'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit'
St Matthew 28: 19
Charity No. 282910
Ethiopia was, and is still known, as a Christian country, wherein Christianity has been shown at its best in depth and strength. Accordingly, the fullness of her Christian life enabled her to be the land of God whose Christian leaders like Caleb and Zera Yacob could gain global recognition as the “Defenders of the Christian faith.”
In 1145 Christian Europe heard of the legend of a Mighty king known as Prester John (Priestly King). During the middle ages, a religious war, known as the “Crusades”, was being waged to liberate the Holy Land, Jerusalem, from Moslem invasion. It was this effort at rallying the Christian forces that made them establish contacts with Prester John.
It was assumed that John was the king of Nestorian christians in Central Asia, or a king of Indian christians. It was later established in the fourth century that Prester John was a zealous christian emperor of Ethiopia.
Of several monarchs who tried to establish contacts with the Ethiopian emperors of that time, Alphonso of Aragon was the most persistent. Once it was confirmed that Prester John was the emperor of Ethiopia, the king of Catholic Portugal, in consultation with the Pope of Rome, continued his effort to establish close ties with the emperor. There was an intensified effort in the fifteenth century (1434-1468) during the reign of emperors Yeshak and Zera Yacob which bore fruit in the time of Lebne Dengel.
As Lebne Dengel was 12 years old when he assumed the throne, the Administration of the empire was carried out by the able and popular empress Eleni, his grandmother and widow of king Baede Mariam. In November 1512 Empress Eleni appointed Matthew, an Armenian merchant, as her ambassador to Portugal. Matthew had favour in the Ethiopian court before he was an Orthodox Christian, he knew foreign languages and also because Ethiopia and Armenia belonged to the non-Chalcedonian orthodox belief.
From this time onwards Rome continued its efforts to establish religious ties with christian Ethiopia for the fulfilment of its plan to bring all Christian churches under the jurisdiction of the Pope through Catholicism. Rome therefore called an ecclesiastical council of Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian groups in the 15th century in Florence. The head of the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem attended the Council. Realising that the aim of the Council was to bring all churches under the papal primacy of Rome, the Ethiopian monk confined himself to the role of observer.
Duarte Galvao, who was the Ambassador of Portugal to Ethiopia during the time of Leban Dengel, played a double role. These were:
a. The first was to persuade Eleni and the young Emperor, Lebne Dengel to renounce their Orthodox faith and accept Catholicism.
b. The second was to establish a friendship that would make Ethiopia stand by the side of Portugal in its war with Egypt. Since Ethiopia was regarded as the protector of the christians of Egypt and Yemeni Arabs, the strengthening of relations with chritian Ethiopia was considered of great benefit to Portugal.
The Islamic countries who felt threatened by the growing relationships between christian Ethiopia and Europe, mobilized Ahmed Ben Ibrahim (Ahmed Gragn) against Ethiopia.He launched attacks against the christian central government by mobilizing Ethiopian moslems against their christian brothers.
Christian Ethiopia, whose assistance was sought by christian Portugal, was now in need of Portugal's help. Portugal used the situation to present Ethiopia with two options designed by Rome. These were:
"To obtain military assistance by accepting Catholicism and thus recognizing a primacy of the Pope, or be exposed to be feared outside invasion."
As this was a critical time for the country, the Ethiopian authorities continued to request military assistance in a diplomatic manner, giving a vague response to the options presented by Rome and Portugal. The leading persons behind this move were John Bermudes and Francisco Alvares.
Alvares was a shrewd person, who on the one hand expressed his deceitful admiration for Ethiopian literature and church rites in front of Abune Marcos and Itchege Yacob, while on the other hand he continued with his devious schemes that if Ethiopia presented her requests for assistance to the Pope of Rome her requests would be treated favourably and thus using this as a bait to lead her to Catholicism.
Alvares who had a false admiration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, became successful in having his name well planted throughout the country. Even the Ichege (Archmandirite) himself became an enthusiastic admirer of him and went so far as to master the Portuguese language under his tutelage.
However, as Rome and Portugal had not realised there designs on Ethiopia, they were reluctant to give immediate response to the Ethiopian appeal for military aid. In the meantime, Ahmed Ben Ibrahim opened war on Ethiopia and soon gained the upper hand. Ethiopian emperors from Lebne Dengel onwards continue to seek foreign assistance by seeming to have positively responded to Rome's demands. In general, Ethiopia and Portugal exchanged several letters as well as ambassadors in pursuit of strengthening their relations. After prolonged diplomatic negotiation however, in 1539, the King of Portugal, John III, sent Tezega Ze-ab, the Ethiopian ambassador to Portugal along with his envoy, Bermudes to Gelawdewos with several presents, various arms and an adequate number of soldiers.With the aid of this Portuguese assistance Gelawdewos launched a counter offensive and Ahmed Gragn and his armies were decisively crushed on February 21, 1543.The Ethiopian emperor sent a message of thanks to King John for his assistance.
The end of this war, saw the beginning of another one - a religious war, which was no less damaging than the previous one. The main reason this one, was the question of religious proselytism waged by Catholic Portugal as a price for the military assistance it had provided.
After the fall of Ahmed Gragn, Rome had felt that the time was ripe for the conversion of Orthodox Ethiopia to Catholicism. But the result was contrary to expectation. In 1548 Abune Yacob arrived in Ethiopia. John II of Portugal was unhappy with the arrival of the Egyptian bishop, and he openly expressed his desire that Orthodox Ethiopia should be under the jurisdiction of Rome.
