ASMARA, ERITREA — EARLY last May, Abba Petros decided to return home after 15 years in exile in the United States. On his way, he stopped in Alexandria, Egypt, to meet the Coptic Christian pope, the titular head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
It was a visit that would change his life - and the future of his church.
On May 26, the war in Eritrea ended. On the same day, Fr. Petros was consecrated Abuna (Bishop) Makarios and dispatched to establish an Eritrean Orthodox Church. Since then, other church leaders here have moved to underline independence from Ethiopia.
Nearly half of Eritrea's 3.5 million people are Coptic Christians, and almost half are Muslims. The rest are mostly Roman Catholics and Protestants. Bishop Makarios says he was compelled to return to care for his people.
"I knew that I could no longer live as a refugee. I had to join my people, whatever the cost," he says.
The clergyman fled Ethiopia in 1976 after receiving a tip that his life was in danger from the socialist military junta that had seized power. At that time, Amnesty International estimated more than 30,000 suspected dissidents had been executed. The new military rulers purged the Orthodox Church from top to bottom.
The priest fled through Europe to New York, where he remained for two years ministering to a growing Eritrean refugee community. After a stint at Princeton Theological Seminary, he moved in 1980 to Washington and resuming his refugee ministry.
When he returned to Eritrea, he discovered few resources to work with beyond his determination and his sweeping mandate. The war left the church a shambles, with many buildings destroyed and priests missing.
Bishop Makarios has ambitious plans to build an Eritrean seminary to educate Eritreans, and to establish the church nationwide. But he lacks basic equipment and office supplies. Undaunted, he says his first priority is to find teachers to train new priests.
"Our people are our main resource, and I have no doubt that we will succeed in this just as we succeeded to win our independence."