History of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Homepage

Clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

This page is meant as a source of information for those interested in the history of the of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church.

The Coronation of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Trinity and Receiving the Covenant of Mercy (Kidane Meheret)

Ethiopia is mentioned often in the Bible. The wife of Moses is said to have been an Ethiopian, and Ethiopians claim the Queen of Sheba as their own. She is said to have returned from Jerusalem pregnant with the son of King Solomon, and this son, later Emperor Menelik I, would found the dynasty that would rule Ethiopia for most of it's history to the 1970's. The first person baptized into the Christian faith in the Acts of the Apostles, was an Ethiopian Eunich in the service of the Ethiopian Queen Candace (Hindake as she was known locally). He was baptized in the Gazan desert by St. Philip. Ethiopian tradition also maintains that the Apostle Matthew evangelized Ethiopia, and there was most certainly a very early Christian presence in Ethiopia from the first century A.D. The ancient Axumite Empire was certainly a mix of Jewish, Pagan and Christian people, exposed as it was to a wide array of merchants and travelers from throughout the middle east and beyond. The monarchs of the era used the symbols of the sun and the crescent moon on their coins and erected monuments with inscriptions mentioning the gods of the earth and the sky, the moon and the sun, and probably worshiped these as well as others. A strong Jewish presence has existed in Ethiopia from early times, and the local traditions maintain that the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I following his visit to his father King Solomon in Jerusalem. More contemporary research by Graham Hancock argues that the Ark is indeed in Ethiopia, but that it arrived much later, brought by Israelite Priests fleeing a heretical king in Jerusalem. The Ark is kept at the Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, the holiest shrine in Ethiopia.
The old Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion, rebuilt by 17th Century Emperor Fasiledes, on the site of the Original 4th Century Cathedral built by Emperor Ezana.
The new Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion, built by His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Sellassie I, 1951.

