Ethiopian Church Autocephaly


In the middle of the fourth century, Saint ATHANASIUS, the twentieth of Alexandria, appointed Frumentius (Salama I) to be the first primate (ABUN) of Ethiopia. From then until the nineteenth century, negotiations between the two churches were generally restricted to Ethiopian requests for a new abun to be consecrated and sent to Ethiopia by the Coptic patriarch after the of the previous abun. These requests were usually made through an embassy sent to Egypt with presents for the Coptic and the ruler of Egypt, without whose approval the new abun could not travel to Ethiopia.

The question of providing a greater number of bishops than the one abun for the Ethiopian see is reported to have been broached as early as the twelfth century, when Emperor Haile of the Zagwe dynasty asked for ten bishops to assist Abuna Mika’el. GABRIEL II (1131-1165) considered the request to be justified, but the ruler of Egypt is reported to have prevented the appointment of additional bishops, in order to keep the church of Ethiopia under the church of Egypt and consequently under the ruler of Egypt.

Whatever the truth of this report, it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century, after the of Atnatewos, the 108th archbishop of Ethiopia, that Emperor Yohannes asked the of Alexandria, CYRIL V, to appoint three Coptic bishops to assist the new abun. In 1881 the synod of the Coptic church decreed that an archbishop and three bishops would be appointed for Ethiopia. One of these bishops was Matewos who was appointed bishop of Shewa province. When Emperor Menelik II acceded to the throne as King of Kings, he requested the to appoint Matewos as the abun of Ethiopia. Abuna Matewos died in 1926.

Ras Tafari Makonnen (then regent of Ethiopia, later Emperor Haile Selassie I) asked Cyril V to choose a new archbishop and to appoint several Ethiopian bishops to assist him in his spiritual mission. But the of Cyril V in 1927 left the question in suspense until the election of JOHN XIX (Yu’annis) in 1928. The synod in 1929 appointed Archbishop Qerelos to be the 111th abun of Ethiopia, together with four Ethiopian bishops. When John XIX visited Ethiopia in 1930, a fifth Ethiopian bishop, the ECCAGE, was appointed. This was the first time that Ethiopian bishops were appointed by the church of Egypt.

Before leaving Ethiopia after the Italian occupation in 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie asked Abuna Qerelos to stay in Ethiopia to take care of the church. The Italians tried to persuade him to declare the church of Ethiopia independent from the church of Egypt. This Abuna Qerelos naturally refused to do, despite threats, blandishments, and a stormy interview with Mussolini in Rome. He was then brought back to Egypt, and the Italian authorities proceeded with their plan to detach the church of Ethiopia from its parent church. Abraham, the Ethiopian bishop of Gojam, was appointed of the Ethiopian church, with three and three bishops to assist him. By a decree dated 28 December 1937, the Coptic synod excommunicated Abraham and his assistants, with the approval of the emperor, who was then in exile in England.

After the emperor’s return to Ethiopia, Abuna Qerelos traveled to Addis Ababa in May 1942, accompanied by a mission of three Coptic layman to discuss church matters and political questions (notably the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries). A formula was found to validate sacraments performed by the illegal and bishops “as if they had been performed by legally appointed ecclesiastical authorities.” Abuna Qerelos stayed in Ethiopia, and the three laymen returned to Egypt on the day following the of John XIX. They bore with them new requests from the Ethiopian church that an Ethiopian be appointed as abun after the of the incumbent and that authority be immediately granted to him to consecrate bishops for the Ethiopian church.

By a decree dated 26 June 1942, the Coptic synod lifted the excommunication, but made no mention of the Ethiopian requests. Because of this, the decree was not published in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian church proclaimed that the eè è age would henceforth be entitled to consecrate priests. The Coptic abun was practically set aside. When MACARIUS III was elected on 12 February 1944, his name was not mentioned in Ethiopian church services, as required by tradition.

A new mission was sent to Ethiopia in June 1944. It conferred with an Ethiopian committee, which made known the Ethiopian church’s wishes in a letter to the dated 28 June 1944. The wishes were the following: (1) that His Holiness choose from among his sons of the Ethiopian clergy a man of merit and consecrate him archbishop of Ethiopia; (2) that an Ethiopian synod be established as counterpart to the synod of the Alexandrian church, this synod to have the right to choose the bishops to be consecrated by the archbishop appointed by the patriarch; (3) that the Egyptian synod welcome representatives of the Ethiopian church to take part in the election of the patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, Alexandria; (4) that the Ethiopian synod have a permanent seat in the Alexandrian synod and be invited to attend all its meetings; (5) that the excommunication be lifted from the bishops whom the Ethiopian church was forced to choose under the Italian occupation, to save the faith when the church had to break its relation with the church of Alexandria; (6) that an ecclesiastical college be founded at Addis Ababa and be placed under the high authority of the patriarch, and that an exchange of missions be established between Egypt and Ethiopia.

