Interfaith relations between Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia


Eloi Ficquet, maître de conférences, histoire et anthropologie comparées de la Corne de l’Afrique, CéSor – EHESS

Date de publication: 
Septembre 2019

Ethiopia is now the second most populous country in Africa, with more than 110 million inhabitants, after Nigeria, 200 million. On both western and eastern sides of the continent, these two countries present situations of religious plurality reflective of the variety of historical dynamics of Christianity and Islam in Africa. In Nigeria the population is almost equally divided between Christians in the southern tropical humid regions and Muslims in the northern, drier, parts. The Christian faith was introduced by missionaries who went along the processes of settlement of European colonial rule, whereas Islam was established in earlier times, since the 11th century, along the trade (and slavery) roads going through the Sahelian southern fringe of the Sahara desert1.

In Ethiopia, on which this article will focus, a general correlation between climatic zones and the distribution of religions also exists between the watered and agricultural highlands, forming the historical stronghold of the Orthodox Christian polities, and the arid lowlands basins of the Nile and the Red Sea, where Islam had spread. Local exceptions to this general pattern are many, however. A large Muslim population is concentrated in the densely forested highlands of the southwestern parts of the country. Scattered Christian populations live in the lowlands, either because they have been displaced through resettlement programs since the 1980s or because they have settled more voluntarily in the growing network of roads and cities throughout the country. The distribution of religious diversity (see below for recent figures) is less clearly delineated than in the Nigerian case (which has its own complexities2), and the history of interactions is rooted in deeper time frames dating back to the early Middle Ages.

Half-mythicized stories of the founding times of the political and societal structures are still frequently told to set the framework of the contemporary debates. The ancient Ethiopian Christian kingdom of Aksum converted to the Christian faith since the fourth century. Whereas other ancient Christian communities in Africa (Egypt, Nubia, Maghreb) and the Middle East (Syria, Yemen) were reduced to the status of political minorities by Arab conquerors and gradually converted to Islam, the Christian Ethiopians established early relations with the early Islamic Arabian state and they were not subdued by the expansion of Islam beyond its cradle and holy land. The establishment of a local modus vivendi is recalled by the famous episode of the first hijra [Arabic: ‘migration’], when the first followers of Prophet Muhammad took refuge in Aksum under the protection of the king [named najashi in Arabic sources, from the Ethiopian word negus]. Despite contending interpretations, in particular on the question whether the najashi eventually converted to Islam, this story and its various reinterpretations reflect on how a certain level of mutual respect and understanding has been maintained over centuries between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia.

The understanding of interfaith relations in the study of Ethiopian history and contemporary issues is generally reduced to a longstanding opposition between, on the one hand, a national State, protective of the Christian faith and, on the other hand, Islamic societies characterised as peripheral and foreign because of their connections with overseas commercial and spiritual networks. This dual perspective has not been developed without grounds. In the history of Northeast Africa, ideas with a universal reach conveyed by religions have been mobilizing resources to achieve a maximum level of coalition between regional groups. Both sides claimed the expansion and unification of their spheres of influence, by repelling their religious rivals. Hatred and warfare had been strong on both sides, and sometimes were nearly to succeed. But they all failed, leading to the formation of mixed situations. The dominated groups were reduced to speechless and rightless minorities, while deriving some benefits from the exclusive ability to maintain links and flows with their distant ‘metropoles’, ie. the polities where their confessions were dominant3.

Against the usual and still prevalent binary schematization, new trends in the study of religions and religious communities in Ethiopia have crossed over common ideological splits and brought out various forms of interactions, spaces of dialogue and networks of exchanges. These relations have been, for centuries, alternately tied, untied and retied again following conflictual or coexistential patterns. On the contrary, too much focus on situations of peaceful coexistence may lead to an inflation of politically correct and empty statements4.

This short overview paper argues that the most common situation of coexistence between Christian and Islamic local or regional powers in the history of the Horn of Africa was the status quo, an unstable but standing balance in power relationships. Status quo doesn’t mean neither peace, nor equality, but rather a low level of conflict based on various levels of compromises. Misunderstandings and derogatory representations are still numerous, conveyed by the memories of communities wounded by conflicts and discriminations of the past. This can lead to very occasional and local outbreaks of violence. But in everyday social life, a still state of coexistence and cooperation has been established between religions.

