We Are Going To Live In Paradise
In Greece, Road to Emmaus staff interviewed Fr. Theotimos Tsalas, a Congolese Orthodox priest and spiritual son of Fr. Cosmas Aslanidis of Grigoriou Monastery, the “Apostle to Zaire.” Now serving at St. Thomas the Apostle Orthodox Church in Athens, Fr. Theotimos draws a vivid picture of sub-Saharan spirituality and the growth of Orthodoxy in central Africa.
RTE: Father Theotimos, will you begin by tracing the early history of Christianity in Africa?
FR. THEOTIMOS: First of all, no one doubts that Christ walked in the flesh in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, on the continent of Africa. Only these two continents. This is a great blessing for us.
Later, when the Romans took the Lord to be crucified, they had to find a non-Jew to help carry the cross. Because of ritual uncleanness, Hebrew tradition forbade a Jew to even touch a cross, so when they saw an obvious foreigner, a dark-skinned man, they stopped him and ordered him to help. This was Simon the Cyrenian, from what is now modern-day Libya. But this is not all. The Gospel of St. Mark tells us that Simon had two sons, Rufus and Alexander. According to Orthodox tradition, after the resurrection, one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus was Cleopas and the other was
Alexander, the son of Simon the Cyrenian.
RTE: Was Simon already a follower of the Lord at the time of the crucifixion?
FR. THEOTIMOS: No, he was there incidentally. He would not have been among those who followed the Lord closely, because it wasn’t allowed by Hebrew tradition for an ethnic foreigner to follow a Hebrew group. However, many foreigners – remember the Roman centurion and the
woman of Canaan – knew of Christ, although they were not in the circle of his disciples. So, there is the possibility that Simon’s children could have been “followers” at a distance. In any case, Alexander wasn’t simply a passerby on the road to Emmaus. He already had some connection with the Christian community because he was talking with Cleopas about Christ. Also, Acts 13 mentions a disciple from Antioch named “Simeon, called Niger,” (meaning that he was black), and later Philip instructs the eunuch of Queen Candace of Ethiopia.
RTE: Can you tell us about Christianity’s later emergence in Africa? We know about the desert fathers in northern Africa, but how far south did Christianity reach in those early centuries?
FR. THEOTIMOS: This is the subject of my second book, which is in Greek. From the founding of the Church at Alexandria by the Evangelist Mark to our current Patriarch Petros VII, there have been one hundred eleven successively elected Orthodox patriarchs of Alexandria. If the history of African Christianity were to be written, it would take many volumes.
But why is the Evangelist Mark considered the founder of the Alexandrian Patriarchate? Why was he accepted there? This was because his Jewish parents had family roots in Africa, also in Cyrene, and this is why he went to Africa to preach. The Church in Africa, the Patriarchate of Alexandria is
older than the Church of Greece. Why? Because Mark was in Alexandria before Paul went to Greece. This is why you see a patriarch of the Church of Alexandria in the first century, whereas Greece hardly had bishops yet. This was the first phase of African Christianity.
Now when we speak of first-century Africa, we are not talking about Africa below the Sahara. Sub-Saharan Africa had not yet developed into cities. It was composed of small tribal groups here and there, like the native tribes of North America. When Christianity first came to northern Africa, many people followed local tribal religions, as well as those who worshipped the Greek and Roman gods.
By the seventh century, although northern Africa wasn’t 100% Christian, Christianity was very well-established.
RTE: George Alexandrou, the Greek journalist/historian, has shown that there were extensive trade routes and many people going down into sub- Saharan Africa in the first century. Do you feel there could have been any early missionary work there via those routes?
FR. THEOTIMOS: It was not at all impossible that some Christians had gone further south before the seventh century, but because we don’t have written or oral traditions left, we simply don’t know. The 7th to the 13th centuries was a long period of war between the sub-Saharan Africans and the Muslims, which made it almost impossible for European Christians to go there. Sub-Saharan peoples were afraid of invasion and didn’t allow foreigners in. It was only when they began building states that trade and exchange began. Our first modern record of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is in the 18th century.
With the destruction of Alexandria, many important early Christian records and texts disappeared. We have a clear idea of African history beginning only with the seventh century. As Islam spread and Arab Muslims invaded northern Africa, the choice for many African Christians (and those who still held to tribal religions) was to convert or die. Both the Christian Africans and those of native faiths had to find refuge, and this is when they began to move en masse below the Sahara. Many died on the way.
