Evangelicals alter Ethiopia's traditions

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.

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.

The Orthodox Church has enjoyed the power of prestige since it was founded in AD 341; while no longer the official religion of the state, the symbols and holidays of the church still dominate national life. With such strong links between religion and national identity, the evangelicals appear to critics as almost anti-Ethiopian.

"When Orthodox people claim that evangelicals are being Westernized or Americanized, in some ways they are right," admitted Talargie Tafesse, director of missions and evangelism for the Evangelical Church Fellowship of Ethiopia.

Indeed, the evangelical churches have given birth to a trendy new genre of Ethiopian Christian music. The tunes, booming out from corner shops and commuter minibuses, are indistinguishable from modern Ethiopian pop music, except for the Christian lyrics. The new hymns are luring souls from the Orthodox Church, where the beautiful but labored music of the liturgy - brought to Ethiopia by the 5th-century Syrian saint Yared - takes years to master.

In spite of these advantages, evangelicals haven't converted Ethiopia's emerging urban middle class. A group of highly educated - and highly motivated - young Orthodox believers in a group called Mehhaber Keduset, or Club of Saints, are working to carry the Orthodox Church into the 21st century.

In Addis earlier this spring, the group organized an exhibit on the Orthodox Church, "past, present and future." The exhibit, which showcased everything from the Ethiopian nation's direct descent from Noah to a new software program in Ge'ez, squeezed in more than 50,000 visitors in a single week. Addis Ababa residents lined up as early as 6 a.m. to see the show, sometimes waiting hours in sun and rain.

"We are not selling our religion, we are simply informing people about it," said Ephrem Eshete, one of the exhibit's organizers. Mehhaber Keduset has designed a sophisticated web-site, now searching for a host, that contains information on the more than 17,000 Orthodox churches in the country. "The church needs to modernize - not our doctrines or the teachings of the saints, but our management," said Ephrem. "We need modern technology to transmit our teachings around the world."

Signs of such modernization are evident within the church, whose current patriarch, Abuna Paulos, received his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

Most Orthodox worship services are now held in Amharic, rather than Ge'ez, according to Abuna Timoteos, head of the Holy Trinity Theological College, a modern Orthodox seminary in Addis Ababa, "so the people know what we are saying, and can fully participate."

With new and old faiths grating on one another, Ethiopians are straining to preserve their history of religious tolerance, recalling how Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived here side by side for generations. But does Ethiopia have room for more than one Christian faith?

Evangelicals like Tesfaye, the seminary student, say they are satisfied that the new government has guaranteed freedom of worship in the 1995 constitution.

But Talargie, of the Evangelical Fellowship, claims that evangelicals suffer persecution at the hands of private citizens, while the government remains quiet. "The constitution on paper is one thing, but the Constitution in practice is different," he said. Foreign missionaries agree that while the government appears open to evangelical churches, its support is unreliable.

Talargie reported that evangelical groups have trouble securing land for new churches or offices. Some villages have even refused to bury evangelicals, whose bodies then travel all the way to Addis. Other anecdotal reports speak of "converts" who are thrown out by their families, beat up, or left homeless when their houses are burned down.

The move to evangelism, Talargie protested, should not be politicized. "It's not a transformation from one religion to another, but the transformation of your whole life. Everybody is hungry for the spiritual life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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