HISTORY has been marred with wars for centuries for all types of reasons, from greed and corruption to ethnic conflicts. Of the most common reasons, however, are religious wars which have shattered nations and drawn new territorial boundaries. With so much conflict, the ability of Eritrean Christians and Muslims to coexist without incident of religious tension for over 1500 years is simply exceptional.
The presence of both Islam and Christianity in Eritrea dates back to the 7th century. The first traces of Christianity date back to the coastline of Eritrea in the 4th century when a group of ship-wrecked Syrian traders arrived. Christianity then began to spread from the coastline and lowlands to the highlands, where it eventually maintained its greatest base.
While the initial teachings of Christianity were through the Orthodox Church, other denominations came about over time. Catholicism, for example, was brought in the 1600s, but later banned until the arrival of the Italians in the 1800s.Italian colonization also brought along other factions, such as the Lutheran and Evangelical churches. These missionaries who arrived in the 1800s converted some, resulting in a fraction of Protestants in Eritrea.
Many of the churches built centuries ago still exist, including some of the oldest Orthodox monasteries, with some, such as the Debre Bizen near Nefasit, containing over 1000 medieval manuscripts.
Coexistence did not develop until the arrival of Islam in Eritrea in 615, when followers sought protection for the faith with Adulite authorities. Their arrival made Eritrea one of the earliest sites of contact with Islam that was not Arabian. Evidence of the early arrivals can still be seen in Eritrea at the Sheikh Hanafi Mosque in Massawa, which is over 500 years old.
In a nation of nine ethnic groups, diversity is the standard, not the exception as it is in other nations. Walking through the streets of Asmara, there are mosques and churches within a few blocks of each other. In the streets of Keren, one can often hear the calls to prayer from the mosques as people, both Christian and Muslim, take breaks in respect for the moment. There is not a concept of religious tolerance, as is common in the Western world. Tolerance implies simply enduring at a minimal level. Instead, Eritreans have religious respect, as they not only acknowledge and embrace the different religions, but they celebrate together, truly embodying the national charter, which states that the vision is for Eritreans to “live in harmony, peace and stability, with no distinction along regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious, gender or class lines.”
This same concept carries over into the fact that there is no official national language in Eritrea, for to pick one would be to place one ethnic group at a higher level of importance or distinction. Eritrea’s strength comes not from its numbers, size or wealth; Eritrea’s strength is its diversity. “Nine but One” and “Hade hizbe, hade libe” (One people, one heart) are reflective of the true Eritrean spirit, that regardless of our beliefs or backgrounds, at the end of the day, we are one – we are Eritrea.
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