An argument often used by the Ethiopians in their discussions with the Egyptians was that their number was much greater than that of the Copts in Egypt and that, moreover, they were not a minority in their country, as are the Copts in Egypt, but a majority in a state that officially proclaimed Christianity the state religion.

A delicate question was that of the patriarch’s position as head of the whole See of Saint Mark and, at the same time, as direct head of the church of Egypt. At one time, the idea was broached that a position similar to that of the ecumenical of Constantinople could be established, whereby the patriarch would retain the title pope of Alexandria and become the superior of a patriarch of Egypt and a patriarch of Ethiopia, and perhaps later, a patriarch of the Sudan and other regions.

The idea never had much success, mainly because of the long historical identification of the Copts of Egypt with the head of their church and the difficulty of imagining that this head could become two persons. Also the idea smacked too much of Greek usage and could not be accepted by the Egyptians.

Patriarch Macarius called the synod on 29 January 1945, and a committee was entrusted with the study of the requests formulated by the Ethiopian church. On 16 June 1945 the synod approved the committee’s findings, which (1) refused to give the abun the right to consecrate bishops; (2) refused to appoint an Ethiopian abun; (3) approved of Ethiopian participation in the election of the patriarch; (4) approved of Ethiopian representation in the Egyptian synod; (5) confirmed the lifting of the excommunication; and (6) approved of an exchange of missions and of the establishment of an ecclesiastical college in Addis Ababa.

Negotiations stopped at this point. Patriarch Macarius III died on 31 August 1945, and Athanasius, archbishop of Bani Suef, was appointed as locum tenens. In December 1945 a congress of Ethiopian church representatives made several decisions, including one to send delegates to Egypt for further discussion of the Ethiopian demands. The work and decisions of this congress were published in the Amharic-language Ethiopian Church Review in its first issue, dated 10 Khedar 1938/19 November 1945 and its second issue dated 30 Takhsas 1938/8 January 1946. It was stated therein that the Ethiopian church would be forced to separate from the Coptic church if its demands were not met.

The mission brought a letter from the emperor to Athanasius, the locum tenens, urging that the demands be accepted for the good of the two churches. Eight demands were formulated. The synod, in its meeting of 31 January 1946, with the locum tenens presiding, answered that (1) it accepted that the next archbishop of Ethiopia should be an Ethiopian; (2) it denied the archbishop of Ethiopia authorization to consecrate bishops; (3) it approved increasing the number of bishops for Ethiopia; (4) it would permit delegates of the Ethiopian church to take part in the election of the patriarch; (5) it would permit the church of Ethiopia to be represented at the meetings of the synod at the patriarchate; (6) it approved exchanges of missions between the churches; (7) it would allow a seminary to be founded at Addis Ababa; (8) it refused to let the Ethiopian church have a special synod at Addis Ababa, but allowed the archbishop to call a regional congregation of bishops.

The Ethiopian church sent five monks to Egypt, asking that they be consecrated as bishops. During their presence in Cairo, Patriarch YUSAB II was elected on 26 May 1946. He called the synod on 20 June 1946 to examine once again the Ethiopian demands. The most important, that of the archbishop’s right to consecrate bishops, was again refused. In addition, the conditions put forward by the patriarch for consecrating the five Ethiopian monks as bishops (namely, that they should formally undertake a solemn oath never to consecrate a patriarch, an archbishop, or a bishop) was refused by the Ethiopians, as this would have precluded any possibility for the Ethiopian archbishop to consecrate bishops in future.

On 30 June 1946, Ras Asrate Kassa proposed mediation to end the conflict. He asked the Coptic church to send a mission to Addis Ababa in order to resume the talks on the following bases: (1) the patriarch would ordain the bishops proposed by the Ethiopian church, and the bishops would individually take an oath of allegiance to the Coptic church; and (2) the patriarch would examine with paternal benevolence the other requests of the Ethiopian church, and any decision taken would have a retroactive effect and thus apply to the bishops already ordained. The Coptic mission left for Addis Ababa on 23 July and returned on 3 August without having obtained a result. The Ethiopian ecclesiastics returned to Addis Ababa on 4 August 1946.

