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A 6 Pages Term Paper on Historical Aspects of Religion in Ethiopia

    Studies of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution have hitherto almost completely ignored religion, in spite of the commitment of a great majority of Ethiopian people to one or another religious tradition. Moreover, existing studies focus almost exclusively on the center, on national politics, and on the evolution of national institutions.

    The majority of Ethiopian believers are Christian, with a large Muslim minority. There are still a few small Felasha Jewish communities in Ethiopia, as well. Animists are rare in Ethiopia today.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church

    The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded by the monks Frumentius and Aedissius in the early fourth century, during the reign of King Ezana of Axum (Aksum), who converted to Christianity along with many of his people. Frumentius was consecrated bishop in Alexandria, returning to Ethiopia to be its first bishop. In fact, the Ethiopian Church exists today as self-governing, though it traditionally shares the same faith with Egypt's Coptic Church. Until 1955, its Patriarch was a Coptic bishop sent from Alexandria, though since that time a native Ethiopian has been the Abuna, or Patriarch. The second ranking hierarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the Abbot of the Debre Libanos Monastery, reflecting the importance of monasticism in Ethiopia.

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    In terms of doctrine, the Coptic Church separated from the early Orthodox Church in AD 451 after the Council of Chalcedon over the former's adherence to the Monophysite doctrine. This issue concerned the Person of Christ --obviously an important matter to Christians-- which Orthodox Christians believe to have two distinct natures, one divine and one human, whereas the Monophysites believed Christ has a divine nature in which the human nature is contained. At that time, most Christians were Orthodox; the Patriarchate of Rome was not yet separated from the Eastern patriarchates. Coptic liturgical and sacramental practices remain similar to Orthodox ones, though the usage follows the ancient Alexandrian rite rather than the Byzantine rite.

    The Ethiopian Church was the state religion of imperial Ethiopia, and is in communion with the other Non-Chalcedonian Churches, namely the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Syrian Church (the so-called Jacobite), the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Syrian Church of India.

    The historical heritage and theology of the Ethiopian Church tradition has had its own interesting developments. Many practices related to ancient Judaism --such as veneration for a representation of the Ark of the Covenant in every Church-- are unique to the Ethiopian Church. On the altar of Ethiopian churches there is a miniature facsimile of the tabot, one of the tablets of the Ark of the Covenant, which Ethiopians believe is preserved in their country. Ethiopian icons are colorful works of art depicting traditional Orthodox saints, such as early martyrs, but Ethiopian saints as well, and have their own distinctive style.

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    Most of the Christian churches of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean are Orthodox, rooted in the early Christian church, whose liturgical and sacramental practices are unchanged in twenty centuries. The Patriarchate of Rome (the Papacy) was in communion with other Orthodox, but separated from the Eastern Churches in the eleventh century over political as well as theological issues. Today, the Orthodox Church exists without the changes of Catholicism or the subsequent deletions of Protestantism.

    The Ethiopian Church enjoyed a great deal of autonomy even when its Patriarch was sent from the Coptic Church of Egypt. While the Ethiopian Orthodox are not in direct canonical communion with the Orthodox of Greece, Constantinople, Russia, Ukraine, Antioch, and other jurisdictions, they are embraced fraternally to the extent that some of these churches allow their priests to administer the sacraments to the Ethiopian Orthodox. Outside Ethiopia, it is not unusual for Ethiopian Orthodox to attend services at these other Orthodox churches.

    Great strides have been made in recent years of reconciliation between the Non-Chalcedonian Churches and the Orthodox Church. In the 1970s the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria stated that his Church accepted that Christ is fully human as well as divine, which is an important statement. This has not yet resulted in the healing of the schism, but dialogue continues, and representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople have recently visited the Ethiopian Church.

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    There exist in certain countries, particularly in the United States, "Ethiopian" or "Abyssinian" churches, which attract African-Americans. The theological heritage of these churches is essentially Baptist or, in some cases, Pentecostal. These congregations have no connection with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Their name reflects the fact that in times past Ethiopian' was often synonymous with 'African.'

     Ethiopians are indifferent to the issue of race. There are many shades of black in Africa. Egyptians or Arabs could be very dark as well as Indians (especially, Indians in Africa). Division lines in Ethiopia are ethnic (cultural). Ethiopian Jesus isn't white, and in my opinion, neither the Russian Christ. The faces on Russian icons are very dark. Perhaps, it has something to do with a brown, which has to be applied first, before we use okra and other colors. Perhaps, because Jesus is a Jew, and not from Brooklyn but Palestine.

    Unfortunately, many Ethiopian Christian books are the apocrypha. They are not well known. There was no dialogue between Ethiopian church and other Christian Orthodox branches. Egyptian coptics or Armenians would see nothing unusual in Christ dark complexion. Since Ethiopian church lived for centuries in total isolation, Ethiopians had no need to compare their Christ with European versions. And they were the only Christian country in Africa. They do not consider themselves blacks because their Central African neighbors are much darker. Sheba is dark for the Hebrews, not for the Oromo.

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    More interesting is to see the different understanding of Christ's essence. Like in other Eastern Orthodoxies we hardly can find Jesus on the cross. His human nature isn't separate from his divinity and therefore his death has less significance. Also, his birth, Christmas, is not a major holiday.

    Independent Christian patriarchate in Ethiopia was founded in the 4th century by St. Frumentius and his brother Aedesius and based in Addis Ababa; the church adheres to Monophysite doctrine. It accepts the honorary primacy of the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria, who appointed its archbishops from the 12th century until 1959, when an autonomous Ethiopian patriarchate was established. Its customs include circumcision, rigorous fasting, and the participation of laypeople known as debtera, who perform liturgical music and dances and act as astrologers, scribes, and fortune-tellers. Its principal adherents are the Amhara and Tigray peoples of the N and central highlands (Black, 2001). 

Islam in Ethiopia

    Most of Ethiopia's Muslims are Sunnis, members of the largest sect of Islam. Islam arrived early in Ethiopia. The Prophet himself instructed his followers to respect and protect Ethiopians. In 615, Muhammed's wife and cousin sought refuge at Axum (Aksum) with a number of these followers. This group was fleeing from Mecca's leading tribe, the reactionary Kuraysh, who sent emissaries to bring them back to Arabia, but the Negus Armah protected them.

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    An influx of immigrants and traders from Oman and Yemen during the following centuries increased the number of Muslims in Somalia, Eritrea and what is now Ethiopia. In the coastal areas, Islamic law gradually took root, and by the fourteenth century it was the basis for the official juridical code of some regions. This reflected political realities; most of the inhabitants of these eastern regions were now Muslims. Their coexistence with Christianity was not always an easy one, and the sultans who ruled over parts of Ethiopian territory sometimes came into open conflict with the Christian kings (U.S. Dept).

    Yet, historians generally agree that the Muslim sultans in Ethiopia were tolerant of their Christian subjects; forced conversions were rare.  In 1668, an imperial decree was issued declaring that the Muslims (Jabarti) and Jews (Felasha) of Gonder would henceforth have to live apart from Christians, but they were allowed to practice their religion freely in their own quarter. Religious squabbles did not end there, but by the nineteenth century peaceful conditions were established which finally placed religious differences on a level secondary to peace and the popular interest. Political conflicts between Ethiopia and Somalia, and, more recently, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, are not based on religious differences per se.

    Its Muslim Arab population has never been large, but Ethiopia has had historically close contact with Yemen and the Asir region of Saudi Arabia. Most of the Ethiopians in these countries are Muslims (The rise of Islam).

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    Estimates vary, but from 25 to 40 percent of Ethiopia's population is Muslim. Islam can no longer be considered a "minority" religion in Ethiopia.

    The children and grandchildren of Haile Selassie are descended from the Prophet. A number of Ethiopian princes have been Muslim, and though this precluded their ascending the Imperial Throne it did not prevent them from ruling in their own dominions. Empress Menen, consort of Emperor Haile Selassie, bore a descent from the Prophet through her mother, Sehin, daughter of Negus Mikael (Muhammad Ali) of Wollo. Male descendants of the Prophet are sharifs.

The Black Jews

    The early days of the Beta Israel (House of Israel) community in Abyssinia remain a mystery. The Jews of Ethiopia do not generally accept this legend, and take it to be mere fabrication. However, this old tradition only strengthens what we know from other sources --that there was an early Jewish influence in Abyssinia.

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    To avoid the impending civil war they resettled in Egypt. Rabbi David ben-Zimra (RaDBaZ) ruled in his 16th century responsa that the Jews of Ethiopia were unquestionably Danites who had settled in Abyssinia, possibly even before the Second Temple period. (Isaiah 11:11-12)

    After the destruction of the First Temple, the Jewish community in Egypt expanded. The Jews of Yev, like those of Abyssinia, built a temple and performed sacrifices, but did not reject the sanctity of Jerusalem and its Temple. Similarly, Onias' Temple, in Lower Egypt, dates from the Second Temple period. Other similarities in traditions and special customs support the evidence of a link between the ancient Egyptian Jews and those of Ethiopia (Ethiopia).

    It can therefore be assumed that the Jewish communities in Pathros were destroyed and that the Jews headed south in search of a new place to live along the most convenient route --up the Nile via Sudan to its sources around Lake Tana in northwest Ethiopia. Ethiopian Jews live there to this day.

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    Some view Beta Israel as descendants of the tribe of Agau, which converted to Judaism in ancient times. Some even consider Beta Israel a Gentile community with traces of Jewish tradition.  There are inconclusive theories, based chiefly on racial similarity and a superficial study of traditions, community customs and Hebrew sources.

