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Minority Communities in Israel: The Ethiopian Church

by Lili Eylon

In the courtyard with tall cypresses and ancient olive trees, men in black cloaks, women in white or black flowing robes slip by almost imperceptibly, the quiet of the courtyard disturbed only by the chirping of birds. The quiet lasts till midday. Then there begins a slow gathering of men and women greeting each other, a table is carried into the courtyard and women set plates with slices of sweet bread, fruit and vegetables. For it is Friday and the faithful are fasting. They will partake of food only after midday Mass.

This scene repeats itself on each of the over 100 fast days of the year: every Wednesday and Friday, and each day for 40 days before Christmas. Eating is permitted only in the afternoon and all animal-based foods – meat, eggs, milk, cheese – are forbidden.

No fasting takes place between Easter and Pentecost.

The Ethiopian Church had its beginnings in the 4th century CE in the city of Aksum in northern Ethiopia. From the very start, magic and witchcraft, which were part of the cultural fabric of Africa, were strictly forbidden by the Church. Ethiopian Christian pilgrims came to Jerusalem, as early as the fourth century, and in the following centuries the Ethiopian Church enjoyed important rights in the Holy Places. The Church has had a community in Jerusalem since the Middle Ages. Today the small community, led by an archbishop, consists of a few dozen monks and nuns, and a growing lay community. Pilgrims continue to arrive, especially since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ethiopia.

The Easter celebration in the Ethiopian Church in unique. On Palm Sunday, directly after the divine liturgy (the Qeddase in the language of prayer) is read, the worshippers begin the Palm Sunday prayers, in preparation for the procession in the courtyard of the Dabra Seltan monastery, situated on the roof of St. Helena’s Chapel, one of the chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The palm procession, with four stops around the dome, then begins. Special prayers are recited at each stop: At the first stop, the hymn of St. Yared is sung: "Halleluia. Abraham named it and said of it: This day is the feast of the Lord. Blow the trumpet on the day of the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day, while we remembered Zion."

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, the monks, the nuns and the faithful gather in the chapel of the Four Living Creatures, which is also on the roof of the Holy Sepulcher, to read the portion of the day from the story of the Passion, reciting from the Psalms of David, seven times in all, and reading portions from the Old and the New Testaments as well as from the Liqawent, the books of Ethiopian ecclesiastical scholars.

Sister Abraham, a tall, authoritative figure, is a prominent member of the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem and one of its more picturesque citizens. Born to a Lutheran family in Denmark as Kirsten Stoffregen Pedersen, she converted to Catholicism in her teens and began to study Semitic languages. She arrived in Jerusalem in the mid 60’s, and continued her studies of biblical and post-biblical literature at the Hebrew University. She had intended to work with the Greek Orthodox Church, but was met with a cool reception. She was subsequently offered a position with the Greek Orthodox Church in France, but replied in the negative, adding "My place is here, in Jerusalem." She then joined the Ethiopian Orthodox community, and for many years studied the Church’s doctrine and language. Today she masters 15 languages; recently she translated a book of commentaries on the Psalms from Amharic into English. She has eight books about the institutions, histography and iconography of the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem to her credit. Sister Abraham is also a prolific lecturer – she has just returned from her native Denmark, where she delivered 37 lectures in 6 weeks, to church groups and groups from political organizations and open universities. One of her topics is the history of Christians in the Holy Land.

"In its beliefs and dogmatic doctrine the Ethiopian Church is entirely Christian-orthodox," states Sister Abraham. Nevertheless, there are some similarities with Judaism. Thus, the Song of Songs is read in church on the Saturday morning before Easter Sunday, as it is on Passover in the synagogue; a number of Old Testament dietary laws are observed, and circumcision of newly-born boys on the 8th or 10th day after birth, regarded as an initiation into the "Covenant of Abraham," is practiced.

Today, Jerusalem’s small Ethiopian community continues to keep its heritage alive.

Sources: Israel Magazine-On-Web, April 1998,: Israeli Foreign Ministry