Profile of Religious Experience in Ethiopia





Seminar Paper Presented at:

Religious Pluralism and Public Presence in the US


Summer Institute, Department of Religious Studies


University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB)





Assefa T. Sori,

Addis Ababa University




July 16, 2009



Ethiopia is in Eastern Africa, what is often referred to as The Horn of Africa, bounded by Djibouti (349 km), Eritrea (912 km), Kenya (861 km), Somalia (1,600 km), and the Sudan (1,606 km).



Š      Size is 1,127,127 sq km or 435,186 sq miles (for our US colleagues, a size slightly less than twice the size of Texas).

Š      The terrain consists of a high plateau with a central mountain range divided by the Great Rift Valley.

Š      Ethiopia is a landlocked country.

Š      The climate can be described as tropical monsoon but it varies greatly depending on the topography. Ethiopia's lowest point is at the Denakil Depression -125 m; its highest point is Ras Dejen standing at 4,620 m.

Š      The Blue Nile, the chief headstream of the Nile by water volume, rises in T'ana Hayk (Lake Tana) in northwest Ethiopia.

Š      It is believed that coffee originated in Ethiopia, in a region called Kafa, and some argue that the name coffee was derived from the name of the region.




Ethiopia is the literal cradle of humankind, with bones discovered in eastern Ethiopia dating back 3.2 million years, i.e., Lucy. Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world, legend has it that Menelik I (1000 B C), the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, founded the Ethiopian Empire. Historians agree that Egyptian and Syrian missionaries introduced Christianity in the 4th century to Ethiopia, which led to the conversion of the King Ezana, Axumite Kingdom.


Historians also argue that 4th century C.E shows the acceptance by the Ethiopian kings of Christianity, not the introduction of it to the country. According to these historians, because of Ethiopia’s long-standing commercial and cultural contacts with the Greco-Roman world, there had been individual Christians who had come earlier by way of trade along the Red Sea, and transacted, settled and intermingled with local people, thereby forming small community of Christians in major urban sites such as Axum and Adulis (Eshete, 2009:16).


Islam arrived in Ethiopia in the 7th (615 C. E) by a group of Muslims counseled by prophet Muhammad to escape persecution in Mecca and travel to Ethiopia, which was then ruled by Ashama ibn Abjar, a pious Christian king. Some in fact consider this as the first Hijra in the history of Islam. Islam expanded gradually, especially in the country’s lower-lying parts.


Ethiopia is unique among African countries in one major sense, i.e., maintaining her freedom from colonial rule with the exception of the 1936-41 Italian occupation during World War II.


Emperor Haile Sellassie I ruled the country 1930 - 1974, at which he was deposed by the military junta, the Dergue, and this marked the end of the Monarchy.


The Dergue, which ruled the country for 17 years under the banner of socialism, was in turn toppled in 1991.


In 1994 a constitution which structured the country into Federal State was adopted and in 1995 the first multiparty election was held, the 2nd and the third in 2000 and 2005, respectively.













Map of FDRE:



Š      Ethiopia's economy is based mainly on agriculture: which accounts for over half of the GDP, 80% of the exports, and 85% of total employment.

Regional States:

In the Federal Structure, Ethiopia is divided into 9 ethnically based regional states and two chartered cities.


Ethiopia conducted three Housing and Population Censuses (1984, 1994 and 2007). The result of the last census was summarized in the table below for the population size.


Census Year


Population Size












Population Growth:

Š      The 2007 Population and Housing Census results show that the population grew at an average annual rate of 2.6% between 1994 and 2007. Annual rates of growth, of course vary between regions, i.e., highest in Gambella (4.1%) and lowest in Amhara (1.7%).

Ethnic Groups and Languages:

According to official views there are over eighty different ethnic/linguistic groups in Ethiopia. The 2007 census results show the following information on the ethnic groups with a population of one million and above:

Ethnic Group

Population Size
































The major languages spoken in Ethiopia include Amharic, Oromifa, Somali, Tigrigna, Sidamigna, Guragigna, Welaitigna, and Afar. English is the major foreign language taught in schools and used for official (government and business) communication.


Religious Distribution:



Population size






















Although detail information is not published, regional distribution of the various religious traditions shows that the Ethiopian EOC come predominantly from the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, and also partly in central Ethiopia. Both Orthodox and Protestant Christianity have large representations in the south and western Ethiopia, namely Oromia and SNNPR.

Muslims predominantly live in Somali, Harari, Afar, Oromia, the cities, including the capital, and many other regional states, mostly in towns. Sources agree that almost all Ethiopian Muslims are Sunni.

Christian evangelical and Pentecostal groups continue to be the fastest growing groups and established Protestant churches such as Mekane Yesus (associated with Lutheran Church – 4.2 million membership) and the Kale Hiwot (associated with SIM – 4.6 million membership) are strongest in the SNNPR, western and central Oromia, and in urban areas.

Baptist Bible Fellowship, the New Covenant Baptist Church, the Baptist Evangelical Association, Hiwot Berhan Church (Associated with the Swedish Philadelphia Church), Genet Church (associated with the Finnish Mission), Lutheran Presbyterian Church of Ethiopia, Muluwongel (Full Gospel), Messerete Kristos (associated with the Mennonite Mission), Emnet Kristos, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also have active missionary operations in Ethiopia.[1]

Belief systems that come under, what the census report described as ‘traditional’, and what I call ‘indigenous’, include the variety of belief systems practiced by the various ethnic groups, who in many cases practice their indigenous belief rituals side by side with their ‘official’ religion adopted either following their incorporation (conquest) into the modern Ethiopian political system. Among these are included the Oromo, who believe in one Supreme Being or Creator called Waaqa. Their belief system is called Waaqefanna, a term coined recently to locate itself in the religious landscape of the Ethiopian society and also to register with the Ministry of Justice as was required by law. However, the provisional registration it secured in the mid-1990s was revoked at the end of the 20th century.

