Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia: a checkered past, a challenging future

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F. Peter Ford


When one thinks of the religious landscape of Ethiopia, what usually comes to mind is the historic and colorful Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). The EOC originated in the fourth century in the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia, which coincides today with the northwest region of Ethiopia. Having quickly come under the influence of Athanasius of Alexandria (293-373), the church became ecclesiastically dependent on the Coptic Church of Egypt, and soon aligned itself theologically with the so-called Monophysite group of eastern churches. With the exception of this link with the Egyptian church (which appointed EOC’s patriarch until as late as 1959), the EOC was relatively isolated from the rest of Christendom. This was due largely to the geographical seclusion of Abyssinia on a mountainous plateau, which later became nearly surrounded by Muslim regimes. A variety of unique features resulted, most notably EOC’s distinctive Jewish character, which is reflected in practices such as circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath along with Sunday. In addition, the church has its own canon of scripture, incorporating apocryphal works into both testaments, and its own liturgical language, Ge’ez (generally called “Ethiopic” among western scholars). From Ge’ez the modern official language of Amharic derives. A number of sacred legends connected with Israel also arose, especially the belief that the biblical Queen of Sheba was the monarch of Abyssinia, and that during her visit to Jerusalem King Solomon tricked her into a sexual union that produced a son, Menelik I. When the crafty son came of age and visited his father, he managed to abscond with the Ark of the Covenant to Abyssinia, where it is still said to reside in the ancient capital of Axum. Menelik subsequently became the progenitor of Abyssinia’s ruling dynasty, bequeathing to it a divine sanction that was reinforced by the country’s acceptance of Christianity. Church and state were thus inexorably connected until the fall of emperor Haile Selasie in 1974, and this political-religious marriage has almost always played a central role in Christian-Muslim relations.

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How to Cite
Ford, F. P. (2008). Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia: a checkered past, a challenging future. Reformed Review, 61(2), 52-70. Retrieved from
Ethiopia -- Church history; Ethiopia -- Religion; Christianity and other religions -- Islam; Islam -- Relations -- Christianity