandria, Egypt, as the first bishop of Ethiopia.
In Aksum, capital of the old kingdom in northern Ethiopia, King Ezana embraced the new faith and proclaimed it the official religion. He came to be called the “Constantine of Ethiopia,” as his conversion followed closely the example of his Roman contemporary, Constantine the Great.
CEREMONIES AND PRACTICES
In many respects, the Ethiopian Church’s teachings are like those of other Orthodox churches. There is the use of crosses, candles, rosaries, neck cords and pictures. Baptism of children is practiced, along with anointing of the candidates up to thirty times upon different members of the body.
For daily prayer, worshipers are asked to prostrate themselves three times to the Trinity, also once to Mary and once to the cross. Formerly, after the death of a wealthy person, Mass was said daily for forty days, though five Masses were considered sufficient for someone poor. Church worship includes many hymns, some with numerous stanzas, each greeting a different member of the body of a particular “saint.” Church services are largely conducted in the otherwise extinct language of Geʹez.
Other features are even more unusual. During a typical year there are at least 33 festivals for Mary. This compares with only nine for Jesus Christ. Worship of Mary is so important to Ethiopians that the Amharic word for “Protestant” signifies “Enemy of the Virgin.” On the seventh of each month is a feast to the Trinity, while the twelfth is devoted to the archangel Michael and the twenty-ninth to the birth of Christ. All Wednesdays and Fridays are days of fasting. In all, there are at least 293 feast and fast days in the Ethiopian yearly calendar. A hundred and eighty of these are obligatory.
Pilgrimages also play an important role in the Ethiopian Church. The most popular one may well be that to the village of Kulubi in eastern Ethiopia toward the end of December. This is a festival in honor of “St. Gabriel.” An estimated 100,000 or more pilgrims to this festival flood the countryside surrounding this small village.
As mentioned earlier, elements of ancient Israelite worship play a role in the teachings of the Ethiopian Church. These include Sabbath observance, circumcision and distinction between clean and unclean meats. Jewish influence can be seen also in the structure of church buildings.
All Ethiopian Orthodox churches have divisions somewhat modeled after Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. The outside portion serves mainly for singers of Psalms and hymns. The next chamber is called keddest (“Holy”) and is the location where Communion is administered. The innermost chamber, called “Most Holy,” contains the tabot, a replica of the ark of the covenant of Solomon’s temple. In procession the tabot is carried aloft, accompanied by singing, dancing, beating of prayer sticks, and the sounding of other musical instruments. Observers say that this recalls the time when King David danced with joy when transporting the original ark of the covenant to Jerusalem—Compare 2 Samuel 6:11-16.
Many of these teachings and practices, of course, are not found in the Holy Bible. Some stem from apocryphal books added to the Bible and more than two dozen other books with titles such as: “Book of the Cock,” “Acts of the Passion” or “Book of Paradise.” In the opinion of some Ethiopians, these books are more important than some of the actual Biblical books.
Another notable feature of the Ethiopian Church is its magical practices and superstitions. Many magical prayers of non-Christian origin are now combined with references to the “Virgin Mary” and the “saints.” There is still much fear of “the evil eye.” Many priests practice magic and cast spells, some of which are said to be very powerful.
In a few places snake worship has survived. People believe that “saints” have sent snakes as protectors of beloved shrines. In some locations people still offer sacrifices to snakes. On occasion these are accompanied by songs and prayers offered by priests.
THE RESULT OF CHURCH-STATE UNION
The union of church and state, which began under King Ezana, grew steadily stronger. This led to blood-spilling warfare. In the sixth century C.E. King Caleb, following urgings of the patriarch of Alexandria, invaded Yemen to avenge sufferings of Christians. During later centuries the Ethiopian Orthodox faith was spread with fire and sword. Suppression of non-Orthodox religious influences by a certain king Zara Yakob is said to have rivaled all the excesses of Roman Catholic “inquisitions.”
The Ethiopian Church continued to increase in power right down to the nineteenth century. A law went into effect requiring that the emperor must belong to that church and take an oath to defend the faith. Articles that prohibited scoffing at religion were introduced into the penal code. Proselytizing by other religions was limited to certain “open areas” selected by the Church.
WINDS OF CHANGE
After sixteen centuries of life closely supervised by the Church, we have seen people take stock of the fruitage of this long period. What did they see?
A recent estimate revealed that only about 10 percent of the adult male population was literate. Poverty afflicts masses of Ethiopians, while the Church itself and a few of its respected members have become rich. During recent years of drought and famine, the Church has come under heavy criticism, especially by the younger generation, for callous abuse of its wealth and refusal to help the needy. Consequently support for the Church has been fading more rapidly than before.
As a result, many monks and priests have abandoned the churches and are seeking refuge in their home villages. Especially the young have begun looking elsewhere for direction in their lives. In spite of efforts by church officials to stem the increasing alienation of youths from the Church, atheistic teachings are finding many listening ears.
Our brief review of Ethiopia’s Church reveals a peculiar type of worship. With usual Orthodox Church practices it has mingled animism, snake worship and Israelite elements.
At the same time Jehovah’s Witnesses in this country are happy to share Bible truths with their neighbors. The Witnesses are kept very busy in conducting numerous Bible studies with individuals here. Because of this, many Ethiopians rejoice that they have learned how to “worship the Father with spirit and truth.” (John 4:23) No longer do they engage in ritualistic forms of veneration. They have experienced the truthfulness of what Jesus said: “If you remain in my word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”—John 8:31, 32.