The Catholic Church in Eritrea


Historical Backgrounds

  1. When Christianity was introduced in the court of Aksum  by the Syrian  layman Frumentius

around the middle of the IV century,  the core of the kingdom consisted of Tigray, the highlands of Eritrea,  its western lowlands, the Sahel mountainous  provinces and the coastal  line areas. Adulis, the  main sea-port of the kingdom, a few kilometers to the south of Massawa,   was one of the few ecclesiastical provinces under the metropolitan see of Aksum.

Owing to   St. Frumentius'  Episcopal consecration by St. Athanasius, Aksum became   an ecclesiastical  province of the Alexandrian  patriarchate  and followed  its footsteps  in rejecting  the Council  of  Chalcedon.  Sometime  later  a  pseudo-canon,  attributed  to  Nicaea,  was  formulated stipulating that the metropolitan bishop had to be always Egyptian  by birth. Between the V and the VI centuries,  groups  of Syrian  missionary  monks founded    monastic  centers  and carried  out an extensive  evangelizing  activity  in various  parts of  both Tigray  and  Eritrea.  The  foundation  of important Eritrean monasteries such as Debre Libanos in Shimezana and Debre Sina (near Keren), is attributed to members of the Syrian missionary groups. It was in this time and in such monastic centers  that  Christianity   began  to  be  inculturated.  The  translation  of  the  Bible,  of  patristic, theological,  liturgical  and    monastic  texts  was  the  first  most  remarkable  achievement  in  that direction.

Following the rise of Islam, Aksum lost its coastal and maritime possessions to the Arabs and, under   the  pressure   of  northern   Eritrean   populations,   the   Beja,  the  political   center  shifted southwards  in the direction of today's  central  Ethiopia. Here the ancient rulers of Aksumite origin were replaced  by a local dynasty of the Cushitic  stock, the  Zagwe,  who ruled  the country  from 1150  to 1270.  In the  XIII century,  the Amhara, speakers  of a   language  of  the Semitic  cluster, established a dynasty that traced its (alleged) origin back to king Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The so called "Solomonic  dynasty" would maintain power up to the fall of Haile Sellassie in 1974.

Territorial expansion, through lengthy and bloody conflicts with Muslim and pagan forces, was systematically  accompanied by the evangelization of new territories under the leadership of such powerful  monastic  leaders as lyesus-Mo'a (ca. 1214-1293),  Tekle-Haymanot  (ca.l215-1313)  and Ewstatewos  (ca. 1273-1352).  It was particularly the latter and his immediate and distant disciples who further expanded  Christianity  in what today is Eritrea.  No less than 20 of the 22 monasteries still  existing  today  in  the  country  were  established  by  them.  Though  ostracized  for  over  one hundred years for their strict observance of the Sabbath (in addition to the Sunday), a practice that was  condemned  by  both  the  Ethiopian  court  and  the  Egyptian  metropolitans,  the  Ewostatean monasteries  in Tigray and Eritrea made a substantial  contribution  to the liturgical, theological  and literary movements  which characterized  Christianity  especially  in the XIV and XV centuries.   It was through  the heroic endurance  of   Filippos,  founder  of  Debre  Bizen (fd.  1373174), the most important monastery  in Eritrea, that the observance of the Sabbath received official  ratification by Emperor Zera Yaqob at the Council of Debre Metmaq  in 1451. Extensive land grants bestowed by the  emperors   upon  many  monasteries  in  Eritrea  enhanced  their  religious,  social  and  political influence on Eritrean society.

The  victories  scored  by  the  Christian  emperors  over  Islam  between  the  XIII  and  the  XV centuries  aroused  the interest of the European  powers. In that context,  Pope Eugene  XV sent an invitation to Emperor Zere'a-Yaqob for an Ethiopian delegation  to attend the Council of Florence. Since the Emperor could not be reached in time, a small team of Ethiopian monks from Jerusalem arrived at Florence in 1441 along with a Coptic delegation.   However, the Ethiopians,  having not been authorized  by the Emperor to do so, could not join the Copts in signing the decree of union on 4 February 1442.