The Religious Factor in the Building of the Contemporary State of Ethiopia

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the regional rulers who were competing for the leadership of the Christian kingdom were able to overcome their divisions to defend a common sense of unity and independence as Egyptian and European imperialisms were expanding. Their Christian faith provided common concepts and shared interests for establishing relations with the European powers. Access to firearms and other technologies gave them an advantage over their internal and external rivals. The coalesced Christian armies expanded their dominions over large portions of territories inhabited by Muslim societies. They also succeeded in defeating several threats of conquest and negotiating border treaties with European colonial empires5. In this process, Muslim areas became buffer zones between the core of the old kingdom and the bordering countries under European colonial domination6. A new imperial organization was established with the aim of becoming a nation-state. The newly incorporated and dominated Muslim subjects were considered with suspicion, for they had been rivals for centuries. However, through their links with the neighbouring countries, Muslim trading communities represented the economic lungs of Ethiopia. Their distinctiveness was thus admitted if they practised their faith discreetly and accepted the Christian political domination.

The overall picture of religions in Ethiopia cannot be complete without adding the development of Protestant evangelical movements in the southern regions of the country since the second half of the nineteenth century. Their fast expansion since the two last decades of the twentieth century has created conditions for a charismatic awakening and internationalization of religious discourse, in a quite similar way to religious dynamics observed in other African countries7.

In 1974 the Ethiopian imperial regime had been ruled for nearly sixty years by Emperor Haile-Selassie8. The centralized and absolute character of the imperial authority was challenged by political, ethnic and religious diversity. The Eritrean secessionist struggle was initiated in the early 1960s by Muslim groups who were joined later by Christians in a united armed movement. Other regional liberation fronts followed this model in which revolutionary communist ideas were superseding the religious factor. Nevertheless, some Muslims joined the demonstrations initiated by students and farmers. They called for their recognition as no less Ethiopian than any other citizen with equal rights. Their main demand was that the official designation of “Muslims living in Ethiopia” (which implied that Muslims were aliens) should be changed to “Ethiopian Muslims”9. After the downfall of Emperor in September 1974, the military authorities initially opted for secular orientations, by promising to treat all Ethiopians equally irrespective of their religious differences. In the context of Cold War, the military junta adopted a scientific socialist ideology, considering all religions backward and reactionary. Thereafter, all religious denominations were persecuted indiscriminately. The vast land holdings administered under the former regime by the Orthodox Church, as a counterweight to local clientelist powers, were confiscated and redistributed through collectivisation programs. Companies held by Muslim merchants were also seized. In all circumstances of social life, religious freedom was considerably weakened by the Derg’s authoritarianism. However, the popular religious sentiment has been invigorated and transformed through clandestine ceremonies.

The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, adopted at the end of 1994, proclaimed the separation of state and religion and promulgated religious freedom and equality of rights. Since then, all confessions have been allowed to express themselves openly in the public space.

According to the last national census10 undertaken in 2007, Orthodox Christians were 43.5 percent of the population (a declining share compared to previous years, 50 percent in 1994), Muslims 34 percent and the various protestant denominations totalizing 18.5 percent (a significant growth compared with 10.5 percent in 1994). For the external observer these figures seem to reflect fairly accurately the evolution that can be understood through other, more local, indications. However, their accuracy and reliability have been contested as if they were politically-oriented fabrications. This issue on numbers is one aspect of the state of interfaith relations in Ethiopia today, between competition and coexistence11.

Interfaith Relations: Tensions and Coexistence

An optimistic picture of peaceful and harmonious relations has been emphasized by official discourse and praised by foreign observers. In this perspective, the main factor of preservation of a peaceful interfaith coexistence is the opinion shared by the majority that the longstanding tradition of tolerance between Christians and Muslims should be kept as a cementing value of the overall nation. For instance, in August 2013 a three-day conference was organized at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, the capital city, on the theme of “National interreligious tolerance and peaceful co-existence in Ethiopia”. The Minister of Federal Affairs declared the conference would help “exploit the long-standing heritage of peaceful coexistence, religious respect and tolerance in Ethiopia to consolidate peace, democracy and development”12. Such kind of soothing discourse is a typical example of political correctness promoted by international organizations and widely echoed in the official speeches. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed who was sworn since April 2018, is representative of a new generation of Ethiopian politicians after the passing away in 2012 of Meles Zenawi, the architect of the federal Constitution. His communication strategy has taken advantage of the fact that “raised by a Muslim father and a Christian mother, the values of tolerance and understanding across divides were instilled in him at an early age”13. Being himself a devout Pentecostal Christian, he has shown signs of understanding and complicity to all moderate groups who are willing to preserve a state of balance between differences in a spirit of national unity. This is encapsulated in his motto “medemmer” in Amharic meaning “aggregating, combining, consolidating” and advocating for reconciliation and unity.

