Ethiopia has roots dating back to the earliest iterations of civilization. Throughout its long history, this region of the world has been witness to the growth of multiple religions and religious communities. As of today, it boasts of a proud, multi-religious society and of a rich history of interactions between it and world’s largest religions.
Today, the majority of Ethiopians are Christian. About 45% belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox denomination. 20% are variations on protestant Christian. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is actually among the oldest denominations of Christianity, with Ethiopia’s Aksum Kingdom becoming one of the first empires to officially accept Christianity in the fourth century. Ethiopia, though, has been the home of Orthodox Christian as far back as the first century, near the very beginning of the Christian faith. To this day, the Ethiopian Orthodox is the second largest Orthodox Church, with 48 million members, only smaller than Russia’s 150 million-member Orthodox Church. Ethiopian Orthodoxy is closely tied with many aspects of Ethiopian culture, as seen in the incorporation of drums in worship and practice, a unique style of icon painting, dressing in the traditional Gabi shawl, and even in the distinct style of the monolithic rock-hewn churches found in the Ethiopian town of Lalibela.
At 34% of the population, Islam is the second largest religion in Ethiopia. The country is neighbors to majority-Muslim nations and is relatively close to the birthplace of Islam. Many ethnic groups in the region are also majority Muslim. Ethiopia is historically significant to Islam, as it was the site of the religion’s first migration. Called the Hijra, this migration took place, in 615, as Muslims under Muhammad escaped persecution in Mecca by travelling to the capital of Ethiopia’s Aksum Kingdom. The Christian king of the time accepted them and settled them in the Eastern Ethiopia. Since then Muslim communities have persisted and a city in the East, called Harar, became a center of Islamic learning and culture and is now considered the fourth holiest city in Islam.
Besides these two religions, Ethiopia is made up of a variety of traditional faiths, Baha’i, and groups of catholic or Jewish followers. Interestingly, Ethiopia was home of the Beta Israel, a group of African Jews existing since antiquity and remaining isolated since. The group only became widely known to the world in the 20th century. Likewise, Beta Israel was unaware of fellow Jews until this time as well. Given Ethiopia’s ancient history, it comes at no surprise the diverse and rich history of religious practice in this region. This is only one of Ethiopia’s many qualities that keep us thrilled that we can continue to participate in such a wonderful part of the world.