  1. The Islamic Jihad launched by Ahmed Gran from 1527 to 1543 brought the Christian Empire to the  brink  of  collapse.   After    the  Portuguese  military  intervention  in  support  of  emperor Ga1wdewos, a Catholic mission was entrusted to the Jesuits. Not only did emperor Sesenyos (1607-1632)  embrace  Catholicism,  but  he also  declared  it the  official  religion  of the  Empire  with  a Catholic  patriarch of its own, the Portuguese  Alfonso Mendez.  However, the latinisation  forcibly imposed  by the latter led to the overthrow  of the emperor  and the expulsion  of the missionaries. Under the pressure   of the massive  migration  of the southern  Oromo  peoples  into the Christian kingdom, the capital center shifted northwards, in Gonder, in 1632. This ushered in a long period of growing weakness of the monarchy culminating in  the "Zemene  Mesafent=Era  of Princes" (1769-1855),  i.e. the  triumph  of   provincialism  and  the breaking  of the  national  unity. Very  much  in connection with this climate of political divisiveness were the theological controversies on the anointment of Christ that racked the Church. The three main schools of thought that emerged from such a controversy- the unionists, the unctionists and the supporters of the "Son of Grace" group - claimed the allegiance of one or the other province of the nation. Eritrea was no exception  to this course of events, with the monastery of Debre Bizen in the forefront. It was not before the   XIX century that emperor Tewodros  II (1855-1868)  brought about the reunification  of the nation, and emperor  Yohannes  IV ( 1871-1789)  put an end to the theological  controversies  at the Council of Berru Meda in 1878. The received  Alexandrian Tewahedo (=unionist)  orthodoxy   was proclaimed to be the official doctrine.
  2. During the  colonial  scramble   for  Africa,  while  Ethiopia   succeeded   in  preserving  its sovereignty,  Eritrea  was taken over  by Italy and declared  a colony  in 1890.  Between  1930 and 1935,  the  Italian  colonial  authorities  made  sustained  efforts  to  detach  the  Eritrean  Tewahedo Orthodox community from the Ethiopian  metropolitanate   and submit it directly to Egypt with an Eritrean bishop of its own. The plan was opposed and frustrated  by the Coptic patriarchate which would consider only the possibility of an Egyptian bishop for Eritrea. During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, Marshal R. Graziani, with the view of establishing a national  hierarchy   under  the  Italians'   exclusive  control,   single-handedly   appointed   the  first Ethiopian metropolitan, Abune Abraham, and 5 new bishops:  one of  them was the Eritrean Abune Marqos,  former   Abbot  of  Debre  Bizen.   The  move  was  condemned   and  the  new  prelates excommunicated   by  the  Egyptian  Patriarch.  With  the  defeat  of  the  Italians  and  the  return  of Emperor Haile Sellassie from exile in 1941, procedures were undertaken to normalize the status of the Orthodox Church and to prepare the grounds for autocephaly.   This was accomplished through various stages up to the election of the first Ethiopian patriarch in 1959.
  3. In the context of the above political and religious  developments,  after  the demise  of the Jesuit  mission, the Holy See carried  out a   plan to restore the Catholic  presence  in the country. Along with the attempts made by Jesuit, Reformed Franciscan and Capuchin missionaries, serious consideration  was  given  to  the  preparation  and  appointment  of  native  bishops.  A  Portuguese Ethiopian  priest, Anthony de Andrade,   educated  by the Jesuits  in the seminary of Fremona, was consecrated  bishop  in Rome in 1668.1  But, shortly thereafter,  he was killed  by the Turks in the vicinities of Massawa.  In 1788 the Ethiopian  monk Tobias Ghiorghis  Ghebre-Egiziabiher (1755-1801) was consecrated  Titular  Bishop of Adulis and Apostolic  Vicar of Ethiopia.  He carried out eight  years  of a  heroic  but  unsuccessful    effort  in Eritrea,  Tigray  and  Shewa.  What  made  his appointment most significant was the oath he was asked to take that he would retain the Ge'ez  rite. This had a lasting consequence  in that it foreshadowed  the policy that was tinnly  pursued by St. Justin  De Jacobis  when  he and his Lazarist confreres  were assigned  the Apostolic  Prefecture of Abyssinia in 1839 (Vicariate from 1847).

    Having Gual'a,  Alitiena and Halay as his successive headquarters, St. Justin De Jacobis (1839-1860)  explicated   his  apostolic   activity   in  Tigray,  Eritrea  (Akkle-Guzay,   Karneshim,   Bogos, Mensa'e),   Shewa,  and  Gonder  with  the  other  Amhara  provinces.  In  some  of  the  above  areas, fervent Catholic communities flourished.  Approach to distinguished  Tewahedo Orthodox members of  the  monastic  and  secular  clergy,  thorough  inculturation,  perusal of  the  Ghe'ez  rite, and  the formation of the native clergy were the pillars of the apostolic methodology followed by Justin De Jacobis. He died on a caravan route between Massawa and Halay, and was buried in Hebo.  In spite of a varying degree of appreciation  of the Ge'ez  rite expressed  by his successors,  both the use of the  same  rite  and  the  formation  of  the  native clergy  remained    characterizing  features  of  the Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia. Gual'a,  'Alitiena,  Halay, Masssawa and Keren were successively chosen as the sites of the seminary.





    1  In  1565, an Ethiopian priest by the  name of John-Baptist was  consecrated bishop to minister to the  Abyssinian  exile  community in  Cyprus. He died  in  1568 before reaching his  destination.

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