Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church

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Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
ቤተ ክርስትያን ተዋህዶ ኤርትራ[citation needed]
Tewahədo Bet'ə K'rstian Ertra
Enda Mariam Cathedral in Asmara, the seat of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
Enda Mariam Cathedral in Asmara, the seat of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
ClassificationEastern Christianity
OrientationOriental Orthodox
ScriptureOrthodox Tewahedo Bible
RegionEritrea and Eritrean diaspora
LanguageGeʽez (liturgical), Tigrinya
LiturgyAlexandrian Rite
HeadquartersEnda Mariam Cathedral, Asmara, Eritrea
FounderThe Apostle and Evangelist Mark in 42 AD Alexandria, Saint Frumentius in 328 AD Axum (according to the Eritrean Orthodox tradition),
Abune Phillipos in 1993 AD Asmara (modern)
IndependenceFrom the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in 1991
Branched fromOrthodox Tewahedo

The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches with its headquarters in Asmara, Eritrea. Its autocephaly was recognised by Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, after Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993.



Tewahedo (Ge'ez: ተዋሕዶ täwaḥədo) is a Ge'ez word meaning "being made one", cognate to Arabic tawhid. According to the Orthodox Encyclopedia (1917 edition) article on the Henoticon:[2] around 500 bishops within the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem refused to accept the "two natures" doctrine decreed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, thus separating themselves from the future Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. This separate Christian communion came to be known as Oriental Orthodoxy. The Oriental Orthodox Churches, which today include the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, are referred to as "Non-Chalcedonian". These churches themselves describe their Christology as miaphysite, but outsiders often incorrectly describe them as "monophysite".[3][4]

Tewahedo Orthodoxy is a major ethnoreligious group in Eritrea and the largest Christian group there. Christianity has been the majority religion since the 4th century and remains still the largest population. Historically, they spoke Ge'ez, which belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic family. However, the language is now almost extinct, and has been mostly limited to liturgical use since the 10th century. Tewahedo now speak Tigrinya. Most also adhere to the Tewahdo Orthodox Church. Tewahdo is an identity and a religion as well for the adherent of Eritrean Tewahdos.[clarification needed]

The Eritrean Orthodox Church claims its origins from Philip the Evangelist (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 8). It became the state church of the Kingdom of Aksum under Ezana in the 4th century through the efforts of a Syrian Greek named Frumentius, known in the church as Abba Selama, Kesate 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 baptised. Ezana sent Frumentius to Alexandria to ask the Patriarch, Athanasius of Alexandria, to appoint a bishop for Axum. Athanasius appointed Frumentius himself, who returned to Axum as Bishop with the name of Abune Selama. For fifteen centuries afterward, the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria always named a Copt to be Abuna "metropolitan bishop" of the Ethiopian Church.

Union with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria continued even after Arab conquests in Egypt. Abu Saleh records in the 12th century that the patriarch sent letters twice a year to the kings of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Nubia, until Al Hakim stopped the practice. Coptic patriarch Cyril II sent Severus as bishop, with orders to suppress the practice of 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. Early in the 16th century the church was brought under the influence of a Portuguese mission. In 1439, in the reign of Zara Yaqob, a religious discussion between Abba Giyorgis and a French visitor had led to the dispatch of an embassy from Ethiopia to the Holy See; but the initiative in the Catholic missions to Ethiopia was taken, not by the Holy See, but by the church in 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 the Adal Sultanate. In 1520 an embassy under Rodrigo de Lima landed in Ethiopia (by which time Adal Sultanate had been remobilized under Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi). An account of the Portuguese mission, which remained for several years, was written by the chaplain, Francisco Álvares.

Little else is known of church history down to the period of Jesuit influence, which broke the connection with Egypt.

Jesuit interim[edit]

Ignatius of Loyola wished to attempt the task of conversion, but this did not happen. Instead, the pope sent out João Nunes Barreto as Patriarch of the East Indies, with Andrés de Oviedo as bishop; and from Goa envoys (followed by Oviedo) went to Ethiopia. After repeated failures, some measure of success was achieved under Susenyos I, but not until 1624 did the Emperor make a formal declaration of communion with Pope Urban VIII. Susenyos made the Catholic Church the official state church, but was met with heavy resistance and, in 1632, had to abdicate in favour of his son, Fasilides, who promptly restored Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity as the official religion of the country. He then expelled the Society of Jesus in 1633, and in 1665 Fasilides ordered all Jesuit books (the Books of the Franks) be burned.

Colonial era[edit]

In the 1920s, the Italian colonial power in Eritrea started the first attempts to found a separate Eritrean Orthodox Church. Until then the Orthodox Church in Eritrea was practically part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, with a strong link to Aksum in Tigray as the traditional centre of the church structure. This was, however, against the interest of the colonizer: Eritrea as a separate colony was supposed to have a church independent from the neighbor's influence, in order to be fully integrated into the colonial system. The separate Eritrean Church was short-lived. When it was still not fully established, the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935, and then formed a unified territory, Africa Orientale Italiana, encompassing Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somalia. Eritrea was unified with the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, and both Orthodox churches unified. This unification remained valid even after the defeat of the Italians and their loss of the whole territory in 1941.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was granted autocephaly by Pope Joseph II of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in 1950. At that time, Eritrea was a separate colonial territory under British administration, but nevertheless the Orthodox Church in Eritrea was simply made a division of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as the British had no interest to strongly separate the Eritrean Highlands from the Ethiopian Highlands, corresponding to their politics of unification of the highlands (with the option of separation of the Muslim lowlands of Eritrea and their inclusion into the British Sudan).

