Christianity in Ethiopia

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Bet Giyorgis church in Lalibela

Christianity in Ethiopia dates to the 1st century AD, and this long tradition makes Ethiopia unique amongst sub-Saharan African countries. Christianity in this country is divided into several groups. The largest and oldest is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (in Amharic: የኢትዮጵያ ኦርቶዶክስ ተዋሕዶ ቤተክርስትያን Yäityop'ya ortodoks täwahedo bétäkrestyan) is an Oriental Orthodox church in Ethiopia that was part of the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959, when it was granted its own Patriarch by Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa Cyril VI.

The only pre-colonial Christian church of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Ethiopian Church has a membership of between 40 and 45 million,[1] the majority of whom live in Ethiopia,[2] and is thus the largest of all Oriental Orthodox churches. Next in size are the various Protestant congregations, who include 13.7 million Ethiopians. The largest Protestant group is the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, with about 5 million members. Roman Catholicism has been present in Ethiopia since the 16th century, and numbers 536,827 believers. In total, Christians make up about 60% of the total population of the country.[3]

Christian Roots[edit]

Church in Bahir Dar

Although Christianity existed long before the rule of King Ezana the Great of the Kingdom of Axum, the religion took a strong foothold when it was declared a state religion in 330 AD. Pinpointing a date as to when Christianity emerged in Ethiopia is uncertain. The earliest and best known reference to the introduction of Christianity is in the New Testament (Acts 8:26-38[4]) when Philip the Evangelist converted an Ethiopian court official in the 1st Century AD. Scholars, however, argue that Ethiopian (which in Greek means "burnt face") was a common term used for black Africans, and that the Queen Candace served by this official actually ruled in nearby Nubia (modern Sudan). The word "Candace" may also refer to the position of "queen" rather than to a specific person.[citation needed] Judaism was practiced in Ethiopia long before Christianity arrived and the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible contains numerous Jewish Aramaic words. The Old Testament in Ethiopia may be a translation of the Hebrew with possible assistance from Jews.

According to church historian Nicephorus[disambiguation needed], the apostle St. Matthew later preached the Christian Gospel to modern-day Ethiopia (then called Colchis) after having preached in Judea.[5] Rufinus of Tyre, a noted church historian, recorded a personal account as did other church historians such as Socrates and Sozemius. The Garima Gospels are thought to be the world's oldest illuminated Christian manuscripts.


Priest of the Yimrehanna Kristos Church, Lalibela

After being shipwrecked and captured at an early age, Frumentius was carried to Axum where he was treated well with his companion Edesius. At the time, there was a small population of Christians living there who sought refuge from Roman persecution. Once of age, Frumentius and Edesius were allowed to return to their homelands, however they chose to stay at the request of the queen. In doing so, they began to secretly promote Christianity through the lands.[6]

During a trip to meet with church elders, Frumentius met with Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria who was second in line to the pope. After recommending that a bishop be sent to proselytize, a council decided that Frumentius be appointed as a bishop to Ethiopia.

By 331 AD, Frumentius returned to Ethiopia, he was welcomed with open arms by the rulers who were at the time not Christian. Ten years later, through the support of the kings, the majority of the kingdom was converted and Christianity was declared the official state religion.[7]

Isolation as a Christian Nation[edit]

With the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, Ethiopia's Christians became isolated from the rest of the Christian world. The head of the Ethiopian church has been appointed by the patriarch of the Coptic church in Egypt, and Ethiopian monks had certain rights in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Ethiopia was the only region of Africa to survive the expansion of Islam as a Christian state.[8]

Jesuit Missionaries[edit]

In 1441 some Ethiopian monks traveled from Jerusalem to attend the Council in Florence which discussed possible union between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.

The arrival of the Christian monks caused something of a sensation. It began two centuries of contact in which there were hopes to bring the Ethiopians into the Catholic fold (the doctrinal problem was that they inclined to miaphysitism (considered a heresy by the Catholics) associated with the Coptic church of Egypt). In 1554 Jesuits arrived in Ethiopia to be joined in 1603 by Pedro Páez, a Spanish missionary of such energy and zeal that he has been called the second apostle of Ethiopia (Frumentius being the first). The Jesuits were expelled in 1633 which was then followed by two centuries of more isolation until the second half of the 19th century.[9]


See also[edit]