Ethiopia is one of the earliest cradles of Christianity, the second nation after Armenia to adopt Christianity as a state religion. But Catholics have struggled here ever since seismic events in the early 17th century crushed their burgeoning religion in this most religious land.
Eventually Catholics made a small comeback, but nowadays devotees of the Ethiopian Catholic Church – an Eastern Church in communion with the Church of Rome – constitute only one per cent of Ethiopia’s 95 million-plus population.
About 45 per cent of the population belong to the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, the principal faith since the 4th century. Muslims make up around 35 per cent. This figure is much argued over in the sensitive realm of country and religion: Muslims say it’s more, non-Muslims say it isn’t – with Protestants and adherents to indigenous tribal religions making up the rest.
“There’s still a lot of distrust of the Catholic Church due to its history in the country,” says an Ethiopian Catholic priest who didn’t wish to be named due to potential repercussions for his parish work. “It’s viewed as having caused the persecution of the Orthodox Church, after which Ethiopians said: Never again!”
In the 16th century, Portuguese merchants went in search of the legendary land of the Christian king, Prester John – said to be a descendant of one of the Three Magi – whose realm was associated with Ethiopia in the eyes of pre-modern Europe. Portuguese Jesuits accompanied them, eager to win Ethiopia for Rome. They were successful, up to a point.
By 1622, the Ethiopian King Susenyos had embraced Catholicism and by 1626 had established it as the state religion. But misguided Latinising reforms of the Ethiopian liturgy pushed through by the zealous Jesuits, coupled with the king’s outlawing of the Orthodox Church and his bloody measures to convert his people to Catholicism, resulted in a five-year civil war.
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