The former barber and diplomat John Bermudes resumed his mission of converting to Catholicism the emperor as well as the common people, by presenting himself as having been appointed bishop. Gelawdewos, however, declared that he had never intended to renounce the Orthodox faith or to sever the religious ties with Alexandria. He also refused to recognize Bermudes’ appointment as a bishop of Rome, but that he knew him only as a Portuguese diplomat. Bermudes was replace by Barreto Oviedo who was also commissioned to approach Gelawdewos with the same question.
The Emperor arrange public debates between the Jesuit missionaries and the Orthodox priests which were to be held in his presence. However, Oviedo could not hold his ground and thus walked out of the debate. He was much hated by the emperor Minas, the successor to Gelawdewos. He was therefore, openly siding with some of the disaffected nobility and instigating them to take up arms against the Emperor.
In addition to this, during the reign of Ze-Dengel, the king himself had shown an inclination to Catholicism, but was defeated and killed in war that the nobility had instigated with the support of Abune Petros, the then Egyptian Bishop of Ethiopia. During the reign of Susenyos, the campaign of the missionaries was so persistent that the emperor yielded to them and went so far as to issue a decree condemning the Orthodox faith and giving recognition to Catholicism as the state religion. Death was instituted as the penalty for any person who violated the proclamation.
According to this proclamation, all the books of the Orthodox Church were to be revised and corrected by the Jesuits. Circumcision was prohibited. The prcepts of the Orthodox Church on fasing days were amended, the calendar based on the Ethiopic systems was substituted by the Gregorian Caladar, and any priest not consecrated by the Catholic bishop or was not allowed by him, was forbidden from celebrating the liturgy. This situation brought about a crisis of unprecedented mangnitude.
Alarmed by the antagonism of the court towards the church, Abune Simon excommunicated Susenyos and all others who were adherents of the doctrine of the two natures. He also called on Orthodox believers to stand firm in the Orthodox faith.
Shedding tears of bitterness and anger, several monks and priests demonstrated their strong protest against the proclamation which condemned the Orthodox faith. In retaliation the law was further tightened. The situation was aggravated by the whipping in public of those monks and priests who had zealously defended their faith before the emperor.But despite the severity of the law, the nobility, the peasantry, and the clergy joined forces and closed ranks against him. An appalling religious war ensued engulfing the whole Orthodox fellowship, regardless of age and gender. Abune Simon and many other clergymen were martyred, and made themselves living examples to followers of Orthodox faith.
Susenyos had issued a proclamation expecting that military help from Portugal would be forthcoming as was promised. But he found himself defeated in the war he started before his expectation materialised. The remnants of the Portuguese contingent who had come to Ethiopia to help during the Moslem invasion led by Ahmed Ben Ibrahim, were made to leave the country because of their involvement in the war on the side of Susenyos.
Later on, when Susenyos became fully aware of the fact that he was unable to bring peace to any of the provinces, he realised the mistake he had made and regretted them. He therefore abdicated his throne in favour of his son Fassiledes.
The new emperor Fassiledes, soon issued a proclamation in favour of the Orthodox faith by which peace was restored in the country. Furthermore Fasiladas gave an order for the public debate between the two sides on religious matters. On the Orthodox side, the moderator was Itchegue Betre Giorgis, and Alfonso Mendes took a similar responsibility on the Catholic side. Defending the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, Dom Alfonso started the debate saying that no biblical text could be quoted proving the redemption of the world through the death of the Son of God as confessed by the Orthodox side. In response, the Itchegue quoted "When we were God's enemies, we were reconciled through the death of his Son" (Rom 5:10). Hereafter Alfonso was in no way to proceed with the debate, and withdrew from it. When Itchegue Betre Giorgis was proved to be fully successful in the debate, he was praised with the following words of admiration as cited by one of the well-known Ethiopian poets:
(Though not easy to capture the depth and beauty of this piece of “Qene,” fullsome in its literal and hidden meaning, its literal translation could be taken to read as follows): " Now we got a rod that would weaken Alfonso.”
To appreciate the beauty of the “Qene”, it would be worthwhile to recall that the scholars who debated with Alfonso on the Ethiopian side was Betre Giorgis. Betre, in Geez means stick or rod. Heance Betre Giorgis means the stick or the rod of George. ( The person who composed the “Qene” was therefore alluding to the fact that Alfonso was thrashed by Betre Giorgis). In the end, the missionaries, whose involvement in political affairs resulted in unnecessary wars in the country, were driven out so that the same religious problem would never happen again.
The strong faith that the leaders and the people of the country had in those days was a result of the sound teaching of the Orthodox Church. Their strong hold of the Christian faith brought about a global fame by which Christian Europe was attracted and thus resulted in Christian Portugal establishing diplomatic relationship with Christian Ethiopia; though this contact had an unwelcome result because of the unconstructive role played by Catholic Portugal and Rome through their delegated missionaries.
As a matter of fact, these incidents proved that no force could make Orthodox Ethiopia abandon its faith and succumb to foreign invasion. Regardless of what the outcome of the relationship was, Orthodox Ethiopian does not reflect about the war with remorse or shame. However, it should be noted that this history is recounted as a chapter that historical lesson could be drawn from not for any ill feeling whatsoever.
Archbishop Yesehaq. (1997). The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church. Winston-Derek Pub