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Religion in Ethiopia

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Religion in Ethiopia

Religion in Ethiopia (2007)

  Ethiopian Orthodoxy (43.5%)
  Pentay (Protestant) (18.6%)
  Catholicism (0.7%)
  Islam (33.9%)
  Traditional faiths (2.6%)
  Other (0.7%)

Religion in Ethiopia consists of a number of faiths. Among these mainly Abrahamic religions, the most numerous today are Christianity (Ethiopian Orthodoxy, Pentay, Catholic), followed by Islam. There is also a longstanding but small Jewish community. Some adherents of the Bahá'í Faith likewise exist in a number of urban and rural areas. Additionally, there are a few followers of traditional faiths, who mainly reside in the southwestern part of the country.

According to the national census conducted in 2007, over 32 million people or 43.5% were reported to be Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, over 25 million or 33.9% were reported to be Muslim, just under 14 million, or 18.6%, were Protestant, and just under two million or 2.6% adhered to traditional beliefs.[1] Neither in the 2007 census, nor in the 1994 census, were responses reported in further detail: for example, those who identified themselves as Hindus, Jewish, Baha'i, agnostics or atheists were counted as "Other".

The Kingdom of Aksum in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea was one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century.[2]

Abrahamic religions

A mosque in Jimma.

Ethiopia has close historical ties to all three of the world's major Abrahamic religions. Christians form the majority of the population.[3] Islam is the second most followed religion, with 33.9% of the population being adherents. 2.6% of the population (mainly in the far south and southwest) follow traditional religions; other religions (Bahá'í, Judaism, etc.) make up the remaining 0.6%.[1] Ethiopia is the site of the first hijra in Islamic history and the oldest Muslim settlement in Africa at Negash. Until the 1980s, a substantial population of Ethiopian Jews resided in Ethiopia. The country is also the spiritual homeland of the Rastafari religious movement.

There are numerous indigenous African religions in Ethiopia, mainly located in the far southwest and western borderlands. In general, most of the (largely members of the non-Chalcedonian Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) Christians live in the highlands, while Muslims and adherents of traditional African religions tend to inhabit more lowland regions in the east and south of the country.


The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, rumored to hold the original Ark of the Covenant

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian states in the world. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, an Oriental Orthodox Church which is the largest Christian denomination in Ethiopia (it claims that 50% of the Ethiopian population are church members) and was part of the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959, is the only pre-colonial Orthodox church in Sub-Saharan Africa. The apostle St. Matthew is said to have died in Ethiopia.[4]

The rock-hewn Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to the government's 1994 census (which the CIA World Factbook follows), 61.6% of the Ethiopian population was Christian: 50.6% of the total were Ethiopian Orthodox, 10.1% were various Protestant denominations (such as P'ent'ay and the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus), and Ethiopian Catholics constituted 0.9% of the population).[5] The U.S. State Department estimates that just over 50% of the country is Christian (40 to 45% of the population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, about 10% are members of Christian evangelical and Pentecostal groups)[6][7] Orthodox Ethiopian Christians are predominant in the Tigray (95.6%) and Amhara (82.5%), while the majority of Protestants live in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region or SNNPR (55.5% of the inhabitants) and the Oromia Region (4.8 million or 17.7%).[1] The government's most recent 2007 census, Christians constitute 62.8% of the total population, with the largest group being Ethiopian Orthodox Christians at 43.5%, followed by Protestant 18.6% and Catholics at 0.7%.[1]

A leather painting depicting Ethiopian Orthodox priests playing sistra and a drum.

The Kingdom of Aksum was one of the first nations to officially accept Christianity, when St. Frumentius of Tyre, called Fremnatos or Abba Selama ("Father of Peace") in Ethiopia, converted King Ezana during the 4th century AD. Many believe that the Gospel had entered Ethiopia even earlier, with the royal official described as being baptised by Philip the Evangelist in chapter eight of the Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 8:26–39) Orthodox Christianity has a long history in Ethiopia dating back to the 1st century, and is dominant in northern and central Ethiopia. Both Orthodox and Protestant Christianity have large representations in southern and western Ethiopia. A small ancient group of Jews, the Beta Israel, live in northwestern Ethiopia, though most emigrated to Israel in the last decades of the 20th century as part of the rescue missions undertaken by the Israeli government, Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.[8] Some Israeli and Jewish scholars consider these Ethiopian Jews as a historical Lost Tribe of Israel. Today, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, part of Oriental Orthodoxy, is by far the largest denomination, though a number of Protestant (P'ent'ay) churches have recently gained ground. Since the 18th century there has existed a relatively small (uniate) Ethiopian Catholic Church in full communion with Rome, with adherents making up less than 1% of the total population.[1]

The name "Ethiopia" (Hebrew Kush) is mentioned in the Bible numerous times (thirty-seven times in the King James version). Abyssinia is also mentioned in the Qur'an and Hadith. While many Ethiopians claim that the Bible references of Kush apply to their own ancient civilization, pointing out that the Gihon river, a name for the Nile, is said to flow through the land, some scholars believe that the use of the term referred to the Kingdom of Kush in particular, or Africa outside of Egypt in general. The modern name Ethiopia is from the Greek term Aethiopia used to translate Kush, and was applied to all of Sub-Saharan Africa, including what is now Sudan, but with a few classical geographers giving more detailed descriptions of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea (e.g. Adulis) as well.


