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Ethiopia. Catholics – An influential community

Although the Catholic Church in Ethiopia constitutes a minority of the society, it is highly regarded for its inter-religious commitment. The threat of Islamic extremism. A political objective: the Church getting ‘permanent observer’ status at the African Union. We spoke of these issues with the new cardinal of Addis Ababa, Berhaneyesus Sourafiel.

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Forty per cent of the Ethiopian population belongs to the Orthodox Church, with Muslims accounting for 34 percent of the population, Protestants 17 percent and Catholics 0.7 percent. How did the different religious groups relate to each other in the past and how do they interact now ?

Ethiopia has close historical ties to all three of the world’s major Abrahamic religions. According to the legend of the Queen of Sheba, the queen converted to Judaism and introduced it into the country during Solomon’s reign. The certain fact is that Judaism was practiced in Ethiopia at least five centuries before Christ. Over the last 30 years, almost all Ethiopians of Jewish faith have emigrated to Israel. Christianity in Ethiopia dates to the 1st century AD. Christianity was the official state religion of the country from 330 AD until the Marxist revolution of 1974. What became known as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, separated from Catholic Christianity at the time of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Thanks to the Orthodox Church, Christianity rooted in the Ethiopian population and became an essential feature of its identity.
Despite the mistrust accumulated over time, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church consider each other as ‘sister’ churches, in fact there are no dogmatic differences. Islam arrived in Ethiopia when the Prophet Mohammed was still alive. When Muslims were persecuted, during the early years of Islam, the Prophet sent them to Ethiopia, where they were received warmly and accorded hospitality until the persecutions ceased. Christians and Muslims cohabited peacefully until the 14th century, when clashes between the Muslims of the Rea Sea coast and the Christians in the highlands broke out. In the 16th century, Muslims invaded the Ethiopian empire.

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They set churches and monasteries on fire and forced Christians to convert to Islam. Ethiopia sought the military support of Portugal. Basically the conflict was not against Muslims but against what was considered a foreign invasion. At the end of the 19th century, Menelik II incorporated the Muslim territory of the Red Sea coast into the Empire of Ethiopia. Since then, the coexistence between Christians and Muslims has been peaceful.

Is it still so? Is there potential for conflict and instability with so many terrorist organizations and pockets of radical Islamists within the immediate region ?

There is some concern. Ethiopia has borders with Somalia, Sudan, Kenya. The town of Garissa, where 148 Kenyan students were massacred, is located not far from the border with Ethiopia. The fundamentalists not only attack Christians, but also their own Muslim brothers, who are accused of not being real Muslims because they coexist with the infidels. If Muslims become 51% of the population of this country, the fundamentalists will try to impose Sharia law. That is why the government is worried and uses an iron fist against Islamists.

And how about the Protestants?

Protestants arrived in Ethiopia in the mid-nineteenth century, during the time when several Catholic missions were founded. Protestants in Ethiopia were mostly Lutherans and Baptists. Protestantism advanced slowly in the country, like Catholicism. Protestants and Catholics have a friendly dialogue. Over the last thirty years many Pentecostal Protestant groups have arrived in Ethiopia, as well as in other countries of Africa and Latin America. Maintaining a constant dialogue with them is more difficult because of their fragmentation and their spirit of proselytism.

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Unlike the Roman Catholics and the early Protestants, who show respect and appreciation for the cultures which have welcomed them – these new groups do not seem to be interested either in the indigenous cultures or in the social situation. They focus on the emotional aspects of Christianity, and place special emphasis on a direct personal relationship with God.

What are the functions of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue ?

The Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID) was created to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of others religious traditions.
This institution also aims to solve problems or conflicts collectively, sometimes at the request of governments themselves. We have joint programs to fight HIV, and some programs regarding immigration and human trafficking. We went together to the airport to welcome the nearly 200 thousand Ethiopians abruptly expelled from Saudi Arabia. We are getting prepared for another wave of returnees from Yemen, because of the war going on there.

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Why did you ask the African Union (AU) to grant the Catholic Church the Permanent Observer status?

The AU is an institution of the utmost importance for the Church, as it is for Africa and the world. Catholics have contributed to its creation and organization. Many of the Commissioners are Catholics. So are the last two presidents of the Commission currently in office, Jean Ping and Dlamine Zuma. We think, therefore, that the Church is entitled to get the status as permanent observer. The Holy See, as such, has already obtained permanent observer status. Now, we are trying to obtain permanent observer status also for another two representative bodies of the Catholic Church in Africa: the Secam, (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar), headquartered in Accra (Ghana), and the Amecea, (Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa), of which I will be President until 2018. Our aim is to better support the causes promoted by the Church, through our permanent observers, such as the representatives of several Catholic organization do at the UN.

(J.G.N.)

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