Religious traditions that come under the category ‘others’ include, among others, the Jews, and Baha’i. A small ancient group of Jews, the Beta Israel, live in northwestern Ethiopia, though most have immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and early 1990s as part of the rescue missions undertaken by Israeli government, Operations Moses and Solomon. The latter two have very small presence in the capital.

Interfaith Marriage:

In most regions, EOC and Muslims respect each other’s religious observances, and there was to a degree tolerance for intermarriage and conversion in certain areas, most notably in Wello (Amhara region) as well as in urban areas.

Church – State Relationship:

As elsewhere in the world, in Ethiopia church-state relationship has undergone changes, both in principle and in practice.

Š      From 4th century until the fall of the last Ethiopian Monarch in 1974, EOC was (although some dispute this view, e.g. Abbink) official state church (Hussein). To describe the support the EOC received from the monarch, Patrick Gilkes proposed the term ‘theocracy’, i.e., religion was a major preoccupation of the emperors and a main function of the throne was to support church. EOC owned 1/3 of the arable land – enjoyed inalienable land rights – imperial land grant.

Š      The 1974 change led to the separation of church and state.

Š      The 1994 Constitution provides for freedom of religion, requires the separation of state and religion.

Š      However, the non-EOC religious traditions complain of partial treatment by the government, such as registration requirement, land allocation for churches and cemeteries, etc.

Š      The government sometimes interferes in the internal affairs of religious organizations, e.g., Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) in 1995[2] and 2003.

Š      Waaqefanna denied registration by the MoJ.

Growing Religious Tensions: Inter- and Intra-

Historically, Ethiopia used to be identified as Christian country, despite the fact that there is huge number of Muslim population since the introduction of Islam in the 7th c A.D. This labeling was a mixture of some element of truth (because the kings were EO Christians) and a myth created by the Ethiopian rulers to present Ethiopia as a Christian island surrounded by Muslims and pagans to get support and protection from the European powers. Until the fall of the Monarchy in 1974 (by a military junta called Dergue), there was strong relationship between church and state. “The authorities always treated Islam as a secondary religion and discriminated against Muslims’ (Shinn, 2004:225). However, there were only brief periods when Christian rulers tried to suppress Islam.


As mentioned above, following the fall of the Dergue in 1991 and the adoption of the federal constitution in 1994, the separation of church and state became very clear as was enshrined in the federal constitution.


However, despite this long history of peaceful co-existence and constitutionally guaranteed rights of religious freedom, recently there are signs of growing tensions between EO Christians and Muslims. During the last two years there were a couple of terrible conflicts which caused loss of lives and destruction of property (including burning down of churches and mosques, in Ilu Ababor, Gondar, Arsi Zones). Information on what exactly triggered those conflicts are lacking, but fragmentary reports coming from those regions indicate that they were triggered by disputes over sites of religious rituals. Some associate these conflicts with the war in Iraq and the conflict with Somalia.




The text on the t-shirt declares: "Ethiopia is the Island of Christianity". This is old propaganda that was effectively used by various warlords to oppress those Ethiopians who did not subscribe to that faith.








The text on the t-shirt declares: "Ethiopia is the Island of Christianity".


The above pictures show the incidents that triggered conflict during the celebration of Ethiopian Epiphany in January 2009. Although some associate this with the already brewing tension between Muslims and Orthodox Christians,[4] others directly relate it to the publication of the 2007 National Census result which by showing the Christian majority data (62.8%), strengthened the old notion “Ethiopia an Island of Christianity”, and the t-shirts, capes and banners used during the celebration meant to unequivocally tell the Muslims that you do not belong here.


Although not confirmed from reliable sources, news papers reported that in Gondar, one of the ancient cities in northern Ethiopia, Muslims were told to leave the town as they were not “Ethiopians”, drawing on the old Amharic adage “Muslims’ country is Mecca”.


Muslim students complain that they were not given places to conduct prayers on campuses and public school authorities sometimes interfered with their free practice of Islam because they prohibited female students wearing of headscarves in schools.


In Islam the Wahhabis are accused of intolerance for interfaith interaction between Muslims and Christians. This creates tension between Muslims who want to continue the good relationship with their Christian neighbors and the Wahhabis.


There are also tensions within EOC, between the growing reformist group and the ‘orthodox’ EOC.


EOC, esp. the Mahabare Kedusan (an ultra-conservative Orthodox group) accuse the Evangelicals of attempting to "dismantle the Orthodox Church" because they actively engage in converting Orthodox followers.




Abbink, Jon, 1998. An Historical-anthropological approach to Islam in Ethiopia: issues of identity and politics. In Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, Pp:109-124.


CSA, 2009. Summary of the 2007 Census. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Eshete, Tibebe, 2009. The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.

Shinn, David H. and Ofcansky, Thomas P., 2004. Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. New Edition. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press Inc.

U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2005. Ethiopia: International Religious Freedom Report.

http://E:\Ethiopia - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.mht

[1] U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2005. Ethiopia: International Religious Freedom Report.

[2] Unprecedented violent incident erupted within the compound of al-Anwar Mosque in AA, reported as police intervention in the internal power struggle, 9 people killed and 129 wounded.

[3] The following two images were obtained from: