A delegation from the World Council of Churches has concluded a solidarity visit to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, one of Africa's oldest Christian churches dating back to the year AD 329.
It was the first such visit in more than 10 years and the WCC left with a pledge to pray and work for peace between Eritrea and its neighbor Ethiopia as they attempt to resolve a border dispute involving one of Africa's most isolated countryies.
The visit took place from Sept 22-28 and the group met the governing body of the Eritrean church at its offices on Sept 24-25, the WCC said in a statement.
Leaders from the local Evangelical Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches also attended the meeting, to which local Muslim representatives also sent greetings.
WCC program executive and convener for Africa, Dr. Nigussu Legesse, and Fr. Daniel Buda, program executive and coordinator for Church and Ecumenical Relations were part of the WCC delegation.
The group was met at the Asmara International Airport after midnight on 22 September by Abune Lukas, general secretary of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, and Abune Basilios, head of the church administration.
There, Buda conveyed to the members of the holy synod the greetings of WCC general secretary Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit.
Buda said: "We are very thankful to God and to you, the leadership of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church for making this visit possible."
"We came here with great expectations and we are looking forward to having constructive dialogue and encounters with the Eritrean Orthodox Church which is our WCC member church here in Eritrea and with other churches, religious communities and state authorities," said Legesse during the synod meeting.
"This is a historic visit aimed at reviewing the situation within the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church and strengthening the relationship that has been loosened over the past several years."
He thanked the church leadership for facilitating entry visas for all members of the delegation and the reception accorded to the delegation by the archbishops on arrival at the airport in Asmara.
The WCC delegation included members of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), Bread for the World, Church of Sweden, and Norwegian Church Aid, ACT Alliance, and the Nairobi-based Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa (FECCLAHA).
After Sunday Mass at St. Mary's Cathedral on 24 September the delegation visited the newly-built Holy Trinity Theological College.
The Eritrean church hosts accompanied the WCC delegation to ancient monasteries and archeological excavation sites that have unraveled Christian building sites dating back 1,700 years.
Archeologists told the visitors that these are vibrant proof that Christianity's ancient roots were in Africa long before evangelizers arrived from the ranks of European colonizers in the second millennium.
The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, an Oriental Orthodox church with its headquarters in Asmara, joined the WCC in 2003. It is also a member of the AACC and FECCLAHA.
ORIENTAL ORTHODOX CHURCHES
Oriental Orthodox Churches played a strong missionary role during Christianity's early stages, and have had a leading role in the history of Christianity in Egypt and the northern part of Africa.
The autocephaly of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church was recognized by Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria after Eritrea gained its independence in 1993.
The WCC delegation visited churches around Asmara, the capital, Keren to the north west, and Massawa down at the coast on the Red Sea.
On their way to Keren, the country's third largest urban area, the WCC delegation detoured to Debra Sina, a monastery in the highlands of Eritrea in the Anseba Region.
Debra Sina, which means Mt Sinai in English, was founded in the 4th century, so it is the oldest monastery in Eritrea and one of the oldest in Africa too.
It is the site of a pilgrimage by Eritrean Orthodox believers each year in June.
The group also visited Adulis, an archeological site in the Northern Red Sea area of Eritrea, situated about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the Red Sea port of Massawa in the Gulf of Zula as guests of local Abune Yohannes, the archbishop of the Northern and Southern Red Sea Diocese.
The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church is the biggest church in the country and has some 2,500,000 members and 15,000 priests worldwide including diaspora churches in North America and Europe. The church has eight dioceses in Eritrea and two in the Diaspora.