Christianity became the state religion of Ethiopia in the fourth century A.D. during the reign of Emperor Ezana, and his brother Shezana (often refered to in Ethiopia as Abraha and Atsbeha). This came about because of a shipwreck on the Red Sea coast, which stranded two brothers, Syrian Christians, Frumentius and Adesius. The two boys were captured by locals and taken to the court at Axum and presented to the reigning Emperor Ella Amida who took a liking to the boys. Due to their learning and hard work, they rose to positions of great trust and responsibility, Adesius becoming the Emperors cup bearer and official food taster, and Frumentius becoming the secretary of the monarch. However, the Emperor died suddenly, and the two brothers were free to return to Syria. Adesius did so, but the widowed Queen begged Frumentius to remain behind and help assist her with her regency, and to educate her son Ezana who was still a minor untill such time that he could assume the throne. Frumentius agreed to do so, and in this position of great power and responsibility was able to promote the spread of Christianity in the Empire, and even converted the young monarch himself to the faith. Once Ezana was of age, he asked Frumentius to go to Alexandria and approach the Patriarch of the Holy See of Saint Mark, to appoint a Bishop for Ethiopia. The Patriarch at the time was St. Athnatius, who when he met Frumentius, and heard his story, decided that the best person for the job was Frumentius himself. Frumentius returned to Ethiopia as the first Bishop with the title of Abune (Father) and the new name of Sellama. Abune Sellama was givin the honorific of Kisate Birhan by Ethiopians, which means "Beginning of Light". Abune Sellama is also known as St. Frumentius of the Ethiopians, and is venerated as a Saint by all the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic church as well.
Following this tradition, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was always appointed by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. These bishops who succeeded Abune Sellama were always Egyptian Copts. The highest native born clergyman of the Ethiopian Church was the Echege, who was the Abbot of the Monastery of Debre Libanos, founded in the 1100's by the Ethiopian cleric St. Tekle Haimanot. A single Bishop was appointed from among the Coptic monks of Egypt to preside over the Ethiopian Church. The Bishops (later Archbishops) primary duty was to ordain clergy, crown Emperors, consecrate churches, and preside over the church. The Echege carried out most administrative functions. During the reign of Emperor Yohanis IV, in the 1870's, Ethiopia received 4 Coptic Bishops at once, one of whom died shortly after arriving. When the last of these 4, Abune Mattiwos, died in 1923, negotiations were begun between the Pope of Alexandria and the Crown Prince and Regent of Ethiopia, Ras Taffari Mackonnen, to have a native Ethiopian at the head of the Ethiopian church. The Copts resisted this, but finally, in a compromise, 4 Ethiopian bishops were appointed to assist the Egyptian Coptic Archbishop in 1928. During the fascist Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Coptic Archbishop, Abune Kerlos, accepted the rule of the invader, while the Ethiopian born Bishops, Abune Petros and Abune Markos refused and joined the rebles. Both would be executed by the Italians, Abune Petros in the middle of a public square in Addis Ababa, Abune Markos in the town of Gore in the south. Ethiopians resented the initial collaboration of the Coptic Archbishop, Abune Kerlos. It was generally agreed that had the Archbishop been an Ethiopian, he would have resisted Italian occupation much as the two bishops had. Then, during celebrations to mark the birth of a son to the Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Italy, bombs were thrown at the Italian Viceroy, Marshal Graziani, and the Archbishop, Abune Kerlos was wounded. The Italians then proceeded to butcher much of Addis Ababa's population. When initially invited to the pageant, the Archbishop had tried to decline saying he was ill, but the Italians demanded that he appear. His reluctance to come seemed to indicate to the Italians that perhaps he had knowledge of the plot. Abune Kerlos, horrified by the bloodbath that the Italians had carried out on the peaceful inhabitants of the city, departed for medical treatment of his wounds in Cairo. His prolonged absence angered the Italians who announced that he was no longer Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church. Abune Kerlos traveled to Rome to try and appeal this decision with the Fascist authorities, an act that did not endear him to either the Ethiopian clergy, nor to the exiled Emperor and his supporters. When this failed, he returned to Cairo, and condemned the fascists as invaders and butchers. The Italians elevated the one remaining Ethiopian bishop, Abune Abraham to the rank of Archbishop. Abune Abraham was very old, and going blind, but he cooperated with the Italians. Those who had argued that an Ethiopian Archbishop would never have collaborated with the Italians were deeply disillusioned. Abune Abraham also appointed new bishops, a right that had been held exclusively by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria. The Patriarch of Alexandria excommunicated Abune Abraham, and refused to recognize his bishops. The Ethiopian clergy were however ambivalent, as