Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ethiopia's ancient church faces competition from evangelicals

(pictures)Ethiopian priests take part in a procession

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) — As Ethiopia enters its third millennium, so does its Orthodox church, a venerable state-backed institution whose dominance is increasingly threatened by a myriad of evangelical faiths.

Patriarch Paulos, the current head of the 40-million-strong Ethiopian Orthodox Church, downplays any rivalry and stresses, as one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, he has invited the leaders of other denominations on numerous occasions.
"Even though a difference in dogma exists, we all worship the same God," he said. "I am even expecting a delegation from the Abyssinian Baptist Church which will arrive from the US to take part in the millennium celebrations."

Known officially as the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo (unification) Church, the 2,000-year-old institution has a rich heritage and traditions that set it apart from any other faith in Ethiopia.
The country follows the church's unique version of the Julian calendar, which on September 12, saw Ethiopia enter its third millennium seven years after the rest of the world.

Millennium celebrations put the spotlight on the church and believers turned out in larger than usual numbers for a September 27 procession celebrating a "Finding of the Cross" festival.
But the church's ages-old stranglehold on Christianity here is now challenged by a growing number of evangelical denominations that have mushroomed all over the continent.

"A lot of people are coming," said David Ibiobamimo, an Addis Ababa-based pastor for one of these churches, the Winners' Chapel International. "Sometimes our new arrivals number 300 a week, most of whom are from the younger generation."
The 40-year-old said that the traditional customs of the Orthodox church -- sometimes perceived as archaic -- were among the reasons why evangelical institutions were seeing a surge in the number of young converts.

"The power of the Orthodox church is breaking, people are seeing the light," he said. "People are questing for new knowledge. They are getting fed up with the old and traditional settings, they are seeking new experiences."
According to CIA statistics, the non-Orthodox Christian population in Ethiopia has now reached 11 percent, up from next to nothing only a few years ago, with the trend expected to rise. Muslims represent about half of the country's 76.5 million population.

Ethiopian church followers are expected to observe strict practices such as lengthy fasting periods -- practices younger people find out-of-date.
They are very old traditions. I don't believe that God can be served this way in the 21st century," said 27-year-old Rahel, who gave only her first name.

The Ethiopian Orthodox church stamped its authority over the rest of the country in the 4th century when it was declared the state religion by a converted king.
It enjoyed this status for over a thousand years until a Muslim kingdom in the east of the country threatened its existence, as hundreds of churches were burned and looted in an attempt to control trade routes.

Orthodox Ethiopians then resisted Roman Catholic attempts to draw them into their fold, prompting the country to isolate itself from the rest of the world for centuries -- with the effect of strengthening the Orthodox faith within Ethiopia.
Much of the church's land and property were confiscated, however, when Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam seized control following emperor Haile Selassie's deposition in 1974, and held onto power until 1991.

But Patriarch Paulos rejects any suggestion his church is on the decline.
"Nowadays we have more young people than ever before. We have more than 50,000 churches and 7,000 Sunday schools throughout the country. And 60 to 65 percent of all members are from the younger generation," he said.

In a bid to demonstrate oecumenical goodwill, Paulos has praised the work of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, founded in 1806 in New York by free black men mainly from Ethiopia, which sent a delegation of 165 members to commemorate the millennium, notably with a ceremony in Addis Ababa's Holy Trinity Cathedral.
"Our relationship is important, we are both Ethiopians," said Paulos told AFP.

The goodwill was shared by the head of the Abyssinian Church, Reverend Calvin Butts, who called it a privilege to be in Ethiopia where "we have learned here of great traditions that have been kept and protected by monks and priests."
Ethiopia "is without any question our holy land, we have found our brothers and sisters that we separated from 200 years ago," he said.

"We must stand together and use our faiths as a means to unite Africans, we'll go back to America looking to work closely with the Ethiopians in the diaspora," Butts said.

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