The status and role of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the union with EthiopiaBefore the advent of Italian colonialism, the Church owned valuable land in the highlands, demanded and got free peasant labor in time for cultivation. During Italian rule, the Church land was confiscated and converted to Italian crown land. Some land was leased to expectant peasant villages and other land was given to Italian settlers. The Church as an economic power was destroyed.
In the Italian desire to weaken the ideological and administrative unity of the Coptic Church, the Italians located its central office in Akle Guzai and demanded it severe its institutional ties to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Abuna Querlos refused to comply. As a result the Italians expelled him from his seat and replaced him with a little known priest from Akle Guzai, who became known as Abuna Markos. Having located the Central office in a region with such heterogeneous social and ideological formation (Moslems made up almost one third of the population, it was the least populated of kebessa regions and the largest number of defectors from the Coptic Church were there, where the new converts to Catholicism numbered at least one seventh of the Coptic population), the Italians succeeded in weakening the Abuna Markos’s Office to the point where its survival depended on the Italians. When the Italians occupied Ethiopia in 1935, they further weakened the unity of the Church by locating the Tigre section to be administered by Abuna Markos. So when Haile Sellasie returned to his throne in 1941, the Abuna was in a difficult position.
Yet, the Church exerted super structural influence, i.e. the ideology of the masses still remained that of Coptic Christianity. Immediately after the Italian defeat, it made every effort to reverse history. In 1947, it was joined by the Society for the union of Eritrea with Ethiopia (SUEE) which later became the Unionist Party. It cultivated its allies from the Kebessa, including the Massawa nobility and the chiefs of Muslim lowlands. The party’s founding fathers and active members had already secured, by the early forties important high offices in the Addis-based Ethiopian Government, namely Vice-Chancellor of Addis; Director of Ethiopian Post and Telegraph; and his Majesty’s Minister of Pen. The main aim of the party was to cultivate mass support for union with Ethiopia. In return the Ethiopia was to restore to the Church and chiefs their lost economic and political power, and through intermarriage, etc., make them part of the Shoan-Amhara feudal ruling class. The agent for this conspiracy was the Eritrean Coptic Church. It began intimidating the highland peasant s, threatening to excommunicate, refusing holy services of baptism and burial if the Church adherents did not support union with Ethiopia. But the more the conspiracy took shape the more it became exposed, the heads of the Church increasingly relied on anti-Muslim paranoia and hysteria to gain support for a union with Ethiopia. With this, fragile and ‘unholy’ alliance created between the chiefs and heads of the unionist Party collapsed. And the Church temporarily succeeded in forming anti-Muslim Christian solidarity for the unionist cause. With the partial success of the Coptic cause, a counter party articulated the interest of the lowlands, the Muslim League was already formed in 1946.
Quoting Trevaskis, “ by 1942 every priest became a propagandist in the Ethiopian cause, every village church had become a center of Ethiopian nationalism, and popular religious feast days such as “Maskal” had become occasions for open displays of Ethiopian patriotism. The cathedral, monasteries, and village churches would be festooned with Ethiopian flags and sermons would be delivered in unequivocal political language”.
It is worth to mention that there were a minority of Christian elites at that time, headed by Ras Tesemma Asberom who was against the Church role in trying to unite Eritrea with Ethiopia, at any cost, even using extreme forms of violence.-----------
Source: Jordan Gebre-Medhin , Peasants and nationalism