The main religions in Ethiopia are Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Paganism. Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country and the majority of Christians are Orthodox Tewahedo Christians, who belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. There are a minority of Christians: Roman Catholic or Protestant.
Christianity began in Ethiopia when two Syrian Christians (Frumentius and Aedissius) came to Aksum and started to tell people about Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. Frumentius and Aedissius influenced King Ezana, who ruled Aksum in the early part of the fourth century, and successfully converted him to Christianity. Immediately after King Ezana converted to Christianity, he officially decreed Christianity as the main faith of his kingdom in 341 AD and ordered Frumentius to go to Alexandria where he was consecrated bishop under the name of Abba Selama by the Patriarch of Alexandria in 346 AD. Frumentius (Abba Selama) then returned to Ethiopia and became the first bishop of Ethiopia and founded the Ethiopian Church. Ethiopia became a powerful Christian kingdom and empire right up to the fifteenth century.
Many Ethiopians claim that the Treasurer eunuch probably introduced the Christian faith when he returned to Ethiopia from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem well before the fourth century, but Christianity did not become the officially recognized religion until the reign of King Ezana in 341 AD. The eunuch’s pilgrimage is mentioned in the New Testament of the Holy Bible, Acts of the Apostles, chapter 8, verses 26 – 39,
The Aksumite kingdom adopted Judaism and the Law of Moses during the reign of King Menelik, son of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba and then adopted Christianity as main faith in 341 AD. The visit of Queen of Sheba to King Solomon and the pilgrimage by a high official (eunuch) to Jerusalem shortly after the death of Christ shows that the Ethiopians had close connections with the Israelites and Jerusalem. Since then Ethiopia has been observing both Old and New Testament practices.
The Ark of the Covenant is the most reserved holy relic of God’s incarnate and became part of the Orthodox Tewahedo Christian belief. A replica of the Ark of the Covenant, known as the tabot (the tablet), is kept in the holy of holies (Maqdas) in every Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The presence of the Ark indicates that the church has been duly consecrated and the belief in the Ark of the Covenant excert a profound influence on the imaginations and spiritual lives of many Ethiopians. One holy monk is elected and charged with its care and preservation. The elected monk becomes the official guardian of the Ark and no one, except the elected Guardian (a monk) who looks after the Ark of the Covenant, is allowed to enter the chapel. Before the guardian dies, according to Aksumite tradition, he must nominate his successor.
Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christians do not eat meat and dairy products (i.e. egg, butter, milk, and cheese) on fasting days. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church belief, the faithful must abstain from eating meat and dairy products to attain forgiveness of sins committed during the year, and undergo a rigorous schedule of prayers and atonement. However, the sick, travelers and the weak may be exempt from or reduce the fasting periods but if they want to observe the fasting, they can fast the whole or part of the fasting periods. As for those who observe the fasting periods, they will continue to do this throughout their life or as long as they are able to do without restrictions.
Church services are held daily in all Orthodox Tewahedo Churches from morning to 3 PM (9 o’clock in the afternoon Ethiopian time). Only one meal is allowed during the fasting days and the fist meal is taken after 3 PM (9 o’clock in the afternoon Ethiopian time), except Saturdays and Sundays, where a meal is allowed after the morning service.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christian fasting periods are:
- Every Wednesdays and Fridays except the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost.
- Tsome Neviyat (the fast of the Prophets known as Advent): 43 days fasting before Christmas which starts from 15 November to 28 December Ethiopian Calendar.
- Tsome Gahad (The Vigils): one day fasting which takes place on Christmas eve i.e. 28 December Ethiopian calendar and the day preceding before Epiphany i.e. 10 January Ethiopian Calendar.
- Tsome Nenewe (the fast of Nineveh): 3 days fasting starting on the Monday proceeding before Abaye Tsome (Lent).
- Abaye Tsome or Hudade (Lent): 55 days Fasting before Easter
- Tsome Hawaryat (the fast of the Apostles): begins on the day following Pentecost until 5 July Ethiopian calendar.
- Tsome Filseta (the fast of the Holy Virgin Mary): 15 days fasting ( from 1 – 15 August Ethiopian calendar)
Vegetarian meals such as lentils, ground split peas, grains, fruit, and varieties of vegetable stew accompanied by injera and/or bread are only eaten during fasting days. Meat and dairy products are only eaten on feasting days i.e. Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and at all other times. Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Christians, Jews and Muslims do not eat pork as it forbidden by their religious beliefs.
Even though, The Aksumite kingdom had accepted the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, during the reign of King Ezana in 341 AD, the Ethiopian Jews known as Felashas or Beta Israel refused to accept Christianity and continued to practice their Old Testament (Jewish) faith which they still do today. The Felashas (Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews) were concentrated in Northwest Ethiopia, mainly, in the northern province of Gonder and west of Tigray province..
The Falashas (Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews) who kept their Jewish faith were airlifted in the 1980s, 1990s and those who were deemed eligible had also been able to immigrate to Israel until 2008. The immigration of Falashas was halted in 2008 due to the Israel’s “Law of Return” does not permit for non-Jews until they prove their Jewish roots. The Falashas Mura (Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews) community traces their Jewish roots to the biblical king Solomon. They are not eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Israeli’s “Law of Return”, which guarantees “every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel, and granting automatic citizenship”, because the Falashas Mura’s ancestors persuaded or forced to convert to Christianity in the 19th century and they have been unable to prove they are Jewish.
However, the Netanyahu government has now decided to bring the remaining Falashas Mura community to Israel. The Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Ministers at a weekly cabinet meeting in November 2010, “Israelis have a moral duty to bring the remaining Falashas Mura as these are the seeds of Israel – men, women and children – that currently find themselves in the worst living conditions”. This was a remarkable move for the first time an Israeli prime minister openly telling his Ministers in recognizing the Falashas Mura are “the seeds of Israel” while many Israelis have reservation to their true identity as Jews.
Islam was introduced to Ethiopia in 615 AD when the followers of Prophet Mohammed, including his wife sought refuge in Aksum. The king of Aksum welcomed them, respected their religion and offered them protection. They later settled in Negash, east of Tigray, which became the foundation and one of the most important places for the Islamic faith in Ethiopia.
Islam spread to the east and south east of the country mainly Harar and Somali administrative regions. The Muslim communities are predominant in these regions.
Paganism or Indigenous Beliefs
Paganism or indigenous religious beliefs are widely practiced in Gambella, Southern Peoples’ State, Oromia administrative regions. These regions also contain considerable animist communities.