A mosque in Ethiopia.

Islam in Ethiopia dates back to the founding of the religion; in 615, when a group of Muslims were counseled by Muhammad to escape persecution in Mecca and travel to Ethiopia via modern day Eritrea, which was ruled by Ashama ibn Abjar, a pious Christian king. Moreover, Bilal ibn Ribah, the first Muezzin, the person chosen to call the faithful to prayer, and one of the foremost companions of Muhammad, was from Abyssinia (Eritrea, Ethiopia etc.). Also, the largest single ethnic group of non-Arab Companions of Muhammad was that of the Ethiopians.

According to the most recent 2007 CSA governmental data, Muslims are 33.9% of the population,[1] up from 32.8% in 1994 (according to the census data of that year).[5][9] The U.S. State Department, however, estimates that Ethiopian Orthodox constitute about 40-45% of the population [6][10] Most Ethiopian Muslims are Sunni, and some belong to various Sufi orders. Islam first arrived in Ethiopia in 614 with the First Migration to Abyssinia. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city, is home to about 1 million Muslims.[11] While believers can be found in almost every community, Islam is most prevalent in the Somali (98.4%), Afar (95.3%) and Oromia (47.5%) Regions.[1]


Areas inhabited by the Beta Israel before their mass aliyah.

The Beta Israel, also known as the Falashas (though this term is considered pejorative), are a long-isolated group of African Jews who have lived in Ethiopia since antiquity. Their existence was not widely known to the outside world for many years, and they likewise were not aware of other Jewish groups outside of their own community.[12] They became known to the West during the 19th and 20th centuries, and were accepted as Jews by the Israeli government in 1975. After this, Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, conducted in 1984 and 1991, respectively, airlifted the vast majority of the Ethiopian Jewish population to Israel, where there is currently a population of 150,000 Beta Israel. A small Jewish community still exists in Ethiopia, although it is mostly composed of Falash Mura, Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the past, and as such have not been recognized as Jews by the State of Israel, but have returned to Judaism (the Falash Mura now number some 22,000).

Bahá'í faith

The Bahá'í Faith in Ethiopia begins after `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote letters encouraging taking the religion to Africa in 1916.[13] Mr. Sabri Elais, then a 27 year old Bahá'í from Alexandria, Egypt, introduced the Bahá'í Faith to Ethiopia in 1933.[14] A year later, in November 1934, the first Bahá'í Local Spiritual Assembly of the country was formed in Addis Ababa.[15] In 1962, Ethiopia Bahá'ís had elected a National Spiritual Assembly.[16] By 1963, there were seven localities with smaller groups of Bahá'ís in the country.[17] The Association of Religion Data Archives estimated that there were around 27,000 Bahá'í adherents in 2005.[18] The Ethiopian community celebrated its diamond jubile in January 2009.[19] At present, the largest Bahá'í community is in Addis Ababa.[20] There are also a number of towns (such as Awassa, Nazareth, Mekele, Zway and Shashemenie) and rural areas in Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region (SNNPR) where active and growing Bahá'í communities exist.

Traditional faiths

An estimated 2.6% of Ethiopia's population adheres to various traditional faiths, according to the 2007 census (down from 4.6% in the 1994 census data). The largest numbers of practitioners of traditional religions are in the SNNPR (about 993,000 people) and Oromia (895,000).[1]

Views on the emperors

Ethiopia is the spiritual homeland of the Rastafari movement, whose adherents believe Ethiopia is Zion. The Rastafari view Emperor Haile Selassie I as Jesus, the human incarnation of God. The Emperor himself was the defender of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, that also has a concept of Zion, although it represents a unique and complex concept, referring figuratively to St. Mary, but also to Ethiopia as a bastion of Christianity surrounded by Muslims and other religions, much like Mount Zion in the Bible. It is also used to refer to Axum, the ancient capital and religious centre of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, or to its primary church, called Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.[21]

Religious politics

Freedom of religion is provided by the constitution of 1995, and freedom of worship had also been guaranteed by the 1930 and 1955 Constitutions of Ethiopia, although in certain localities this principle is not always respected in practice. There is no state religion, and it is forbidden to form political parties based upon religion; all religious groups are required to register with the government, and renew their registration once every three years. It is a crime in Ethiopia to incite one religion against another. There is some tension between members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Protestant Christians, as well as between the Ethiopian Orthodox and Muslims. According to the Barnabas Fund, 55 churches were torched in March 2011 in the Jimma Zone by Muslims after a dispute.