Autocephaly after independence of Eritrea[edit]

Following the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, the newly independent Eritrean government appealed to Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria for Eritrean Orthodox autocephaly. Tensions were high between the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and no representative from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church attended the official recognition of the newly autocephalous body. However, the Ethiopian Church has recognized the autocephalous status of the Church of Eritrea although it objected to the method in which the Coptic Church went about granting it. Eritrea's first two patriarchs were originally archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the first Patriarch, Abune Phillipos, visited Addis Ababa during joint efforts by the two churches to explore a possible resolution to a border conflict that had broken out between the two countries in 1998. The two churches remain in full communion with each other and with the other churches of Oriental Orthodoxy, although the Ethiopian Church, along with the Coptic Orthodox Church have not recognized the deposition of the third Patriarch of Eritrea, and the enthronement of the fourth Patriarch, Abune Dioskoros.

The first Patriarch of Eritrea was Abune Phillipos, who died in 2002 and was succeeded by Abune Yacob. The reign of Abune Yacob as Patriarch of Eritrea was very brief, as he died not long after his enthronement, and he was succeeded by Abune Antonios as 3rd Patriarch of Eritrea. Abune Antonios was elected on 5 March 2004, and enthroned as the third Patriarch of Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Eritrea on 24 April 2004. Pope Shenouda III presided at the ceremony in Asmara, together with the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and a Coptic Orthodox Church delegation.

In August 2005, Abune Antonios, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, was confined to a strictly ceremonial role. In a letter dated 13 January 2006, Patriarch Abune Antonios was informed that following several sessions of the church's Holy Synod, he had been formally deposed. In a written response that was widely published, the Patriarch rejected the grounds of his dismissal, questioned the legitimacy of the synod, and excommunicated two signatories to the 13 January 2006 letter, including Yoftahe Dimetros, whom the Patriarch identified as being responsible for the church's recent upheavals. Patriarch Antonios also appealed his case to the Council of the Monasteries of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Abune Antonios was deposed by the Eritrean Holy Synod supposedly under pressure from the Eritrean government; as of 2006 he is under house arrest.[5][6] Abuna Antonios was replaced by Abune Dioskoros as the 4th Patriarch of the church. The majority believe that Abune Antonios was wrongly deposed against the canon of the Orthodox Church. Many still consider him the legal Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Many Eritrean Orthodox followers disagree with the Eritrean government making decisions in religious matters. The illegally enthroned Patriarch Abuna Dioskoros died on 21 December 2015. No successor has been elected to date.


In common with all Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Western Orthodox churches; the Catholic Church and the Old Catholic churches of the Union of Utrecht, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church professes belief in the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, eucharist, confession, the anointing of the sick, matrimony, and holy orders. It regards the first four as being "necessary for every believer".[7]

As is the tradition of the East, non-episcopal clergy may be married at the time of ordination, which is reserved for adult males. In order to demonstrate that a bishop is a member of a synod, there must be at least three bishops taking part in any episcopal ordination.

The church holds the ancient Christian belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist stating that "The consecrated bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. Jesus Christ is truly, really and substantially present in the consecrated elements. In the Eucharist, we eat the blessed flesh of our Lord and drink His precious blood under the form of bread and wine."[7] Ceremonies are elaborate by western standards.

The practice of reconciliation in the sacrament of penance is regarded as strictly personal, and members of the church are encouraged to select a confessor (also referred to as a 'soul father') who is well known to them and with whom they are comfortable.

As in other Eastern Christian traditions, the bond of marriage is able to be dissolved, but only on the grounds of adultery. To safeguard the practice of the faith, church members are discouraged from marrying people outside of the Orthodox communion. Church members who undergo a purely civil ceremony are not regarded as sacramentally married.[8]

Biblical canon[edit]

The Tewahedo Church Biblical Canon contains 81 books, including almost all of those which are accepted by other Orthodox and Oriental Christians; the exception is the Books of the Maccabees, at least some of which are accepted in the Eastern Orthodox and other Oriental Orthodox churches, but not in the Tewahedo churches (the books of Meqabyan, which are accepted instead, have an etymologically connected name, but rather different content). The Eritrean Orthodox canon and the Ethiopian Orthodox canon are identical.

  • The Narrower Canon also contains Enoch, Jubilees, and three books of the Meqabyan;
  • The Broader Canon includes all of the books found in the Narrower Canon, as well as the two Books of the Covenant, Four Books of Sinodos, a Book of Clement, and Didascalia;

There have been no printings of the Broader Canon since the beginning of the twentieth century. The Haile Selassie Version of the Bible, which was published in 1962, contains the Narrower Canon.


