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Religion in Ethiopia

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The Orthodox Church


The Ethiopian  Orthodox Church was established at the beginning of the fourth century, making it one of the oldest established churches in the world.

Even now in the 21st Century, religion lives in Ethiopia more then any other country in the world

See this video of Children learning the ancient religious language Ge'ez

Orthodox Christianity and Islam, the two main religions in Ethiopia, have coexisted since Mohammed,s time. The first believers in Islam were converted while the prophet Mohammed was alive and the first mosque was built in the eighth century. However, culturally the Orthodox church has dominated the political, social, and cultural life in the highlands, as it has been official religion of the imperial court and hence also of the feudal establishment until Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974. Since the religion and state have been separated  
Ethiopians date the coming of Christianity to Ethiopia to the fourth century AD, when a Christian philosopher from Tyre named Meropius was shipwrecked on his way to India. Meropius died but his two wards, Frumentius and Aedesius were washed ashore and taken to the royal palace. Eventually they became king Ella Amida’s private secretary and royal cupbearer respectively.   


They served the king well, and Frumentius became regent for the infant prince Ezana when Ella Amida died. Frumentius and Aedesius were also permitted to prosyletize the new religion in AXUM (as modern Ethiopia was then known). After some time, Frumentius and Aedesius returned to the Mediterranean, traveling down the Nile through Egypt to do so. When they reached Egypt, Frumentius contacted bishop Euthanasias of Alexandria and begged him to send missionaries back to AXUM, since the people there had proved so ready to receive the gospel.


Athanasius agreed that the need was urgent, and immediately appointed Frumentius to the task, which needed someone fluent in the language and sensitive to the customs of AXUM. He ordained Frumentius the first Abuna or bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Frumentius has since come to be known as the Abuna Salama or bishop of peace. His mission was successful and, with the support of king Ezana, Ethiopia became a Christian nation.


The link between the Ethiopian church and the Patriarch of Alexandria was not broken until the 20th century, since the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria has sent Ethiopia each of its succeeding Abuna.


 The coming of Islam into the Middle East and North Africa only three centuries later isolated it from the rest of Christendom. The Ethiopian highlands at that time were primarily Christian in the North-East, Judaic in the North-West and mostly animist in the South.


The Church also believes the Christian parts of the country had been Judaic before they were converted. This combination of facts perhaps explains the strong Judaic elements in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Most notable among these are the food restrictions, including the way animals are killed, consistent with the rules set out in the old Testament-but not  the prohibition of mixing milk and meat. Another similarity is the strict observance of naming (baptizing), 80 days after birth for girls and 40 days for boys.

The most striking feature of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with its root in Judaism is the presence of a replica of The  Ark of the Covenant Holy of hollies of each Church, called the Tabot which only priests are allowed to see and handle.



Come here and watch the video



With religion playing such an important role in the Ethiopian society, festivals and ceremonies provide many high points in the calendar, only the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates no less then 150 festivities per year


The following are the most famous festivals:  

Timkat (Epiphany), is the most colorful event in the year when Churches parade their Tabots to a nearby body of water. This is  the commemoration of Christ's baptism, which falls one the 19th of January. The Tabot is taken out in the afternoon on the eve of epiphany and stays overnight with the priests and faithful congregation. The following morning the water is blessed and splashed on everyone in a ceremony where the faithful renew their vows to the Church. If the body of water is large enough, some people will immerse themselves. Woman who have been unable to have children participate in the ritual for fertility. After the ceremony, the Tabot is paraded back to its Church accompanied by much singing and dancing.  
Fasika (Easter) is a festival that follows a fasting period of 55 days. During this time, no animal product is eaten. The faithful do not eat anything at all until the daily service is finished at around 3 in the afternoon. From Thursday evening before Good Friday, nothing is eaten until the Easter-service ends on 3 in the morning on Easter Sunday.
Kidus Yohannes or Enkutatash  Ethiopias New Years day is celebrated on the 11th of September. It is primarily secular and a time for People to put on new clothes and visit friends and relatives

Maskal, Said to be in memory of the finding of the true Cross by the Empress Eleni. This is as colorful as Timkat, however instead of water the focus of the celebration is a bonfire topped with an image of a Cross, to which flowers are tied. Priests in full regalia bless the bonfire before it is lit. This festival coincides with the mass blooming of the golden Yellow Maskal Daisies, called Adey Ababa in Amharic.

Lidet or Gena, the Ethiopian Christmas is not the primary religious and secular festival that it has become in Western countries. Falling on the 7th of January, it is celebrated seriously by a Church service that goes on throughout the night, with people moving from one Church to another. Traditionally, young man play a game similar to hockey called Gena on this day, and now Christmas has also come to be known by this name.  
One indication of the influence of the Church in everyday life is the fact that the thirteen major Saints-Days in each month are named by their Saint, while others are referred to by date. Each Church is dedicated to one Saint, and on that Saints-Day once or twice a year the Tabot is paraded in front of the congregation by taking it around the Church three times.
Ethiopians who are joining these festivals contribute to their Church by giving several religious items, the amount to be spent on these contributions depends of course on the income of the individual. The most popular items to be contributed are candles and umbrellas in al kind of size and decorations. the church collects these items and sells them back to the merchants to gain money to help the pour.                              



Ethiopia has long enjoyed the most intimate relations with Islam. Some of the earliest disciples of the prophet Mohammed, when persecuted in Arabia, found refuge at Axum, which was then ruled by King Armah. When one of the refugees, Umm Habibah, was to marry Mohammed, Armah sent her a golden dowry. The prophet later prayed for the Axumite Kings soul and instructed his followers to  leave the Abyssinians in peace,  thus exempting them from a holy  war.  Many words in Ge ez, the classical language of the Ethiopians, are to be found in the Holly  Quran. The first muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in the prophets time was an Ethiopian named  Bilal,  as his compatriots recall with pride to this day.



  Ethiopia has an extensive and very active Muslim population , who have played an important role in Ethiopia life, particularly in the field of commerce, for over a millennium.  The majority of Muslims inhabit the eastern , southern and western low lands, but there are also many followers of Islam in Addis Ababa and in all Ethiopian towns-- even in the so - called Christian highlands. Mosques , however, were for the most part constructed only with in the last century or so; they are now found throughout the length and breadth of the country.

 Ethiopias earliest and most holy Muslim center, according to tradition, is at Nagash, north of Wukro in Tigray, where there is a fine mosque of considerable antiquity.

 perhaps the most important Islamic center since medieval times, however, has been the famous walled city of Harar. One of the principal holy cities of Islam, it has long been renowned for its religious learning, as well as for its mosques, many Muslim shrines, and tombs of several holy Muslim leaders of the past.


  An important center of Muslim pilgrimage today is the town of Shek Husen in Bale region. The faithful flock there twice a year from all over Ethiopia, as well as from neighboring countries.



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