they were not enthusiastic about Coptic hegemony over their church, and yet were not pleased that their new heirarchs were collaborating with the Fascist occupation either. The Italians had also butchered the monks and the pilgrims at Debre Libanos Monastery in retaliation for the attack on Vice-roi Graziani, so they were not looked at with any affection by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Abune Abraham died in 1939 and was replaced by Abune Yohannis . Neither the Patriarch of Alexandria nor the exiled Emperor recognized his legitimacy. When the Italians were driven out, and Emperor Haile Selassie returned to his throne, the clergy were split as to what should be done. Most of them had long resented Coptic hegemony, and Abune Kerlos was personaly unpopular. His early cooperation with the Italians was not forgoten. At the same time, although he was native born, Abune Yohannis was a blatant collaborator, excomunicated by the Pope of Alexandria. He was considered odious to both the leaders of the resistance, and to the returning exiles that accompanied the Emperor. When the Emperor returned to Addis Ababa, all the new bishops appointed under Italian rule hastened to meet him and kiss his ring in acknowledgement of his authority as soon as he entered the city. The new Archbishop, Abune Yohannis, however waited 10 days before going to the Palace to see Haile Selassie I. The Emperor asked him why it was that when all his subordinate bishops came to congratulate the Emperor on his restoration immediately, Abune Yohannis himself had waited for so long. The flustered cleric stated that as a collaborator, he had thought that he should wait for his majesty to invite him before showing his face. Icily, the Emperor replied, "Well who invited you today?" Clearly the Emperor hadn't asked him to come, and no one had invited the other bishops when they had come. The excuse was very flimsy, and Abune Yohannis was instructed to not come before the Emperor again. Soon a delegation arrived from Cairo to negotiate the future of the leadership of the Ethiopian Church. It was led by the now widely unpopular Abune Kerlos, who was nevertheless installed in the Archbishops residence. Within one year, the problem of which of these two was the legitimate Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church was solved when both unwanted claimants died. The Coptic Pope, after much negotiation, arguing, pleading and convincing, agreed to raise the Echege to the possition of Ethiopian Archbishop, merging the two posts. Abune Baslios was thus appointed in 1945, and this same archbishop, after further difficult negotiations, was crowned as the first native Patriarch of Ethiopia by the Coptic Pope in Alexandria in 1951.
His Holiness Abune Baslios was Patriarch of Ethiopia until 1971, when he died and was succeeded by Abune Tewophilos. Abune Tewophilos was the first Patriarch enthroned in Ethiopia. In 1974, a widespread movement for reform resulted in revolution and the abolition of the monarchy by a communist military committee known as the Derg. The Derg government disestablished the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the state religion, and declared a doctrine of "Equality of Faith" but actively worked against all faiths by advocating communistic atheism. In 1977, His Holiness Abune Tewophilos, Patriarch of Ethiopia was arrested by the government and imprisoned. A general assembly of the church was ordered by the government to elect a new Patriarch. The assembly was directed to elect a simple hermit monk named Abba Melaku as Patriarch of Ethiopia. The reluctant monk took the name Tekle Haimanot and was enthroned as Patriarch of Ethiopia. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt announced that the enthronement of a Patriarch while another Patriarch lived, without abdication on his part, or action by the Holy Synod of the Church to remove him was in violation of canon law, and refused to recognize Abune Tekle Haimanot as Patriarch of Ethiopia. Ties between the two churches were completely severed. Abune Tewophilos, Patriarch of Ethiopia was brutally executed by the communists later that year and buried in secret. Abune Tekle Haimanot was a simple country hermit monk with little formal schooling. The authorities perhaps imagined that this would make him an easy tool to weaken the church and promote the atheism that they upheld. They were quite wrong. Abune Tekle Haimanot was a deeply spiritual and pious man who's life of self denial, severe penance and prayer inspired millions. He seldom ate anything but the most basic of roasted grains and sparse greens refusing meat or any animal products. He is said to have refused to sleep on a bed in his continual penance and mortification of his flesh. He adopted a host of famine orphans, bringing them to his residence to be raised, and used his entire salary to pay for a teacher to teach them. Most of his time was reserved for prayer. His unsophisticated simple country background made him a very staunch conservative that did not bend easily to the will of communist agenda. Often criticized for his silence during the bloodbath of the Red Terror, his defenders point out that he was afraid his speaking out would bring a bloody backlash against an already persecuted church. He became a revered and respected figure among his flock. When he died in 1988, he was succeeded by the Archbishop of Gondar, Abune Merkorios