Why Christians Are Fleeing One of Africa’s Oldest and Largest Christian Homelands

April was a terrible month for Ethiopian migrants. Tescma Marcus and his brother Alex were burned alive during xenophobic attacks in South Africa. One week later, Eyasu Yekuno-Amlak and his brother Balcha were dramatically executed in Libya by ISIS, along with 26 others.

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One reason Ethiopians were involved in high-profile tragedies at opposite ends of the continent: Their nation is the second-most populous in Africa as well as the second-poorest in the world (87 percent of Ethiopia’s 94 million people are impoverished).

Roughly two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christians. The majority of these belong to the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church; the rest primarily to Protestant denominations such as the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Makane Yesus (which recently broke ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over theological concerns).

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The Orthodox and Protestants have long had in common the search for a better life. Increasingly, they share even more.

Veteran SIM missionary Howard Brant celebrates that “the two groups are coming closer and closer together” in Ethiopia, which he calls “one of the great success stories of evangelical Christianity.”

The martyred migrants in Libya, he said, likely belonged to the Orthodox church. “But if they were strong enough believers to refuse to deny Jesus on pain of death,” he said, “then God knows their hearts.”

The Tewahedo church—like its Orthodox sister church in Egypt—celebrates its history of martyrdom. It claims descent from the Ethiopian eunuch converted by Philip in Acts 8, and dates formally to the preaching of Frumentius in the early fourth century and the acceptance of Christianity in A.D. 330.

The name means “unified” in Ge’ez, the ancient and still liturgical language of Ethiopia. It refers to Christ’s one nature, both human and divine. In A.D. 451, the Oriental Orthodox churches rejected the Council of Chalcedon’s pronouncement of his two natures.

But despite joint confession of the A.D. 325 Nicene Creed, relations with Ethiopian evangelical groups have traditionally been poor. The Orthodox hold to an 81-book canon of Scripture, engage in deep veneration of Mary, and believe the Ark of the Covenant is housed in their St. Mary’s of Zion Church, said to be brought in the 10th century B.C. and kept in secret.

Some evangelicals accept the ark legend as well, said Ralph Lee, an expert in Ge’ez and Ethiopic theology who has partnered extensively with the Orthodox. Despite these barriers, he believes there is much room for cooperation.

“The gospels always come first and all is to be interpreted in their light,” he said. “There are many within the church who are seeking to help the laity develop a better understanding of their faith and its meaning.”

Unfortunately, he says, there are others who do not fully realize the importance. The Bible is widely available in Amharic, the national language, and the Bible Society in Ethiopia works with all denominations. But some Orthodox bishops oppose a vernacular liturgy, and priests are generally not given an academic education in the Scriptures.

One bishop, however, has authorized a Bible translation in the local language of the heavily Orthodox region of Tigray, along the northern border with Eritrea.

The Orthodox church’s late leader, Patriarch Abune Paulos, was hailed by Lee and many Ethiopians as a champion of ecumenism, serving as a president of the World Council of Churches until his death in 2012.

Over the last decade, the patriarch allowed an SIM missionary to teach an AIDS prevention course in the Orthodox church’s Holy Trinity Theological College. Instructing priests and monks, they partnered to launch an awareness campaign at a time many Ethiopians were still wary of the afflicted and evangelicals alike.

The pioneering collaboration led to Lee and other foreigners being invited into Orthodox seminaries, where they have taught for several years. But residual distrust among the non-academic wing of the church has at least temporarily restricted further cooperation.

“Some evangelicals believe the Orthodox are not fully Christian,” said Lee, “and some in the Orthodox church have resisted—rooted in a deep-seated suspicion of foreigners.”

Ethiopia takes pride as an African nation that did not fall to colonialists, despite the best efforts of Italy. But World War II ended its ambitions, after which Emperor Haile Selassie allowed foreign missions to work among Ethiopian animists for the medical and educational benefits derived in the less developed—and non-Orthodox—southern regions of the nation.

After the Marxist revolution of 1974 and expulsion of the foreign missionaries, Ethiopian churches witnessed explosive growth. Today, per the most recentcensus, nearly a fifth of the population is evangelical (19%, compared to 44% Orthodox).

The constitution guarantees religious freedom, but non-Orthodox must register with the government. There is a sense the “Pente,” so called for the charismatic leanings of these churches, are still foreign.

But like the Orthodox, Muslims are recognized as an indigenous community. Woyita Olla, deputy general secretary of the evangelical Kale Heywet (“Word of Life”) Church (which evolved from SIM work), says relations with Muslims are good.

“The incident in Libya has no religious basis,” he said. “It is a brutal, inhuman act that has no support among Muslims or Christians. We are all condemning it.”

Olla works closely with Muslims on the national interreligious council of Ethiopia, even as he cherishes the right of each community to evangelize the other. Muslims compose about a third of the population, and are said to have arrived in the seventh century when the Christian king of then-Abyssinia welcomed the persecuted followers of Muhammad.

Following the Orthodox lead, Kale Heywet announced a week of prayer and fasting following the killings in Libya. Olla agrees interdenominational ties are strengthening, as the nation is coming together.

But according to one Ethiopian Christian medical worker who preferred not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation, Ethiopia is coming together in frustration.

“Children and the elderly are physically sick from what they have seen from ISIS,” he said. “But there is also anger at the government for not controlling immigration and creating more job opportunities.”

Tens of thousands of Ethiopians joined a government-sponsored rally three days after the killings. By the end, riot police had to subdue parts of the crowd.

“We may have some weakness in handling domestic issues,” said Girma Bekele, an Ethiopian adjunct professor of global missions and development studies at Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada. “But to any foreign aggression the country is always strong and united, irrespective of ethnic or religious identities.”

