Ethiopia is a Western-oriented kingdom in an area of nations generally hostile or passive toward Christian Europe. It should come as no surprise that Italy, the rest of Christian Europe and the Vatican are keenly interested in this Afro-Christian nation.
ETHIOPIA — the home of the "black Jew," the only Christian nation in Africa, the domain of the venerable emperor, Haile Selassie, who claims to be "The Lion of the Tribe of Judah." To many people Ethiopia is an enigma, to others it is merely a name in the geography books. To the nation of Italy, however, it has always been an area of intense interest. ' This interest was heightened by the visit of Ethiopia's emperor, Haile Selassie, to Rome in late 1970. Selassie's visit was very well received by Italian officials and public alike. Relations between the two nations have generally been close although not always cordial. During the period that Italy was establishing colonies in Africa, a treaty of friendship and cooperation was negotiated between Italy and Ethiopia. This pact was signed on May 2, 1889. The Ethiopian negotiator was Menelek II, who was crowned emperor of his nation in November of the same year. Disagreements soon arose over Article 17 of the treaty, which in the Italian text was interpreted as constituting an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia. After difficult and abortive negotiations, war broke out between the two countries in November 1895. Italian expeditionary forces under General Oreste Baratiere were defeated at Adowa in 1896. The treaty was revoked and Italy was forced to recognize the independence of Ethiopia.
Mussolini Invades Ethiopia
Italy smarted under the defeat for 40 years. Then, in 1936 Italy's Fascist dictator Mussolini once again dispatched invasionary forces to Ethiopia, supposedly to avenge the disaster of 1896. The Italian forces defeated the poorly equipped Ethiopian army and Emperor Selassie was forced into exile. At Geneva, Selassie appeared in person before the assembly of the League of Nations to plead the cause of his people. But his sojourn was in vain. Italian representatives to the League derided him publicly. The League was powerless to act in the Emperor's behalf. Ethiopia was annexed, which together with Eritrea and Italian Somalia became Italian East Africa. Mussolini declared he was re-establishing the "Roman Empire." To the Italian dictator, Ethiopia was a very important piece of real estate. As far as he was concerned "properly developed Ethiopia could feed half of Europe or all of the Middle East." Curiously enough, the Italian occupation period proved beneficial for the Ethiopians in several ways. Even Emperor Selassie admitted as much. For example, after seeing the solidification of central government carried out during the five-year Italian rule (1936-41), Haile Selassie reportedly remarked, "What a pity that I had to come back today; it would have been better in ten years. In ten years they [the Italians) would have done wonders." One of Haile Selassie's major preoccupations since 1930 has been to bring his country up to 20th century Western standards. When he returned from exile and saw the public works, the roads, the abolition of slavery, new schools and hospitals, agricultural and industrial development, the Emperor was pleasantly surprised. Realizing that he might never have been able to introduce these reforms himself, he ordered that the thousands of Italians in Addis Ababa be considered good friends of the nation. No revenge was taken. In fact, Selassie went as far as to order Abebe Aregai, the head of the resistance movement against Italian occupation, not to plan any vendetta on the Italians whatsoever.
Christianity In Ethiopia
The backbone of Haile Selassie's power is the Ethiopian Orthodox — or Coptic — Church. It represents 40 percent of the population. The remainder of the people are mainly Moslems. Orthodox Christianity came to Abyssinia — the ancient name of the country — in the 4th century, making it the only historically Christian country in Africa. The power of the Church is still great. It owns one third of all the land, and much of its holdings are prime real estate. But, there are problems ahead for the Coptic Church. A religious civil war has been going on for months in Eritrea, where the Eritrean Liberation Front, consisting of Moslem insurgents, has been fighting the government. The aim of the Front, which has received aid from the Arabs, Red China, Syria, Iraq, Eastern Europe and Russia, is to unite the Moslem regions with neighboring Sudan and other Moslem lands. The Emperor has an obsession about the encroachment of Moslem countries — the Sudan to the West, Somalia to the East and Southeast and a host of Arab countries to the north. In fact, the typical comment is; "We are an island, encircled by hostile Arab states, just like Israel." It wasn't long ago that the Somali Republic and Ethiopia were engaged in a war with each other in the bleak Ogaden area of southeast Ethiopia. Now a new, radical pro-Arab Somali government is again causing concern in Addis Ababa. A strong pro-Arab government is also in power in the Sudan. This government incidentally is engaged in a bitter civil war against animistic Christian dissident black rebels in its southern provinces. This development, together with the fact that Israel has military advisers in Ethiopia, makes observers feel that in another Israeli-Arab war, Ethiopia could be involved or attacked. Such a fear of the Arab Moslem bloc could drive Ethiopia more and more into the open arms of Christian Europe — perhaps even to Italy.
What the Future Holds
How would the Catholic Church view such an increasingly closer friendship? Undoubtedly, it would be viewed with considerable favor. Such a move would fit in with the plan of bringing all Christians into the fold of Rome. It would also provide an excellent base for missionary work in Africa. In line with the warm reception put out by the Italian government for the Emperor on his 1970 visit, Pope Paul defined Selassie as a "noble and good sir." The Emperor expressed how much he welcomes Italians to Ethiopia by saying to President Saragat; "Today thousands of Italians live happily and in tranquility in our country. Many of them consider Ethiopia their second fatherland." "With no nation in the world has Ethiopia sentimental relations, and even economic, so close as with us," says Epoca (an Italian magazine) Nov. 15, 1970. Since then relations have further improved. Even closer economic and political cooperation between the two nations is virtually assured.