Eritrea, The Catholic Church in
ERITREA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Located in northeast Africa, the State of Eritrea is bordered on the north and east by the red sea, on the south by ethiopia and djibouti, and on the west by sudan. Including the islands of the Dahlak Archipelago and Zuqar Island, northern coastal plains rising to interior mountains and falling again to rolling plains in the southwest characterize the region. The arid climate of the northern coast cools into the mountains while becoming more arid in the western hills. Subjected to frequent periods of drought and infestations of locusts, agricultural production consists of sorghum, lentils, corn, cotton, tobacco and coffee. Eritrea exports much of it agricultural production, along with textiles, livestock and small manufactured goods, to other nations surrounding the Red Sea.
Annexed to Ethiopia in 1952 as part of a federation, and then made a province, Eritrea began a struggle for independence that lasted three decades. Independence, which was finally achieved on May 24, 1993, was followed by border skirmishes with Ethiopia that escalated into war by 1999. Thousands of refugees lived in camps around the country, prompting such organizations as Caritas to provide much-needed aid. By 2001 peace talks began, accompanied by troop withdrawals from Eritrea's southern border, and the prospect of a lasting peace was viewed as a possibility.
Ecclesiastically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has dioceses at Asmara, Barentu and Karen, all of which are suffragans of the Egyptian Archdiocese of Addis Ababa. An Oriental Orthodox Church, it falls under the patriarchy of Constantinople. An apostolic vicariate for the Latin rite is located in the capital city of Asmara.
Part of the ancient Ethopian empire, Eritrea saw the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century. Following a split within the Church at the fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, Ethiopia joined with the eastern Oriental Orthodox churches. A Coptic rite, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is monophysite, accepting the doctrine
that Christ has, not two, but only a single nature: the divine (see monophytism). Missionary activity by Ethiopian Orthodox increased in Eritrea during the 19th century; meanwhile Roman Catholicism also made inroads, brought by Italians who colonized the region in 1882. By the 20th century the Latin-rite Church remained a minority faith, numbering only three percent of the population, which otherwise remained divided between Orthodox and Muslim.
In 1935 the region was used as a base for the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and was incorporated into Italian East Africa the following year. Conquered by the British in 1941, it was federated to Ethiopia in 1952 and was made a northern province of its African neighbor ten years later. Eritrea's incorporation into Ethiopia did much to strengthen the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which remained the predominate Christian faith even after the nation declared its independence in 1993. In 1995 Orthodox dioceses were established at Barentu and Karen, although difficulties caused in an escalating border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia left them lacking both funding and staff. While the Eritrean government continued to allow the freedom to worship, it prevented religious groups from involvement in politics or other public administration activities. In April 1998, as fullscale war erupted, the troubled Eritrean government postponed announced plans to nationalize the country's private schools and hospitals, most of which were run by the Catholic Church. In April 1999 Pope John Paul II met with bishops of both Ethiopia and Eritrea, urging them to "support every move toward peace and every effort to restore unity and brotherhood."
By 2000 the Orthodox Church had 93 parishes under the care of 72 diocesan and 217 religious priests, while 80 brothers and 340 sisters administered to the humanitarian needs of the nation, including the thousands left homeless as the result of war. The country's two Catholic bishops joined with the bishops of Ethiopia to form an episcopal conference, and efforts to work with Muslim and other religious groups were seen as integral in the formation of a peace pact signed between the presidents of the warring nations on Dec. 15, 2000.
Bibliography: e. cerulli, Scritti teologici etiopici dei secoli XVI e XVII, 2 v. (Studi e Testi 198, 204; Vatican City 1958–60). t. killion, Historical Dictionary of Eritrea (Methchen, NJ 1998). Annuario Pontificio (2000).