Bekele was saved during the period of Marxist oppression and joined Kale Heywet. He hopes that improving religious relations will push all Ethiopian churches toward justice and concern for the poor.

And he has circulated a pastoral letter, acknowledged by Brant and Ethiopian leaders back home, hoping to contribute.

“The massive exodus from the country by any means and at any cost speaks strongly about the need to struggle against the crisis of poverty,” he wrote. “The plight of the poor, the great majority, is and must be at the heart of national discourse.”

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In 2011, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimated that more than 75,000 citizens migrate annually to Libya, most with the hope of making it to Europe. Italy is the leading Mediterranean nation of reception, with about 10,000 Christian migrants from Ethiopia, according to the Pew Research Center. Many get stranded; others die trying.

The nation’s Ministry of Justice announced it is drafting a new law to combat human trafficking, and is working to repatriate Ethiopians in Libya.

Bekele calls for more, including the rescue and economic reintegration of migrant Ethiopians threatened also in Yemen and the Sinai. But while he laments the state of his country, he looks to his once and future church in hope.

“I am optimistic this national grief will usher in a new paradigm for the church in Ethiopia,” he said, “as leaders work tirelessly to transform it into missional dialogue.

“We have endured challenge from within and without, and must stand in prayer as a resilient Christian nation, worthy of its 1700-year heritage.”

For the full story see Christianity Today by Jayson Casper in Cairo

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  • Jeff Benton

    Wow… Desperate poverty sucks…
    Even when I was homeless I had food to eat… Lived out behind some warehouses close to where I worked, and took showers behind a tarp with a camping shower bag I picked up somewhere… December, January and February were rough, especially when bathing, but I had food…

    I feel for these poor souls…

    • OrthodoxKGC2015

      Went through a couple rough times myself, God bless you Jeff. Hard times can give a man a whole different perspective on life. I am so hollowed out, and require so little now, that only my arrogance and anger stands in the way of Acquiring the Holy Spirit. Poverty is terrible, Misery is even worse, but God can make us see to use both for His Glory.

      God Bless,

      OKGC

  • Jeff Benton

    Good point in a lot of cases… But im Not sure what safety net you are talking about here in the west, but if by that you mean some type of governmental support, I wouldnt know if it works or not… I have never had any, nor would I ever accept any…

    I have seen homeless guys laying on the streets of Atlanta GA, with what appeared to be some type of leprosy… Saw one fella with his eyes dripping down his face, and excrement, blood, and body fluids pouring out everywhere… And by everywhere I do not just mean out of the natural orifices in our bodies God grants to all of us…

    Tried to offer him some food but he couldnt eat, and only made low gutteral noises for whatever words he was trying to say…
    Called the authorities but they already knew about him and said there was nothing they could do…

    My experience with caring for the homeless and the poor has been that there is no difference between any truly poor and homeless person here in America, and those in other countries…

    Just because extremely wealthy people walk by less than a hundred yards away, or sometimes actually step around your body, makes no difference whatsoever in an extremely poverty stricken persons condition…

    I have found that most people who hold the view that extremely poor people in one area, have it oh so much better than extremely poor people in other areas, have at the most worked with groups who take food and clothing and whatnot to designated areas in poor areas and help the poor that way… which is a very good and wonderful thing…
    But they have never cooked the food in their own house, loaded it into their own cars, and took it straight to the streets where the law does not allow you to go…
    And by where the law does not allow you to go, I mean if you park your car and get out and start helping folks, the police will come run you off or haul you to jail…

    You see, then you see the folks who never ever make it to a shelter, or a soup kitchen, or any other source of a so called “Safety net”…

    And for those folks, there is absolutely no difference between America, and Ethiopia…

    Hope you understand what I am trying to say here… Im not knocking what you wrote…
    America is great, and the “safety net” we have here is sometimes good, and sometimes abused, but it certainly does not exist for everyone… And for those whom it doesnt exist for, there is no difference in America and Ethiopia, or even Mars for that matter….

    I have seen these things with my own eyes… This is the cold hard truth…

    • OrthodoxKGC2015

      I totally agree. In today’s sick world, it is the SIGHT of the Poor which is made illegal, as if poverty is contagious and it is something the Rich might catch if they come into contact.

      Lazarus, that Bum, that loser and lazy scoundrel, would be hustled out of sight quickly today, away from the palace of the Rich Man. People don’t want reminders of their fraud and theft, even in their own hearts, what hearts they have…

      Knowing what I know, and having gone through what I have in my own life, If I weren’t a Christian…. Even so my perception of things-so like that of Leon Bloy’s-moves me to fury, to incandescent rage, when I behold how the Rich and the Powerful (the same!) defraud the Laborer of his wages, and grind the face of the Poor, the face of Jesus Christ.

      But God is Just, and Terrible and Holy is His Name.

      In Christ,

      OKGC

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  • Jeff Benton

    Oh yes, there are lots of safety nets… Heck, as a private individual taking food, Bibles, and other must have items to the desperate who dont have access to the safety nets around Atlanta, I was part of that net… So I know there are what you refer to as Safety nets all over Atlanta…

    But if ya cant get to one, they dont exist for you… Been there and seen it bro… Aint no difference in America or Mars or Ethiopia or the Sudan for those folks — for the folks that the safety nets dont catch… Thats all I’m saying…

    That fella I described laying in the street dying??? He was less than a mile from the hospital… He was probably about 50 or 60, although it was hard to tell… There was no safety net for that fella… Even less than a mile from the hospital…
    Nope… There was no difference in America or Ethiopia, or even Mars for that fella…
    Thats all I’m saying bro…

    And I have seen hundreds and hundreds of em the safety nets dont even exist for…
    And if they dont exist for ya, there aint no difference in geography that means a hill of beans to ya…