The Oriental Orthodox Churches around the world




Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations of the world. This is clearly illustrated by the psalmist who says: “ Let Ethiopian hasten to stretch out her hands to God” (Psalm 08:31) indicating that as far back as about the 19th century B.C. Ethiopia had been known in the world.

Christianity was introduced into this country every early. During the Apostolic age for instance, a eunuch of queen Candace who had gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was met by Philip on his way back and was baptized (Acts 8:26-40). But the Church was formally organized and the Sacraments administered only from the time of kings Abreha and Atsbaha. They were brothers who ruled the country from about the year 290 A.D. It was Frumentius who undertook this great work during their reign. The royal brothers supported the work. So churches were built, clergy were ordained in large numbers and facilities for the regular administration divine sacraments were offered. In this way from about the year 332 A.D. Christianity became the official religion of Ethiopia.

The work of the Church was further strengthened by the coming of the Nine Saints from the Roman Empire (479 A.D.). These men made a memorable contruibution to the Ethiopian Church. They translated many books from Greek into Geez, preached the Gospel, and established monastic life.

By about the middle of the sixth century the Church of Ethiopia entered a new era. Yared rose at that time and composed a great variety of Church music. No one has so far surpassed him, and his work is still being used in Church services.

The history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is not however one of unchecked progress.. In the tenth century of the Christian era it was faced with persecution under queen Judith who embraced the Jewish faith. Son after she gained power in 980, she invaded the Axumite Kingdom and put down the ruling dynasty. Her power proved dangerous to the Ethiopian Church. She destroyed churches everywhere, burned holy scriptures and other books and massacred the clergy without mercy. The reign of Judith ushered Ethiopia into the dark ages. Which continued till the rise of the Zagwe Kingdom in the twelfth century.

In the twelfth century, during the reign of King Harbe, the Church of Ethiopia appealed to the Church of Egypt to recognize its national autonomy and let it appoint Bishops from its own membership. But owing the several reasons the request was not granted.

From about the year 1180 to 1220 A.D. Lalibela was the king of Ethiopia. During his illustrious reign the Church gained in strength and vitality. It was at that time that the ten rock-hewn church buildings were constructed marking the glory of the period.

The Zague dynasty came then to be replaced by the Solomonian line as a result of the memorable work of Abune Tekle Haimanot. He gained for the Church a third of the state income from about 1262. Although this arrangement did not continue unceasingly every since, the contributions of Tekle Haimanot are worthy of note. He propagated the Christian faith in Ethiopia, particularly in the Galls Province, carried on a remarkable extent of social services and dedicated himself to find a solution to the many crying problems of the day. His services for the Church were such that he deserves eminently to be considered one of the great saints of the Church.

That age was followed by a period of persecution led by Muslim invaders. Headed by the Turks who occupied Yemen in 1538. The Islamic invasion took place during the reign of Lebne Dengel (1508-1540) and of his son Gelawdos (Claudius) (1540-1559). Lebene Dengel has secured the promise of the Portuguese and the Kings of France and Spain for an allied Crusade against the Muslim neighbors of Ethiopia. But the Muslim attack came sooner than expected. And it was led by the remarkable General Mohammed Iban Ibrahim EJ Ghazi, known as Gragne (meaning left-handed). The victorious Muslims pillaged Churches and destroyed by burning holy books in 1539. However, in 1543 Mohamed Gragne was defeated and killed in battle. Soon after this success Gelawidos rebuilt churches and procured copies of the books which the Muslims had burnt.

These incidents, however, weakened the Church very much. Now the Roman Catholic Church, taking advantage of this situation, began to send Jesuit missionaries to Ethiopia. It was in 1557 that they came. Though Gelawidios refused to welcome them, his brother gave them permission to preach. Entering Ethiopia one after another, the Jesuits began to gain ground in the country and during the reign of Susenyos’ (1632-1665) they caused great bloodshed and colossal loss of Ethiopian humanity. Seeing this the king issued a proclamation supporting the ancient faith of the Ethiopian people.

Susenyos successor, Fasilledes, had no sympathy for the Roman Catholic faith and he closed the door to Jesuit missionary work. Thus ended the lamentable chapter in the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church during which the Jesuit mission had endeavored to convert it en bloc to the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical obedience.

In concluding this brief survey of the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a word may be said about the gaining of its autonomy. This question which had a long history became acute in the present century, and His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie I played a noble role in solving it. In consequence of continued negotiations, the authorities of the Church of Egypt agreed to recognize the autonomous and autocephalous status of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, in 1928 (1921 E.C.) five Bishops chosen from among the members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church were consecrated as a first step in this movement. Then in 1959 His Holiness Abuna Baselios, an Ethiopian Patriarch was installed. In this way the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has come to be recognized as an autocephalous Church among the Orthodox Churches of the East.


All world history proves that the holy church of God is the founder of education. The internationally known great and famous scholars were the fruits of the universities founded by the church. That the church was the teacher and the beginner of all things is made obvious through history. It is well known that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has a history that spans over two thousand years since the introduction of Christianity. The church is the oldest teaching institution of both religious and secular education such as biblical exegesis commentary, Patristic literature, church songs, literature and art, mathematics, astronomy and medicine etc. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church still teaches in the monasteries and in the great Cathedrals and has the freedom of preaching everywhere throughout the country.

As the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is an ancient church, she has followers numbered by millions, and so has great responsibility. Even though the church has many hundreds of thousands of priests who have been trained in the traditional schools, she still needs by the thousands modern trained priests who may be able to communicate the church’s message to the modern generation. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has already established in North and South America, the Caribbean, the Sudan, Djibouti, South Africa, England, Germany and in many parts of Europe. In order to expand its mission to other parts of the world, it obviously needs a number of very well educated priests who will take on this great responsibility and carry on the missionary work.