In the everyday life, below the preaching statements of idealized self-representations, on the one hand, and overstated grievances, on the other hand, a third position is applied through practices of coexistence that oscillate between permanent stress on denominational differences and their occasional lifting. Clothing and food habits are the most usual differentiations. The most respected is the prohibition of eating the meat of animals not slaughtered in the name of one’s faith. This religious boundary also involves derogatory representations of the other community (that can be softened by jokes), or through memories of conflicts of the past (that can be softened by stories of individual friendships). Within the religious sphere, differentiation is counterbalanced by occasional transgressions, for instance in pilgrimages where Orthodox Christians and Muslims converge onto shared beliefs in spiritual and charismatic powers of holy figures. Cases of interreligious marriages, involving the conversion of one of the two spouses, are rare but not excluded. Conversion can be accepted as well, as a marginal phenomenon, for individuals who want to reshape their faith to suit their aspirations. In the social sphere at large, there are a number of common cultural practices that are not tagged by religious norms that we can characterize as “interstitial spaces of secularism”14, for instance the drinking of coffee, well established as a national symbol, or the consumption of khat leaves, a stimulating and mildly euphoric plant, although addictive, which is spreading in an increasing part of society, whereas it was reserved for Muslims only. These occasions during which differences between religious groups are temporarily abolished have been playing an important role for the circulation of individuals beyond denominational identities for purposes of social and professional mobility.

With the opening of the public sphere to a plurality of religious entrepreneurs, rising currents of radicalization have worked against practices of mixity that can appear as “grey areas” of indetermination. The remnants of local mundane, so-called “pagan”, cultures are labelled as archaic and even satanic, whereas modern irreligious standards are challenged through the prescription of alternative models of behaviour determined by conformity to revisited norms and antagonized identities. Indeed, a common pattern in reformist speeches is the threat of being overcome by challengers of other denominations who are generally portrayed as “fanatic” (in Amharic “akrari”) and “aggressive” (in Amharic “atfi”), whereas the same qualifiers are often applied to reformers by their coreligionists who see them as internal challengers15. Besides reciprocal invectives, carried out by publication of controversial pamphlets16, the most frequent expressions of tensions between religions concern their inscription in the public space. This is audible by the intensification of the use of loudspeakers broadcasting preaches and spiritual melodies17.

The most conflicting issue is the construction of places of worship, mosques in particular. In Addis Ababa as well as in most of the major towns of the country, the authorization given to Muslim communities after 1991 to build large, visible and architecturally ambitious mosques had an impact on the transformation of urban landscapes. In many cases, this was strongly challenged by Orthodox Christian residents of the neighbourhoods where new mosques were built, mainly through legal battles on the ownership on the land generating bureaucratic delays18. Another form of expressing enmity was by the throwing of stones on mosques (under the cover of darkness). In the Christian sacred city of Aksum where the attempts at building the first ever mosque have been foiled by angry protests of members of the Orthodox Church.

Some disputes went as far as blood-shedding violence. In the last ten years, some sporadic interreligious clashes have been reported in the southwest of Ethiopia, particularly in Oromia, where Christian communities were harassed or attacked, churches often being burnt, by groups of the numerically dominant Muslim population, who, on their side, were infuriated by acts of provocation, such as incendiary speeches or profanation of the Qur’an19. Protestant-evangelical churches were more generally targeted by these attacks, but recently (September 2019) Ethiopian Orthodox Church leaders have asked the government to respond to what they describe as an outbreak of religious violence, of which they claim to be the main victims. This increase in religious tensions must be understood in a context of political rivalry and bargaining between ethnic groups that claim a greater degree of autonomy and representativeness in the federal system. As it is assessed locally by Ethiopians who are seeing these events from the outside, the religious argument is also a means of mobilization for addressing political claims in a non-political way.

This current hardening of cleavages and tensions between religious communities in Ethiopia is linked to the global trend of deterioration of interfaith relations. However, the historical depth of encounters, intermingling, controversies and dialogue between Ethiopian Christians and Muslims still plays as a moderating factor, by fostering the consciousness that a shared identity should prevail. Preserving the possibility of moving between the blurred segments of religious boundaries is felt more protective to individuals than discriminatory attitudes inspired by hatred and ignorance.

  • 1. These few lines can only be schematic. For a comprehensive study on the historical dynamics of Islam in Africa see David Robinson. Muslim Societies in African History, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • 2. For an in-depth study of the relationships between world religions and indigenous religions among the Yoruba of Nigeria, see J. Y D. Peel, Christianity, Islam, and Orisa-Religion Three Traditions in Comparison and Interaction, University of California Press, 2015.
  • 3. Igor Kopytoff, ed., The African Frontier: The Reproduction of Traditional African Societies, Chicago University Press, 1987.
  • 4. As argued by Hussein Ahmed, “Coexistence and/or Confrontation? Towards a Reappraisal of Christian Muslim Encounter in Contemporary Ethiopia”, Journal of Religion in Africa, 36 (1), 2006, pp. 4-22.
  • 5. See Sven Rubenson, The Survival of Ethiopian Independence, London: Heinemann, 1976
  • 6. For a case study on the Ethiopian imperial expansion over a Muslim Oromo territory see Abbas H. Gnamo, Conquest and Resistance in the Ethiopian Empire, 1880-1974. The Case of the Arsi Oromo, Leiden: Brill, 2014
  • 7. See Jörg Haustein and Emanuele Fantini, “The Ethiopian Pentecostal Movement: History, Identity and Current Socio-Political Dynamics”, PentecoStudies, 12 (2), 2013, pp. 150–61.
  • 8. His political career started in 1917 under his birth name of Teferi Mekonnin. He was appointed as the head of Empress Zewditu’s government. In 1930 he became King of kings with the coronation name of Hayle Sillasé. From 1936 to 1941, during the occupation by the Italian fascist, he was in exile in the UK. He was restored to his throne in 1941 with British support.
  • 9. See Hussein Ahmed, “Islam and Islamic Discourse in Ethiopia (1973–1993)”, in Harold G. Marcus (ed.), New Trends in Ethiopian Studies, Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1994, vol. 1, pp. 775–801.
  • 10. CSA (Central Statistical Authority), The 2007 Population and Housing Census of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, 2010.
  • 11. See the three chapters on religions in G. Prunier and E. Ficquet, eds, Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia, London, Hurst, 2015: 1. Stéphane Ancel and Eloi Ficquet, “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) and the Challenges of Modernity”, pp. 63-91; 2. Eloi Ficquet, “Ethiopian Muslims and the Question of their Integration in the Ethiopian nation: Historical Processes and Recent Upheavals”, pp. 93-122; 3. Emanuele Fantini, “Go Pente! The Charismatic Renewal of the Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia”, pp. 123-146
  • 12. Source: Addis Standard, 28 August 2013. [URL:].
  • 13. One example among others taken from the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day presentation of speakers: [URL:
  • 14. Following the study of Aida Kanafani Zahar on interreligious situation in Lebanon. See her article: “Pluralisme relationnel entre chrétiens et musulmans au Liban : l’émergence d’un espace de ‘laïcité relative’ », Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, 109, 2000, pp. 119-145.
  • 15. See Patrick Desplat, “Against Wahhabism? Islamic Reform, Ambivalence and Sentiments of Loss in Harar”, in P. Desplat and Terje Østerbø, eds, Muslim Ethiopia, New York: McMillan, 2013, pp. 163–84
  • 16. See for instance the edition of a defence of Islam in Amharic verses in which I refer to some other works of polemical literature: Eloi Ficquet, “Une apologie éthiopienne de l'islam”, Annales d'Ethiopie, 2002, 18, pp. 7-35.
  • 17. Jörg Haustein and Terje Østebø, “EPRDF's revolutionary democracy and religious plurality: Islam and Christianity in post-Derg Ethiopia”, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 5 (4), 2001, pp. 755-772.
  • 18. See the review by Kemal Abdulwehab "Abdulfätah Abdällah, 2008-2010, The history of Addis Abäba mosques, 2 vols" Annales d'Ethiopie, 26, 2011, pp. 311-318.
  • 19. Jon Abbink, 2011, “Religion in public spaces: Emerging Muslim–Christian polemics in Ethiopia”, African Affairs, 110, 439, pp. 253-274
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