The Divine Liturgy and other religious services of the Eritrean Church are celebrated in Geʽez, which has been the language of the Church even before the arrival of the Nine Saints (Abba Pantelewon, Abba Gerima (Isaac, or Yeshaq), Abba Aftse, Abba Guba, Abba Alef, Abba Yem’ata, Abba Liqanos, and Abba Sehma), who fled persecution by the Byzantine Emperor after the Council of Chalcedon (451). The Septuagint version was translated into Ge'ez. Sermons are delivered in the local language.

Similarities to Judaism[edit]

Like the Ethiopian Church, the Eritrean Church places a heavier emphasis on Old Testament teachings than one might find in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant churches, and its followers adhere to certain practices that one finds in Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. Like some Eastern Christians, Eritrean Christians traditionally follow dietary rules that are similar to Jewish Kashrut, specifically with regard to how an animal is slaughtered. Similarly, the consumption of pork is prohibited, but unlike Rabbinical Kashrut, Ethiopian cuisine allows the mixing of dairy products with meat. Women are prohibited from entering Eritrean church temples during menses; they are also expected to cover their hair with a large scarf (or a shash) and while they are in church, as described in 1 Corinthians, chapter 11. As in Orthodox synagogues, men and women are seated separately in Eritrean church temples, men are seated on the left and women are seated on the right (while they are facing the altar).[9] (Women covering their heads and the separation of the sexes in Eritrean church temples are also officially required in some other Christian traditions; adherence to both of these practices is also officially required in some non-Christian religions, Islam and Orthodox Judaism among others). Eritrean Orthodox worshippers remove their shoes when they enter church temples,[9] in accordance with Exodus 3:5 (in which Moses, while he was viewing the burning bush, was commanded to remove his shoes while he was standing on holy ground). Furthermore, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church is Sabbatarian, observing the Sabbath on Saturday, in addition to observing the Lord's Day on Sunday,[10] but in commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ, more emphasis is placed upon Sunday. The Eritrean Orthodox Church requires male circumcision, a practice which is nearly universally prevalent among Orthodox men in Eritrea,[11][12] Eritrean Orthodox circumcise their sons "anywhere from the first week of life to the first few years of life."[13]

Patriarchs and bishops of Eritrea[edit]

After declaration of autocephaly of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church was recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in 1994, the newly established patriarchal seat of Eritrea remained vacant until 1999 when Philipos was elected Abune Phillipos and the first patriarch of Eritrea (1999–2001). He was succeeded by Abune Yacob in 2002 and Abune Antonios in 2004. Abune Antonios's objections to government policy toward the church led to a government decision to depose him and place him under house arrest in 2006.

In April 2007, the Synod elected a new patriarch, Abune Dioskoros, who was the incumbent Patriarch of Eritrea until his death on 21 December 2015, although his reign was disputed by followers of Abune Antonios who endorse the latter as the continuing legitimate Patriarch of the church.

List of abunas[edit]

Vacant (1994–1999)

Phillipos (1999–2001)

Yacob (2002–2003)

Antonios (2004–2006) – Deposed by the Eritrean government and by the so-called "synod" against the canon of the Church but still regarded as the legitimate Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church

Dioskoros (2007–2015) – Replaced Abune Antonios by a vote of confidence from the national body of the church in Eritrea.

Vacant (December 2015 – June 2021)

Qerlos (June 2021 – present)

The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church also has the rank of bishops for various communities in Eritrea and the diaspora.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Christian Population as Percentages of Total Population by Country". Global Christianity. Pew Research Center. Archived from the original on 7 January 2012. Retrieved 22 December 2011.
  2. ^ Henoticon
  3. ^ Winkler 1997, p. 33-40.
  4. ^ Brock 2016, p. 45–52.
  5. ^ "Eritrea Imposes New Controls on Orthodox Church". Compass Direct News. 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-05.
  6. ^ "Orthodox patriarch of Eritrea sacked". 2006-02-01. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2007-02-05.
  7. ^ a b "". Archived from the original on 2008-09-21. Retrieved 2008-09-14.
  8. ^ "". Archived from the original on 2008-09-07. Retrieved 2008-09-14.
  9. ^ a b Hable Selassie, Sergew (1997). The Church of Ethiopia – A panorama of History and Spiritual Life. Addis Abeba, Ethiopia: Berhanena Selam. p. 66.
  10. ^ The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 1998. p. 581. ISBN 9780852296332. Retrieved 21 June 2017.
  11. ^ "Circumcision". Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. 2011.
  12. ^ N. Stearns, Peter (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World. Oxford University Press. p. 179. ISBN 9780195176322. Uniformly practiced by Jews, Muslims, and the members of the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, male circumcision remains prevalent in many regions of the world, particularly in Africa, South and East Asia, Oceania, and Anglosphere countries.
  13. ^ DeMello, Margo (2007). Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. ABC-Clio. p. 66. ISBN 9780313336959. Unlike other Christian churches, Coptic Christians, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and Eritrean Orthodox Christians practice male circumcision because their churches require it, and as a result, they circumcise their sons anywhere from the first week of life to the first few years of life.


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