What the church needs in the future

The need of our church is much greater than what has been already said above, for she really needs thousands of educated clergymen to propagate the Gospel to the areas where Christianity has not been preached yet, within and outside the country, to all our brothers. Needless to say that is a proper and a holy duty for this ancient churches of ours, to spread the Gospel of Christ in Africa and anywhere else. Many requests have reached our church from African countries as well as from many others to send them missionaries.

In order to carry out her spiritual work efficiently the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church very much requires a modern structured administrative set up and guidance. The father and leaders of the church need also the help of many theologically educated church men again to carry on the efficiently their administrative and apostolic work in the dioceses as a whole and in the districts and sub-districts in particular.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has reopened the Theological seminary. Graduates from this seminary take other subjects on top of the theological courses including Ethiopian languages, literature, history, philosophy, administration, church music, church history and many various other similar subjects. This will enable them to make great contribution to the development of the church as well as of the country. At present, it is important to have theologically educated people for the church.

Other than this the church needs to have scholars in doctrine, tradition literate, experts in journalism, who can prepare different religious articles, periodicals etc. Especially now when education is widely spread, such preparation is highly needed.
Finally, we have in our country a treasure of educational heritage, derived only from our national saints and scholars. These national educational treasures are put together in the form of compositions of music, in different philosophical and exegetical works.

It is quite obvious that our fathers who are called scholars, when they invented and prepared and offered to their successors the above noted educational treasures they made a great effort so that their church may not be less than the other Christian churches. We Ethiopians of the present generation should consider ourselves fortunate enough that our church has been able to maintain these educational treasures for centuries through great sacrifices and struggles and so handed them to us.

And now these national educational treasures, which have been developed from century to century, will be restructured making it possible to continue in a better way for higher studies.


The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is an ancient church. The unswerving history of the church is manifested in the strong faith and fame of her people and these are filed in the biographical history books of saints and martyrs.

Since the history of the Ethiopian people is closely woven that of the history of the church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has rendered a great contribution maintaining national unity and also giving moral and spiritual strength to the people. The history of our church indicates that the forefathers of our church, ever since the time of the Apostles and those who followed in their footsteps, were dedicated to give Apostolic guidance and a spiritual education.

The history of the church also testifies that they were always doing all these together through the Holy Synod.

Even though, the New Testament only gives very brief but fundamental guidelines and not a detailed order as to how the church should be administered, it is written that our Lord Jesus Christ before His Ascension gave full responsibilities to the Apostles.

As it is explained in the Gospel of St. Mark 10:42-45 by our Lord Jesus Christ, the bishops or leaders of the church, following the example of Christ are to rule not by force and compulsion, but by agreement; not by pride but by politeness; not as dictators, but as servants; not for money but for the love of Christ.

The highest authority of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the Holy Synod, under the chairmanship of His Holiness the Patriarch. But the administration is run by the archbishops, bishops and the clergy. What is clearly stated in the history of the church is that there was not uniformity in the administration of the church after the Apostolic era.

Because of this, the method of administrating the sacraments and by whom these sacraments should be administered; as to how the leaders (bishops) of the church should be elected; how to be consecrated; and as to by whose authority people be excommunicated if necessary; the church had set up her own administrative law and order.

The fundamental administrative guideline, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church therefore, as follows:
1. That all authority (of the church) drives from Christ.
2. That Christ’s humility is the true example for all who serve the church (Priesthood).
3. That the administrative authority of the Church does not lie upon one person, but collectively upon all who are consecrated as bishops (the Holy Synod).
4. That administration and teaching go together.
5. That the teaching of the church is strictly confined within the framework of the teaching of the apostles.
6. That assistants are required for both on those who officiate at the prayers.
7. Since it is commanded that worthy and capable men should be elected to administer the church, the administration of the church is based upon the above mentioned points.

Today the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is guided by the Holy Synod. This Holy Synod, guided itself under the chairmanship of His Holiness Abune Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, guides the faithful both inside and outside the country. In order to maintain the life of the church and to satisfy the wish of the faithful, the Holy Synod:
1. continually permits and encourages many churches to be built,
2. gives guidance and help to have many educational books printed and distributes them making sure that they reach the hands of the faithful,
3. maintains the ancient culture and tradition of the church.
4. is also making an attempt to make internationally known the position that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church holds and its work, so that as a member of the Christian churches she may be able to expand her spiritual obligation and get closer to the other member churches.

The need for developing youth movements for the young, Sunday schools for children and organizations for women was not felt by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the past. But things have changed. As a result of this, Sunday schools are organized everywhere and some student movements have been started.

The first Youth Association were established in 1957 and they were “Haimanote Abew of Ethiopian Student Associations” and Temero Mastemar Association. This associations were well organized. They have many members, both from students and from young non-students. It corresponds abroad with some student movements like the “World Christian Student Federation” from which the association gets both material and spiritual aid. Its weekly religious gathering, which includes preaching and Bible studies, is highly important to its members. They acquaint them with the Church’s tradition and faith. Since then many Sunday schools have been established in almost every church in the country and have been actively working in the spreading of the faith from young age to adulthood.

Copied with slight modification from “The Oriental Orthodox Churches Addis Ababa Conference, January 1965”

A short History, faith and order of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Published by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Holy Synod, Printed by Tinsae Ze Gubae Printing Press, 1983.

Detail history


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