who became Patriarch of Ethiopia. Then in 1991, the Derg government collapsed, and was replaced by a rebel movement which assumed authority as a transitional government. Under much controversial actions, Abune Merkorios was removed from the Patriarchate by the Holy Synod. It is unclear whether or not the Patriarch willingly abdicated at first or acted under duress, but when he made an effort to reverse this action, the Synod stepped in and announced it had removed him. It stated that his election had been under the duress and direction of the Communist government, and so his continued occupation of the Patrarchate was not legitimate. A new election was held, and Abune Paulos, once a prisoner of the Derg, and a long time exile in the United States, became Patriarch of Ethiopia. Abune Merkorios then fled Ethiopia and announced from abroad that his removal was illegitimate, and carried out under duress from the new transitional government of the EPRDF. He claimed that he was still the legal Patriarch of Ethiopia as canon law did not support the enthronement of a Patriarch while another lived. The Synod however replied that it was entitled under canon law to remove the patriarch which it had done prior to the election of the new Patriarch. Several bishops left Ethiopia to join him in exile and now live mostly in the United States where they proclaimed a parallel synod. These moves to split the synod, who the legitimate occupant of the Patriarchate should be, and other issues have aroused much argument among the clergy and faithful. Abune Paulos however is the patriarch recognized by the Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church inside Ethiopia. The body claiming to be The Holy Synod in Exile continues to uphold Abune Merkorios as Patriarch of Ethiopia. Efforts continue to avert a permanent schism of the church continue. However, the so called "Synod in Exile" has recently also suffered further splits, and the Synod inside Ethiopia is faced with challenges to it's authority inside Ethiopia as those disgruntled by even minor disputes have taken to questioning Abune Paulos's authority and legitimacy. The Church in exile is being buffeted by accusations from certain quarters that it has split the church, and that the exiled bishops would have done better to remain in Ethiopia, and in the legitimate Synod fighting for their cause. There have also been accusations that some of the exiled bishops intend to make the split permanent by proclaiming an independent Ethiopian Patriarchate Outside Ethiopia with it's line of Patriarchal succession. Through his succession from the See of Alexandria by the Crowning of Abune Baslios by the Pope of the Coptic Church in 1951, the Patriarch of Ethiopia is in the Apostolic succession from the See of St. Mark of Alexandria, and is also in succession to the See of St. Tekle Haimanot of Ethiopia who founded Debre Libanos and was thus the first Echege.
St. Abune Tekle Haimanot. Founder of the Debre Libanos Monastery. He prayed on one leg for 7 years, until the other withered and fell off.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is one of five Oriental Orthodox Churches, also known as the non-Chalcedonian Churches. These churches do not accept the fifth church council held in Chalcedon, which decreed that Christ had two distinct natures, the Divine and the Human. These churches believe that Christ did had only one nature that was both Divine and Human, and that this union was achieved in the Womb of the Virgin, and is inseparable and indivisible. Christ was completely Divine and Human at all times and in all actions, being completely God and completely Man at the same time. The Chalcedonian Churches, namely the Western Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, condemned the Oriental Orthodox as being "Monophisytes" a derisive term that is not accepted by the Non-Chalcedonian Churches. In most other maters however, there is little disagreement. The Virgin Mary is recognized as "Mother of God" and is venerated immensely in Ethiopia. The other Non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox Churches are the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, the Apostolic Orthodox Church of Armenia, the Antiochan Orthodox Church of Syria (Jacobean Rite), and the Malabar Orthodox Church of India. Recently, the Orthodox Church of Eritrea has joined this number after breaking away from the Ethiopian Church following that countries independence from Ethiopia, and the consecration of it's own patriarch. With over 35 million members, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is the largest of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and is the second largest (after the Russian Church) of all the Orthodox Churches, whether Eastern or Oriental. The Church is a member of the World Council of Churches.
Ethiopian Icon of the Holy Trinity
Presently the full title of the Patriarch of the Church of Ethiopia is "His Holiness Abune......., Patriarch and First among the Bishops of Ethiopia, Echege of the Holy See of St. Tekle Haimanot of Debre Libanos. (Bitsu We Kidus Abune ....., Re'ese Liqane Papasat we Patriarch Ze Ityopia, we Ichege ze menbere Tekle Haimanot ze Debre Libanos. Recently the Holy Synod added the title of "Archbishop of Axum" to the titles of the Patriarch.
Abune Tewophilos, kissing th Emperor's ring upon being Enthroned as Patriarch of Ethiopian 1971 at Holy Trintiy Cathedral

