How the East-West Schism Impacted Ethiopia

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Article by: Peter Gatuna

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In Ethiopia, religion has always played a prominent role in day-to-day life. The people have the same spiritual observance of life as many African people. In this case, a form of naturalism in which nature was seen as being very much part of life.

But the religious ceremonies in Ethiopia had been greatly impacted by foreigners. For example, there has always been a strong Judaic presence in the country since Queen Sheba and Solomon.

Early Christianity in Ethiopia

The foundation of Christianity in Ethiopia started long before the birth of Jesus. In the 10th century BCE, the first so-called descendant of Solomon, Menelik I, ascended to the throne.

Ethiopian Jews thrived in the country during the Solomonic dynasties, solidifying trade ties between Ethiopia and Israel. Cultural flux between the two territories happened incredibly fast, aided by trade caravans.

It is not surprising; therefore, that Ethiopians became involved in the Messianic Age in Israel.

One of the three Magi who are said to have visited Jesus was an Ethiopian Magi by the name of Bithisarea. Ethiopian converts were present in the crowd during the crucifixion of Jesus.

Ethiopia also features in the scriptures when the apostles started preaching and baptizing. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is well known.

Even better, this is one case where the Bible and history agree. Between 25 and 41 CE, Queen Amantirere was Kandake of Meroe. Keep in mind that Europeans use “Ethiopian” to refer to a wide diversity of people, prominent among them the Nubians.

Official Christianity in Ethiopia

There is ample evidence that Ethiopia adopted Christianity easily. In 330 CE, King Ezana made it the official state religion. Besides the Roman Emperor Constantine, Ezana was the second leader to do so after Tiridates III, king of Armenia.

It is important to make the distinction here that Constantine’s edict came after centuries of persecution for Christians in Roman territories.

In the earlier times, Ethiopia had been the only country to readily provide Christians with protection and shelter.

With the adoption of Christianity as the official state religion, Ethiopia was once again attached to Egypt. The pope of Egypt would continue to appoint the bishop of Ethiopia until 1959.

One again, Ethiopia was subordinated to Egypt. The only difference was that this time around, Egypt was just the intermediary for another power – Rome.

Rise of Arianism in Rome

Even though Ethiopia had been transformed into a Christian state after centuries of proselyting, the Roman Empire was converted in a few short years. As such, the Christianity established in many parts tended to be more political than spiritual.

Political intrigues of the Roman crown played a big part in the development of Christianity in Europe in the formative years. In the 5-6th century CE, a form of Christianity known as Arianism was adopted as the official orthodoxy of all of Christendom.

The Eastern conference of the Universal Catholic church, of which Ethiopia was part, rejected Arianism. However, the Arians had the advantage of the support of powerful allies.

By the early 7th century, the Universal Catholic Church was effectively at war with itself. A total of 7 ecumenical councils organized since 411 CE had failed to find common ground.

The Ethiopian Hijrah

In the meantime, at the start of the 7th century CE among the Quraysh ruling family of Mecca, a new religion was starting. The leader was a man called Muhammad, and he attracted devout followers very quickly.

The strict monotheistic religious observances he started would soon offer a serious challenge to Christianity.

However, the development of Islam was anything but peaceful. In spite of Mecca being his home town, the prophet Muhammad was persecuted and forced to flee to Medina in 622.

Many of Muhammad’s earliest followers fled further south to Ethiopia in what was called the First Hegira or Migration to Abyssinia. They were settled in the Tigray region where they lived in peace with the Axumite Christians there.

Ethiopian monarchs restricted Islam to the Northern regions where Christianity had not reached. The country was only able to avoid religious war inside the country because of its vast size.

By the 10th century CE, the city of Harar in Ethiopia had become a major center of Islam in the region.

The East-West Schism

By the 10th century in Europe, the divisions within the church were now reaching fever-pitch. Accelerated by the spread of Islam, factionalism between the different groups broke out in pitched battle for the first time.

Ethiopia’s fate in this new development would come via Egypt. The city of Alexandria had risen to the position of “library of the globe” and played a major role in the development of Christianity.

Alexandria was also one of the five centers of Christianity in the world, along with Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. In the East-West Schism, Alexandria and Antioch went east, while Constantinople and Rome remained in the west.

Power remained with the pope in Rome, including that of ordaining Emperors to a dozen thrones in Europe.

Jerusalem became the disputed city, desired by both sides of the split as well as the Muslims.

Even though she had played a prominent role in the early days, Ethiopia was no longer very visible in the developments of Christianity. The country had entered another period of isolation.

Ethiopia isolated from Europe

After the East-West schism, the Easterners were excommunicated from the Vatican. But their punishment was even more painful once the true ramifications of this fall-out became apparent.

Antioch and Alexandria were both attacked by respective hordes of Muslim conquerors. Their Christian allies did not deign to help them.

The worst fate, however, was suffered by Ethiopia. Geographically as well as philosophically isolated from the world, she had no allies to call on.

And by the turn of the millennium, Ethiopia was surrounded by Muslim hordes from all sides. Muslims populations expanded in the first centuries of the second millennium CE, acerbating conflict with Christians.

As the Crusades raged on in the north, Ethiopia started to experience religious warfare in its own lands. With advancements in weaponry bringing mass-destruction artillery like the Canon, these wars were increasingly devastating.

Dehumanization as punishment

The East-West schism may not sound like much of a political conflict. In fact, few people know of such a thing.

However, when you go back in history, this was the place where the rain started beating us. The excommunication order after the East-West falling out paved the way for the interpretations of slavery as the exclusive burden of black people a few centuries later.

Ethiopia and Egypt, persona non grata in the Vatican, were unable to intercede while these laws were being passed. And with Europe increasingly powerful at the world stage, it was time for a little payback.

Also read: The Rise of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church