In June 1947 the emperor told the patriarch that he desired to end the disagreement. The patriarch appointed a committee, the report of which was approved by the synod on 24 July 1947. The Ethiopian archbishop would have the right to ordain bishops by special delegation from the patriarch. A delegation would be given for each individual candidate. Furthermore, a Coptic bishop would be appointed as “patriarchal delegate for African questions,” with residence at Addis Ababa. He would carry the delegations from the patriarch to the abun for ordaining the bishops. On 29 March 1948 the patriarch sanctioned the Ethiopian acceptance of the synod’s decisions, except for the patriarchal delegate, who was absolutely refused by the Ethiopians.

On 25 July 1948 five Ethiopian bishops were ordained by the patriarch. They were Baslyos of Shewa, Mika’el of Gonder, Tewoflos of Harar, Ya‘qob of Leqemt, and Timotewos of Yerga Alem. On 22 October 1950, Abuna Qerelos, the last Coptic archbishop, died in Cairo after a long illness. The bishop of Shewa was ordained as archbishop of Ethiopia by the patriarch on 28 June 1959 and thus became the first Ethiopian abun. On 2 September 1951 five other Ethiopian bishops were ordained by the abun by virtue of a delegation for this purpose from the patriarch. They were Marqos of Eritrea, Fileppos of Jerusalem, Gorgoryos of Jimma, Tadewos of Gore, and Gabre’el of Wollo.

In 1956 the Coptic church faced a crisis brought about by the weakness of the patriarch and the reported acts of simony committed by his secretary, Melek. The patriarch was first abducted by a group of young fanatics called Group of the Coptic Nation. Later, at the request of part of the Community Council and of Coptic public opinion, he was forced by the Egyptian government to retire to a monastery in Upper Egypt. This drastic measure was carried out despite the protests of other members of the Community Council, who believed that asking government help in setting aside a patriarch would constitute a dangerous precedent. The folly of such an action was amply proved by subsequent events connected with Patriarch SHENOUDA III twenty-five years later.

From the DAYR AL-MUHARRAQ, to which he had been relegated, the patriarch, in a letter to Emperor Haile Selassie, asked for the mediation of the church of Ethiopia. In June 1956 a delegation of seven Ethiopian bishops left for Cairo and visited the patriarch at the monastery. It proved unable to resolve the crisis and returned to Ethiopia. The patriarch then became ill and was taken to the Coptic Hospital in Cairo, where he remained for about five months. He died on 13 November 1956, at the age of eighty-two, and was buried in the Church of Saint Mark at Cairo. Anba Athanasius was again appointed locum tenens by the synod.

On the patriarch’s death, the question of Ethiopian participation in the election of his successor arose again, complicated by the fact that on 3 November 1957 a new law had been issued by presidential decree, at the request of the Synod and the Community Council, regulating the procedure for the election of the patriarch. As the patriarch is a public official, the procedure for his election is regulated by law and supervised by the Office of Elections at the Ministry of Interior. The same applies to the elections of the Coptic Community Council.

The new law fixed the representation of the Ethiopian church and people in the election of the patriarch, with votes to be given either in person or by proxy. The representatives of Ethiopia were to be (1) the archbishop, the bishops, and the eccage (2) the delegate of the emperor; and (3) twenty-four notables of the empire to be chosen by the emperor.

In November 1957, Anba Yu’annis (John), archbishop of Giza and secretary of the synod, was delegated to Addis Ababa to invite the Ethiopian representatives to participate in the election, but the Ethiopian church replied that “since the place of the Ethiopian Church in this matter has apparently not been clearly stipulated in the order of procedure, and in view of the fact that the legitimate rights and privileges of the Ethiopian Church were not accorded her in the decision made concerning the previous patriarch, it has become necessary that this breach of our privilege be discussed and a decision reached before we can participate in the election. If it would be your pleasure to discuss this matter with us, we shall be happy to send our delegates for this purpose.”

The patriarchate made another effort to persuade the Ethiopian church to participate in the election procedure. Anba Yu‘annis again went to Ethiopia for this purpose, but to no avail. It was finally agreed that negotiations with the Ethiopian church would be carried on concurrently with the electoral procedure. An Ethiopian mission composed of two bishops and three laymen arrived in Cairo on 24 May 1958, and after protracted negotiations, a protocol was signed on 21 July and approved by the synod on 23 July.

This was an unusual document in church history. Its main clause was that the patriarch, who would always be an Egyptian orthodox Copt, would be elected by an equal number of voters on the same day in Egypt and in Ethiopia (about seven hundred voters in each country). Accessory clauses were that the archbishop of Ethiopia would be granted the rank of vice-patriarch at the first opportunity after the election of the patriarch and that the patriarch would make a state visit to Ethiopia after his consecration.