Prior to the revolution of 1974, the Patriarch was the spiritual (heavenly) head of the Orthodox church in Ethiopia under Christ. However, as the church was the state religion, His Majesty the Emperor was considered the temporal (earthly) head of the church under Christ. This explains why the Patriarch is shown kissing the Emperor's ring in the picture above. However, as the spiritual was considered greater than the temporal, the Emperor would have first kissed the Patriarch's hand cross before the Patriarch kissed his ring. The Patriarch of Ethiopia was the only person to whom the Emperor would remove his hat and bow. Following the the military seizure of power in 1974 and their abolishment of the monarchy and the disestablishment of the Orthodox Church as the state religion, the Patriarch became de facto both spiritual and temporal head of the church. The Church pointedly did not strip the Emperor of his temporal headship while he lived, and still regards him as a deceased temporal head.
Abune Paulos, Fifth Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church

Fourth Patriarch of Ethiopia Abune Merkorios
November 5th, 2000, has been declared a day of mourning and remembrance by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church in the blessed memory of His Late Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who will be buried at Addis Ababa's Holy Trinity Cathedral on that day. Visit the link below to the Imperial Ethiopia Home Page for details on the Funeral.
  • Click here for Pictures of Imperial Funeral

  • Feasts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church
    A young Deacon during Epiphany (Timkat) Processions
    The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church follows the traditional dating of the Eastern church in determining the dates of it's religious holidays, rather than the Gregorian dating of the western church. Christmas is thus celebrated on January 7th, and Epiphany is three weeks later. Easter is celebrated together with the other Orthodox Churches, on various dates, but most often a week after the day it is celebrated by the western churches.
    Christmas (known in Ethiopia as Lidet or Genna) is celebrated with a long advent fast during which no animal products are consumed for the entire four week period of Advent, prior to Christmas. After a long vigil on the evening of Christmas Eve (January 6th), Mass is said at midnight. Christmas day is traditionally celebrated by visiting friends and family, and going to pay respects to family elders. A traditional hockey like game, called Genna is traditionally played on Christmas day.
    Timkat (Epiphany)
    Orthodox Epiphany does not celebrate the visit of the three wise men as is the tradition in the western church, but instead celebrates the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist. In Ethiopia, the arks (tabots) of all the churches are removed from their houses of worship and carried to nearby bodies of water. As buildings cease to be churches once the ark is removed in Ethiopian tradition, it in effect means that the church has moved to the local body of water. This is done on the day before Epiphany. The ark (tabot) is placed in a tent by the body of water, and the clergy along with many of the faithful conduct an all night vigil complete with sung services. The Liturgy of the Holy Mass is sung at dawn on the day of Epiphany, Following Mass, the highest ranking clergyman will come out of the tent and bless the waters with a large processional cross, and float or submerge a lit candle or taper in the water. The people will then often jump into the waters for a blessing and the water is sprayed on the crowds. Then as the priests chant, as bells ring and drums are beaten the arks (tabots) are carried back to their church buildings in the midst of crowds of clergy in glittering robes, under embroidered umbrellas, processional crosses, banners, and clouds of incense. People sing and dance and clap and ululate as they escort the tabots back to their churches. In Addis Ababa, most of the tabots of the city are brought to Jan Meda (the old Imperial Paradeground) where there is a special pool and fountain constructed for this purpose. In the City of Gondar, the festivities take place at the old Bath House and pool of the Emperor Fasiledes that dates back over 300 years. It is a very colorful ceremony.
    Return of a Tabot Looted by the British in the War of 1868 from Magdalla
  • Click here for BBC article on the a Tabot looted from Magdalla returned to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by the Episcopal Church of Scotland
  • Click here for The Scotsman article on the return of the Tabot
  • Click here to see article on suprising further results of the return of the Tabot
  • Click here to see article on the arrival of the Tabot in Addis Ababa

  • Biographies of the Patriarchs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church

    His Holiness Abune Basilios
  • Click here for History and Pictures of Abune Basilios

  • His Holiness Abune Theophilos
  • Click here for History and Pictures of Abune Theophilos

  • His Holiness Abune Tekle Haimanot
  • Click here for History and Pictures of Abune Tekle Haimanot

  • His Holiness Abune Merkorios
  • Click here for History and Pictures of Abune Merkorios

  • His Holiness Abune Paulos


    My Favorite Web Sites

    Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church of the Savior in New York City
    Imperial Ethiopia Homepage, History of the Ethiopian Monarchy
    St. Takla Haimanot Church of Alexandria Egypt

    Email: ethiochurch@kaizenseo.com
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