Ethiopia has a long historical and cultural connection to both Christianity and Islam. Roughly two-thirds of the Ethiopian population identifies as Christian and one-third is Muslim. At the time of the 2007 census, 43.5% of the population identified as Ethiopian Christian, 33.9% identified as Muslim and 18.5% identified as Protestant Christian (Pentay). A further 3% identified with traditional animist beliefs, while the remaining proportion identified with some other religion (including Catholicism). Ethiopia also used to have a substantial Jewish population known as ‘Beta Israel’. However, the majority of Jews moved to Israel over the 20th century (see Core Concepts in the Israeli profile).
The cultural force of the Ethiopian ‘Tewahedo’ Church is particularly notable. Many Ethiopians are proud of the fact that their people were following Christianity before many Western nations were exposed to it. They are also often keen to point out that they are one of the only African nations that were not introduced to Christianity by European colonists. Indeed, Ethiopia was one of the first countries to pronounce Christianity as the official state religion in 333 CE.
Ethiopia is a deeply religious society. Therefore, many families and communities strongly discourage or conversion.1 However, there is a broad tolerance and respect of religious diversity in general. In parts of the country where there are large populations of both Christians and Muslims (such as the capital city), churches and mosques are often situated within close proximity and relationships are peaceful.
Ethiopian Orthodox ‘Tewahedo’ Christianity
The Ethiopian ‘Tewahedo’ Church is one of the oldest and earliest Christian bodies in the world. It is generally considered to be the traditional religion of the land, and is closely correlated with the national identity. For most Ethiopian Christians, faith is deeply important to their day-to-day life as well as their identity.
Like all Christians, Ethiopians believe in the Holy Trinity (səllasé) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They also observe typical rituals and practices – the Feast of Epiphany (Timkat) and the Eucharist being the most important celebration and ceremonies. Ethiopian services generally involve lots of dancing and singing to traditional gospel music (mezmur).
Ethiopian Christianity involves many rituals and practices that are common to Judaism. For example, followers are expected to observe Sabbath, circumcise their sons and follow strict dietary laws. There is a strong focus on , demonstrated in the practice of fasting. There are between 200 and 250 days of fasting in the Ethiopian Calendar, including every Wednesday and Friday, during which people are expected to abstain from meat and animal products. Observant Christians tend to fast for 50 days before Easter during Lent (arba tsom). It is estimated that 62.8% of Ethiopians withdraw from meat products on an average of about 250 days of the year due to this religious belief.2
By most measures, Ethiopian Christians have higher levels of religious observance than Christians in other countries. For example, 78% claim to attend church every week (compared with an average of 10% in Central and Eastern Europe).3 Furthermore, 87% claim to fast during holy times compared to 27% in Europe.4 One generally finds that religious commitment is strong across all generations in Ethiopia, with the youth being similarly dedicated to observing the religion.
Churches are treated as very sacred spaces. Be aware that a person may not be permitted to enter some Ethiopian churches on fasting days if they have not abided by fasting rules. It is respectful for women to cover their body and hair with a long dress and scarf before entering churches. Many churches and mosques have separate entrances for men and women.
Islam in Ethiopia
Islam was introduced to Ethiopia in the early 600s ACE. It is the traditional religion for the Somali, Afar, Argobba, Harari, Berta, Alba and Silt’e groups. There are also many Muslims among majority groups such as the Oromo, Amhara and Gurage. The vast majority of Ethiopian Muslims follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Some people may be partially literate in Arabic because it is used in formal religious contexts (such as recitations and the call to prayer).
The Ethiopian practice of Islam shares many informal and formal attachments to Sufism (a mystical branch of Islam). For example, Menzumas are a popular form of worship for Ethiopian Muslims. These are a type of dzikr – repeated devotional chants that praise God. In Ethiopia, these chants often involve clapping and tongue trilling.
As Christianity has been so strongly tied to the Ethiopian national identity over history, Muslims have often been thought of as “guests” in the country. Historically, they have had less political influence. While their rights to obtain land and practise their faith have improved since the country became in the 1990s, there continues to be widespread criticism that the Muslim identity is suppressed in politics. In recent years, there has been particular concern that the Ethiopian government has reacted to the threat of Al-Shabaab terrorists in nearby Somalia with unjustified interference and restriction to practices of the Muslim population in some regions.5 Between 2011 and 2013, many Muslims alleged that the government was attempting to impose the Al-Ahbash on the Muslim population of Ethiopia.
Protestantism in Ethiopia
Protestantism is a recent religious movement in Ethiopia. Indeed, some Ethiopians may not be aware of the churches’ presence as many people convert whilst living in surrounding African countries. Four major denominations have gained popularity:
- Pentecostal Word of Life Church (Kale Heywet)
- Ethiopian Evangelical Church (Mekane Yesus)
- Pentecostal Full Gospel Church (Mulu Wongel)
- Anabaptist Christ Foundation Church (Meserete Kristos)
These denominations have been influenced by mainstream Ethiopian Christianity. For example, gospel music (mezmur) often plays a large role in congregational prayer. However, most are influenced by Pentecostal forms of worship. Some Pentecostal Christians may describe their religious practice as culturally , but Protestant by doctrine.
The Amharic and Tigrinya term ‘Pentay (P’ent’ay)’ is used to refer to local Protestant Christians that are not members of the Ethiopian Church. Pentay is a shortening of the word ‘Pentecostal’ but tends to be used to refer to non- Protestant Christians regardless of their denomination. There may be some tension between Pentay and Christians. As Protestantism is a relatively new movement in Ethiopia, most members are ex- Christians. Some Evangelical Protestant Christians have claimed unequal treatment by local government officials over registration and obtaining land for churches and cemeteries.6
There is a common traditional belief in the evil eye (Buda) among both Christian and Muslim Ethiopians. This is the belief that one’s misfortune is caused by another’s envy, sometimes taking the form of a curse. For example, people may believe that too much admiration of a child can cause the evil eye to become jealous and curse it, making the baby sick.
Ethiopian Christians may also believe in divine healings, exorcisms and revelations from God. Demons are often thought to be the cause of illness or ailments; therefore spiritual healing is an important treatment for many Ethiopians. This can involve holy water ceremonies, and meditation and reflection over a fasting period. In 2010, a study by the Pew Research Center found that 74% of Christians in Ethiopia claim to have experienced or witnessed an exorcism.7 These beliefs are not to be confused with those of animist African traditions.
There are many traditional animist belief systems that are specific to tribal groups. For example, the traditional religion of the Oromo people is called Waaqeffannaa. It involves the belief that there is a spiritual connection (ayanna) amongst everything and an overall creator, known as Waqa. Most Ethiopians’ animist belief systems involve the idea that spirits can possess people and that all living things possess a spirit or life force. In a 2010 poll, 11% of Ethiopians reported that they believed sacrifices to spirits or ancestors could protect them from bad things happening.8 Today, many Oromo practise Waaqeffannaa in conjunction with Christianity, seeing it as more of a cultural practice than a religious practice.
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