This protocol, had it been implemented, would have greatly enhanced the stature of the Coptic patriarch and ensured him a practically unassailable position. The Egyptian government naturally did not want the position of the Coptic patriarch to be strengthened to such a degree, and it refused to implement the protocol (i.e., to modify the newly issued electoral law in accordance with the clauses of the protocol). The Ethiopian delegates to the negotiations, who were to stay on in order to take part in the electoral proceedings, returned to Ethiopia at the end of October 1958.

Patriarch CYRIL VI was finally elected on 19 April 1959, two and a half years after the of Patriarch Yusab II, and consecrated on 10 May. The Ethiopian church and government abstained from attending the consecration. On 7 May and again on 16 May, the new patriarch wrote to the emperor and sent a mission of bishops and laymen to Addis Ababa to invite an Ethiopian delegation to resume discussions in Cairo. This was accepted, and the Ethiopian delegation arrived in Cairo on 11 June.

A new protocol was quickly drafted, and after arduous discussion, it was signed by the two delegations on 25 June. Its main clause is the provision for the elevation of the Ethiopian archbishop, the abun, to the rank of patriarch. His investiture and consecration shall be performed “by the Pope and patriarch who occupies the chair [throne] of Saint Mark of Alexandria.” He is authorized to ordain and bishops.

This was the first time in Christian history that a church granted independence (to use a political term) to another church. Otherwise, the Ethiopians threatened to go to Armenia or Syria to be consecrated. This protocol remains the basic document that has since then governed the relations between the two churches. On 26 June the emperor informed Patriarch Cyril VI that Abuna Baslyos, archbishop of Ethiopia, had been chosen as the first patriarch of Ethiopia. He was consecrated in the presence of the emperor at the Coptic Cathedral of Saint Mark in Cairo on Sunday, 28 June 1959.

Patriarch Cyril VI made a state visit to Ethiopia in October 1960. He again visited Ethiopia in January 1965 to attend the Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Patriarch Baslyos of Ethiopia died on 12 October 1970. Patriarch Cyril sent a delegation to convey the condolences of the Coptic church, as he could not attend the funeral himself because of his illness. Tewoflos, the bishop of Harar, was chosen to be the second patriarch of Ethiopia. Meanwhile, Patriarch Cyril VI died in Cairo on 9 March 1971. The question then arose as to whether the locum tenens of the Coptic patriarch, Archbishop Antuniyus of Suhaj, could take the place of the patriarch at the consecration of the patriarch of Ethiopia. The question was quickly resolved, and the locum tenens traveled to Addis Ababa for the investiture and consecration of the new Ethiopian patriarch on 9 May 1971.

On 29 October 1971, Patriarch Shenouda III was among the three candidates elected to the See of Saint Mark. The lot was drawn two days later, and he was consecrated on 14 November 1971. In September 1973 he made a state visit to Ethiopia.

After the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, Patriarch Tewoflos continued to direct the affairs of the Ethiopian church until he was arrested and imprisoned by the government in 1975. His fate is unknown. The Ethiopian church elected Patriarch Takla Haymanot to replace him, but this election was not recognized by Patriarch Shenouda III. A decision of the Coptic synod dated 14 August 1976 condemned the arrest of the previous patriarch of Ethiopia and the election of a new patriarch as illegal, because it did not respect canon law, by which a patriarch can be removed only by a synodal decision after he has been allowed to present his defense.

The revolutionary government of Ethiopia disestablished the church of Ethiopia and confiscated all its properties. It organized indoctrination classes and campaigned against religious practice, both Christian and Muslim. The older in Ethiopia were put “on pension” in 1980, and younger ecclesiastics were chosen to take their place, presumably in order to be more in tune with the government’s views. An ecclesiastical opposition led by some Ethiopian bishops outside Ethiopia took shape, with the aim of informing public opinion of the situation of the church in Ethiopia.


  • Edict of Excommunication, dated 28 December 1937 (in Arabic and Amharic). Government Press, Cairo, 1938.
  • Murad Kamil. “La Dernière phase des relations historiques entre l’église copte d’ et celle d’Ethiopie (jusqu’en 1952).” Bulletin of the Society of Coptic Archeology 14 (1957):1-22.
  • . “Al-‘Ilaqat Bayn al-Kanisah al-Misriyyah wa-al- Ithyupiyyah.” Al-Siyasah al-Dawliiyyah, 3, no. 8 (April-June 1968).
  • Yolande, M. The Church of Ethiopia: The National Church in the Making. Asmara, 1972.