    Converts, and perhaps even Jews from the Yemen, probably reinforced and increased the Jewish community, which was already established and exerting great influence in the regions surrounding Lake Tana.

    One fact is clear from all the sources: The Falashas have always regarded themselves as Jews, believers in the Faith of Moses, exiled from Eretz Israel, and quite distinct from the native Gentiles. They were also regarded as such by the Christian, Muslim and idol-worshipping Ethiopian communities around them.

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    The history of Beta Israel in Ethiopia is fairly similar to that of other Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Of all Jewish communities, which have survived to this day, Beta Israel is the one, which most merits the description "lost" or "distant" tribe.  Secondly, the Jews of Ethiopia enjoyed a "golden" period of independence and rule. On the contrary, for centuries the Jews were a powerful force among the Abyssinian tribes. The Jews and their history in Abyssinia are first mentioned explicitly sometime around the 10th century. Around 960, the Falashas and the Agau tribes rebelled against the kings of Aksum (the dynasty of Menelik) and the dominant Christian religion. Apparently the Ethiopian Jews enjoyed great influence under this regime.

    The Menelik Dynasty resumed control in the latter half of the 13th century and launched war almost incessantly against the Falashas. The result was the effective loss of Falasha independence, with the final downfall of the Jews of Ethiopia sometime in the early 17th century.

    Amda Siyon's great-grandson, Negus Ishak (1414-1429), also fought the Falashas and built churches on the ruins of their synagogues. Negus Za'ra Ya'kob (1434-1468) continued the persecutions and added the title "Exterminator of the Jews" to his name. Interestingly enough, however, Jewish influence grew during his reign. Contemporary Abyssinian chronicles tell of Jewish converts, including the son of the Negus himself, Abba Tzaga, who became a well-known and influential Jewish hermit and friend of Abba Tzabra, one of the community's spiritual leaders.

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    During the reign of Negus Lebna Dengel (1508-1540) and his son Claudius (1540-1559), Muslim forces under Arab Emir Ehmed Garan, ruler of eastern Ethiopia and Somalia, conquered broad stretches of Ethiopia including Semyen and Dembia, where the Jews had settled. The new Falasha King, Radi, went to war with Negus Minas (1559-1563); upon defeat, however, he was taken prisoner by Minas' successor, Negus Sarsa-Dengel (1563-1597).

    A detailed chronicle describes Sarsa-Dengel's brutal wars against the Falashas, under the leadership of Kaleb, Radai's brother, wherein the Jews were badly beaten. The war between the Falashas and the king's forces intensified. How evil is this Jewish pride, which crowned the mountains with names of the mountains of Israel upon which the Lord descended ... (Ibid.)

    Intent upon destroying the Falashas, the negus began to conquer their strongholds, slaughtering men, women and children as he proceeded. This period marked the end of the relative independence and self-government, which the Jews of Abyssinia had enjoyed for many generations. Form then on, with more European missionaries, travelers and researchers visiting Abyssinia, reports of the lost Jewish tribe began to reach Europe and world Jewry.

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    It was at this time that Ethiopian Jewry first began to have contact with Jews from the rest of the world. The situation of the Ethiopian Jews worsened towards the end of the 19th century. An invasion of Muslim Dervishes from Sudan in 1889 devastated parts of western Ethiopia and seriously harmed the Falasha villages. It was only at the beginning of this century that the Ethiopian Jewish community began to raise their hopes. In 1923, Dr. Faitlovitch opened a school in Addis Ababa for young Ethiopian Jews. During the first half of the century, he enrolled some 40 young Falashas in Jewish religious schools in Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Jerusalem. As progress spread through Ethiopia, young Jews began to move from the villages into the cities, in particular to Gondar and the surrounding area. The Jews of Ethiopia --estimated in 1983 at about 30,000 --have maintained their Jewish faith and religious love of Zion and the Holy Land (Coeyman, 2001).

Works Cited

Black.  Orthodox Orthodoxy.  Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Nov 29, 2001 <http://www.angelfire.com/ak/sellassie/page19.html>

Coeyman, M. (2001). Ethiopia: Where Christians and Jews evolved unique relationships. The 'Galapagos Islands' of religion. Thursday, March 30, 2000. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Nov 29, 2001 <http://www.csmonitor.com/atcsmonitor/specials/bhmonth/news/p-033000galapagos.html>

Ethiopia. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Nov 29, 2001  <http://www.law.emory.edu/IFL/legal/Ethiopia.htm>

The Rise of Islam. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Nov 29, 2001 <http://www.ethioworld.com/History/summary.htm>

U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: Ethiopia.  Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, September 9, 1999. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on Nov 29, 2001  <http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/irf/irf_rpt/1999/irf_ethiopia99.html>


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