Year Christians Ethiopian Orthodox Protestants Catholics Muslims Traditional faiths Other
1994 61.6% 50.6% 10.1% 0.9% 32.8% 4.6% 1.0%
2007 62.8% 43.5% 18.6% 0.7% 33.9% 2.6% 0.7%
Growth 1.2% -7.1%' 8.5% -0.2% 1.1% -2.0% -0.3%
Year Christians Ethiopian Orthodox Protestants Catholics Muslims Traditional faiths Other
1994 32,689,482 26,844,932 5,366,360 478,190 17,406,087 2,444,085 531,323
2007 46,420,822 32,154,550 13,748,842 517,430 25,058,373 1,921,881 517,430
Growth 13,731,340 5,309,618 8,382,482 39,240 7,652,286 -522,204 -13,893
1994 2007 1994 2007 1994 2007 1994 2007 1994 2007 1994 2007 1994 2007
Region Christians Ethiopian Orthodox Protestants Catholics Muslims Traditional faiths Other
Addis Ababa 86.65% 83.0% 82.0% 74.7% 3.87% 7.77% 0.78% 0.48% 12.7% 16.2% 0.8%
Afar 4.4% 4.7% 3.9% 3.9% 0.4% 0.7% 0.1% 0.1% 95.6% 95.3%
Amhara 81.6% 82.7% 81.5% 82.5% 0.1% 0.2% 18.1% 17.2% 0.1%
Benishangul-Gumuz 40.6% 46.5% 34.8% 33.0% 5.8% 13.5% 44.1% 45.4% 13.1% 7.1%
Dire Dawa 36.7% 28.8% 34.5% 25.71% 1.5% 2.81% 0.7% 0.4% 63.2% 70.9% 0.1% 0.3%
Gambela 71.35% 90.2% 24.13% 16.8% 44.01% 70.0% 3.21% 3.4% 5.15% 4.9% 10.28% 3.8% 1.1%
Harari 39.49% 30.8% 38.09% 27.1% 0.94% 3.4% 0.46% 0.3% 60.28% 69.0% 0.2%
Oromia 49.9% 48.2% 41.3% 30.5% 8.6% 17.7% 44.3% 47.5% 4.2% 3.3% 1.1%
Somali 0.9% 0.6% 0.9% 0.6% 98.7% 98.4% 0.3% 1.0%
SNNPR 65.4% 77.8% 27.6% 19.9% 34.8% 55.5% 3.0% 2.4% 16.7% 14.1% 15.4% 6.6% 1.5%
Tigray 95.9% 96.1% 95.5% 95.6% 0.1% 0.4% 0.4% 4.1% 4.0%

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h 2007 Ethiopian census, first draft, Ethiopian Central Statistical Agency (accessed 6 May 2009)
  2. ^ S. C. Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), p. 77. ISBN 0-7486-0106-6
  3. ^ "CIA - The World Factbook - Ethiopia". Retrieved 16 March 2009. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b "Population and Housing Census of 1994: Religion" (accessed 6 May 2009)
  6. ^ a b Ethiopia: International Religious Freedom Report, 2007 U.S. State Department (accessed 6 May 2009)
  7. ^ Ethiopia: International Religious Freedom Report 2006 U.S. State Department (accessed 6 May 2009)
  8. ^ "The History of Ethiopian Jews". Retrieved 16 March 2009. 
  9. ^ CIA Factbook - Ethiopia
  10. ^ Ethiopia (03/08)
  11. ^ Ethiopia: International Religious Freedom Report, 2005 U.S. State Department (accessed 6 May 2009)
  12. ^ Mark Shapiro, "Return of a Lost Tribe"
  13. ^  
  14. ^ Hassan, Gamal (2008). Moths Turned Eagles, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Ethiopia.
  15. ^ Hassall, Graham. "Ethiopia". Research notes. Asia Pacific Bahá'í Studies. Retrieved 21 December 2008. 
  16. ^  
  17. ^ Compiled by  
  18. ^ "Most Baha'i Nations (2005)". QuickLists > Compare Nations > Religions >. The Association of Religion Data Archives. 2005. Retrieved 4 July 2009. 
  19. ^ multiple (January 2009). "North American Bahá’í Choir in Ethiopia 2009". Retrieved 30 August 2009. 
  20. ^ "Families and youth identified as keys to reducing poverty". Retrieved 16 March 2009. 
  21. ^ Taddesse Tamrat, Church and State.

External links

  • Berhanu Abegaz, "Ethiopia: A Model Nation of Minorities"
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