Baptism in Eritrean Orthodox service © Antonino Condorelli (CBA)
Any German priest can only dream of this: up to 600 people regularly attend services at the Eritrean Orthodox parish in Hamburg. The celebration begins at night and lasts more than six hours.
Sunday morning, twilight still hangs over the city. While many Hamburgers are still asleep, the Kreuzkirche in the Ottensen district is already packed with people. Every second Sunday, the Eritrean Orthodox congregation of Saint Michael meets in this church, which is actually a Protestant church, for its service – and it's a big one: the church is packed with up to 600 people. Priests in colorful, gold-embroidered vestments sing almost throughout the ceremony. On normal Sundays, it lasts between six and seven hours; on feast days, it can be even longer.
The hustle and bustle is already great outside the church: Entire busloads of Eritreans stream into the church; some lines of the Hamburg public transport system increase their frequency especially for the service. In front of the church portal there are about two dozen baby carriages, because small children also come to the service. Those who enter must take off their shoes. This is the custom among the Eritreans. Because there is no shelf in the Protestant church, everyone is given a plastic bag to put their shoes in and take them to their place.
Issac Frewoini also slips off her shoes and enters the church. The 45-year-old Eritrean has lived in Hamburg with her family since 1992 and comes regularly to the service. Like all women, she wears a headscarf and has put on a white robe – a sign of purity. "All discord and strife should be kept outside in the worship service," she explains. In the church, the sexes are segregated – women sit on the right, men on the left. Frewoini takes her seat on the women's side.
The service, led by six priests and about 30 deacons, has long been in full swing. He has already at 4.30 o'clock; the clergy came even at 3 o'clock to prepare everything. They have transformed the simple Protestant church with white walls and sparse interior into a colorful Orthodox house of worship: Red carpets are rolled out on the floor, and colorful images of Jesus and Archangel Michael stand in front of the simple bronze cross on the altar. A painting of Mary is decorated with a string of lights. The area behind the altar is draped with a red curtain, marking the Holy of Holies, to which only the priests have access. Shrouded tablets containing the Ten Commandments are kept there.
For the nightly start of the centuries-old rite, only a handful of early risers were there. Like Frewoini, most people come between 7 and 8 a.m. "I just can't make it earlier," she says. By 8 a.m., it's finally so crowded that many visitors can't find a seat and crowd closely together in the aisles. Since they all stand throughout the service anyway, it's not a big deal. A priest is standing in front of the altar, waving an incense burner to which numerous bells are attached. The monotonous melody of the prayer he sings is somewhat reminiscent of the call of a muezzin.
Baptism in a plastic tub
Some visitors sing along quietly, others are lost in prayer, and some look bored to the ground. "Most people don't even understand what the priest is singing," Frewoini says. The language of worship is ancient Ethiopian, which has long since ceased to be actively spoken.
Suddenly more chants mingle with those of the priest at the altar. A baptism has begun in the right aisle – parallel to the main service. Several families have gathered around a makeshift baptismal font, which consists of a plastic bathtub on a wooden table. A red-robed priest leads the ceremony; deacons hold five stark-naked infants to be welcomed into the community today. The priest dips a golden cross into the baptismal water and sings a prayer. Finally, he grabs each child and with a sweeping motion dips them three times into the water. Some children begin to shout. With a smile, the mothers sitting on the sidelines take their freshly baptized children and reare them. The church has five new members.
The Eritrean community in Hamburg, which officially numbers about 500 souls, was not always as large as it is today: it was founded in 2003 by some emigrants, as one of them, Tsegai Mebrahtu, reports. In the early years, the services were attended by a maximum of 60 to 70 people; priests traveled from southern Germany only once or twice a year. "The refugee crisis has changed our congregation," says the 58-year-old, who is a member of the congregation's board of directors. He said the number increased tremendously, especially in 2015. "This was a great challenge for us."
The old Orthodox church, where services used to be celebrated, was suddenly too small. Through personal contacts, they finally came across the Protestant Tabita congregation in Ottensen, which hospitably welcomed the Eritreans. But integrating the new members was also exhausting. "You had to explain everything to them. It started with little things," says Mebrahtu, who has lived in Germany for more than 30 years. For example, he says, it took a long time to explain to the newcomers that, for fire safety reasons, they were not allowed to leave their shoes at the entrance, but had to stow them in the plastic bags.
However, the influx has also brought benefits to the community: "We now have six priests of our own." They also came to Germany as refugees and now volunteer in the church. One of them is 29-year-old Mengstab Aray, who is still living in an initial shelter in Schleswig-Holstein and does not yet have a residence permit. "When I came to Hamburg, I was surprised that there was such a large Eritrean community here," he says. Working in the church is a welcome change from the daily routine in the refugee camp, he says.
Holy water shower
After communion is distributed and a children's choir and an adult choir perform, Aray has to give the closing homily at today's service. He talks about fasting and the different ways of renunciation – now in Tigrinya, the colloquial language of Eritreans, in which everyone here understands him. During the sermon, he holds a small cross in his hand with which he gestures wildly. He raises and lowers his voice, gets very loud all the time and laughs in between. His speech lasts 45 minutes, during which some visitors nod off in their pews. Then he goes through the whole church and sprinkles people with holy water. Tsegai Mebrahtu has to laugh when the young priest blesses him – and promptly gets an extra shower, so that the holy water runs down his face. Grinning, Aray continues to move through the crowd.
The slowly dissolves now, all put their shoes back on and leave the house of worship. By now it's 11 a.m. – the entire ceremony has lasted six and a half hours. Why is the celebration so long? "This is our tradition," says Isaac Frewoini, who is still standing with a few other women for the conversation. "If you've grown up with it, four or five hours is not a problem." Of course she would be tired in between. "But then I sit down on the sidelines for a minute, and then we're back to it." In the church service she feels like at home. "When I return home afterwards, I feel this inner peace within me."