Evangelicals alter Ethiopia's traditions
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA
The rented hall was hot and crowded when more than 700 members of Faith Army of Christ International Church gathered on a recent Saturday afternoon to praise their Lord. Congregants paced the aisles absorbed in prayer or lifted up their open palms, celebrating Jesus.Skip to next paragraph
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The free-form worship of this three-year-old church was a far cry from the ancient liturgy of Ethiopia's 1,600-year-old Orthodox Church, which for centuries has defined the nation's Christian life.
But these foot soldiers of the Faith Army, and growing numbers of evangelicals like them, are forging a new Christian identity in Ethiopia - one that threatens the traditional religious hegemony.
Evangelicals now represent an estimated 10 percent of Ethiopia's 60 million-strong population, and their numbers are reported to be growing quickly. Islam and the Orthodox Church divide the rest of the population equally, with animism representing less than 5 percent.
Protestantism gained a foothold through missionary work in the 19th century. The churches established then have grown, especially in southern Ethiopia, where whole ethnic groups converted from animism. New on the scene are urban congregations like Faith Army, whose members are often derogatively called "Pentes," short for Pentecostal.
Tesfaye Tadesse grew up in an Orthodox household, but only "heard about Christ" from a friend when he was 16. "When he told me that God was a loving God, I didn't hesitate to accept," said Tesfaye. The Marxist government known as the Derg was then in power; while it uneasily coexisted with the Orthodox Church, the regime cracked down on evangelical churches, jailing many of its members. Evangelicals say the real growth of their faith took place under this state repression, which ended in 1991 when the Derg was forced from power. It is only now that believers are declaring their beliefs openly, said Tesfaye, who is writing his doctoral thesis on charismatic healing at one of three Protestant seminaries in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.
"The fall of communism opened a door for a lot of exploration. Many people are ready to try something new," said David Emmert, a Southern Baptist career missionary from Tennessee.
Foreign missionaries are playing an important role in promoting new forms of evangelical Christianity. Emmert and his co-workers, for example, target the spiritually "lost" of Addis Ababa by teaching English classes, running a free library for book-starved students and distributing thousands of popular soccer schedules with evangelical messages on the back.
"We are not trying to defeat the Orthodox Church,"said Emmert. "We are just bringing the Gospel to the people whoever they are, Muslim, Orthodox or Protestant."
Most evangelicals, local and foreign alike, share similar criticisms of the Orthodox Church: that it is too focused on outward piety, not an inward knowledge of Christ as the savior.
"The priests think that holiness is wearing a beard and a long skirt. I don't call that holiness," said the suit-and-tie clad preacher at the Faith Army service, referring to the colorful robes of the Orthodox clergy.
Paul Balisky, country director of the Society of International Ministries (SIM), an interdenominational missionary organization, pointed to a lack of Biblical literacy among church members: "If you ask an ordinary lay person who Jesus Christ is, they won't know, because they just hear the Bible read in Ge'ez," Ethiopia's ancient scriptural language that was a forerunner to the modern Amharic widely spoken in the country today.
Missionaries point with hope towards a group in Nazaret, a town about 50 miles south-east of Addis, known as Emmanuel Mehhaber, or Jesus Club. This group of Orthodox factory workers began to study the Bible - and focus on worshipping Jesus alone, leaving aside Mary and the other saints recognized by the church. As numbers grew to over 10,000 in three years, the group was gradually forced out of the church. "That was unfortunate, because they could have done some important work from the inside," said Balisky.