Those who stayed intermarried with the Muslim Arab conquerors and this is why we have the contemporary mulattos of northern Africa. Today’s northern Africans are not pure African in any sense. They are mixtures of Europeans, Africans and Muslim Arabs – because of the advance of Islam, sub-Saharan Africa began a new age.
RTE: Weren’t the desert fathers and early North African Christians also a part of that multi-cultural society? Alexandria and other large cities of northern Africa were centers of Greek and Roman culture and there was enormous trade along the coast.
FR. THEOTIMOS: Yes, northern Africa has always been a melting pot – Africans had mixed and intermarried with Romans, Greeks, and Jews for centuries.
RTE: After the Islamic conquest, what happened to the Christians in the south?
FR. THEOTIMOS: Although Islam conquered politically, it was never able to completely extinguish Christianity in northern Africa. As I said, we have an unbroken line of Alexandrian patriarchs, as we do in Jerusalem. For those who were left, the situation was like modern-day Palestine where the Christians have mostly been forced out, or in Saudi Arabia, where it is forbidden to have an Orthodox Christian church, although a small group of Christians may pray together unofficially.
Those who fled south either continued with their Christian faith or they intermarried and mixed with local pagan groups. Most who remained Christian settled in Ethiopia and Eritrea, which were already Christian. The Ethiopian Christians are Copts, and they have been illumined by God, Who gave them their written script. Before this, Sub-Saharan Africa had no written language, only oral traditions; only Ethiopia had a written language. Many of those who decided to remain Christian stayed there. Christians who went beyond Ethiopia may have held out for a few generations or so, but they or their descendants were eventually absorbed into local native religions.
RTE: Are there any remnants of those early Christian contacts?
FR. THEOTIMOS: Not consciously, except in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, it is very easy for Africans to become Christian when they hear the truth. The otherworldly orientation of native African spirituality is very close in some ways to that of Orthodoxy.
RTE: I’d like to return to that later, but can we change course now and ask you when and how you became Orthodox?
FR. THEOTIMOS: I am from the Congo, which was formerly called Zaire, and during the 1970s Greek missionaries came to Kolwezi, my town, and built a Byzantine-style church. We passed it on the way to school, and seeing the crosses went in one day to see what it was. The Orthodox there told us,
“Come on Sunday for a service.”
I went to a liturgy, and was very touched. I was twelve years old at the time and I decided to become Orthodox. I went though catechism, they baptized me and gave me a cross and I went home to my family and announced:
“From now on, on Wednesdays and Fridays,we fast!” (laughter).
Orthodoxy in Africa is known as, “the faith where they fast on Wednesday and Friday.” If people know that you are Orthodox, they automatically say,
“it’s Wednesday, he’s not eating.”
But if you eat meat or fish on Wednesday or Friday, the non- Orthodox will say,
“He’s not Orthodox, he’s a liar.”
Over time, my entire family became Orthodox, except for two elder brothers who had already left home. Eight children and my parents became Orthodox.
The first missionary in Kolwezi was Fr. Amphilochios Tsouhos, who is still alive in Rhodos. He is about seventy and is a holy man. In 1986, two Greek nurses who were helping us in Africa took my sister, Thecla, to the Greek island of Kalymnos, to a monastery, where she stayed for sixteen years, and became the first African Orthodox nun. At that time I worked with Fr. Cosmas of Grigoriou Monastery, and knew the Greek bishop who was the head of the seminary in Zaire. Although I was still young, I was allowed to attend, to listen to classes. I didn’t speak in class, but when the seminarians had to pass their final exams, the instructors said,
“If you like, you can also sit for the exam.”
I did and passed.
The others who were older became priests, but because I was still young, the Bishop asked me to go to Greece to study. After finishing high school in Zaire, I went first to Mt. Athos, to Simonos Petros, then to the diocese of Pirgos in the Peloponnese, where I learned Greek. Later, I came to study theology at the University of Athens.
I had thought of becoming a monk, but before my parents passed away, they said,
“You should get married.”
I had never worried my parents, and now I thought,
“If I’m not obedient to them, they will die in sorrow.” So I said, “Alright, pick out a girl you like and send her to me. But the girl should know that I’m going to be a priest.”
So she came, and we were married. I’m sure my parents passed away satisfied.
By God’s will I ended up here in Athens and I’m the priest now of the church of St. Thomas the Apostle. My sister, Thecla is back in Zaire on mission. She is an iconographer and an ecclesiastical seamstress and is trying to start a skete in Zaire, but it is not easy.