Ethiopia: from Orthodoxy to Islam?


Tiksa Negeri / Reuters

Most people know little about Ethiopia; the most obvious association with the country that comes to mind is Hannibal, Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather.

Although rich in history and culture, Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian country in the world (Armenia is the first). Ethiopia is home to 120 million people. Of these, 44% are Orthodox, 23% are Evangelical, and 31% are Muslim. Consequently, there are 52 million Orthodox in Ethiopia. Almost all Orthodox Ethiopians (98%) say that religion is very important to them and that they have no plans to go to other confessions. However, the country’s authorities may have their own view on the future of Christianity in this East African nation.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently said that his country will seek to become a member of the League of Arab States (LAS), and that the authorities will promote Arabic language learning in schools and Islam in general in the country.

So let’s look at why such a decision seems highly controversial.

First, there is the cultural and religious aspect. Ethiopia is home to one of the oldest Orthodox churches in the world, and due to its historical isolation, it has developed its own unique traditions and practices since the fourth century. This branch is called Eastern Orthodoxy. The majority of the country’s population practiced it.

In recent years, Ethiopia had endeavored to preserve and strengthen the position of the State Amharic language, both among the local population and among the members of the African Union, of which it wished to make Amharic one of the working languages. The aforementioned inaccessibility, independence and self-driven development have made it possible for Ethiopia to maintain its cultural identity.

Second, the geopolitical and economic interest of the Ethiopian authorities. Ethiopia is keenly interested in gaining direct access to the world’s oceans, something it once tried to negotiate with the UAE, which hypothetically could help Addis Ababa by using its port infrastructure in Somaliland and Puntland. It provides access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. In addition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among Ethiopia’s top five trading partners, and bilateral trade with these countries in 2022 was $793 million and $770 million respectively. But apparently the talks are not yet fruitful, prompting the African country to act on its own.

In January 2024, Ethiopia signed an agreement with Somaliland to lease territory on the Gulf of Aden coast. This did not raise objections from the UAE, but the international community (particularly the Arab League — LAS) strongly condemned Ethiopia, seeing this action as a danger to the Arab world. Addis Ababa needed to do something to prove that its intentions did not have negative consequences for Arab countries. And it was the Muslim Abiy Ahmed who tried to «fix the situation».

Ethiopia is constitutionally a secular state, so previously religion did not intersect with politics. They existed in parallel. However, with the coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the principle of a secular state, enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution, has undergone a fundamental revision: now religious topics are heard in official speeches, are widely reflected in the media. State television hosts wear Orthodox crosses and Muslim hijabs, which was unusual just a few years ago. Abiy said his government «continues on its path of reform», one of which was recognizing the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and allowing Islamic banks to open. Religion is present everywhere. Abiy Ahmed has allowed religion to enter the public political discourse.

If we evaluate Ethiopian politics since 2018, we can see that the political governance of religions has never been fully equal even with the legal framework separating church and state. Instead, the political system has «worked» to mobilize and control religious pluralism in the country and individual religious groups.

Against this background of historical processes and historiographical claims, localized clashes on religious grounds occur. They follow their own dynamics of «boundary demarcation» — secular and religious. Previously, Ethiopia was considered almost a benchmark of harmonious inter-religious relations, where Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully for centuries. But in 2022, already more than 30 people have been killed in attacks on Muslims in the northwestern part of the country.

Such «developments» have affected the local media as well. A new media ordinance passed in 2021 allows religious organizations to apply for broadcasting licenses for the first time in the country’s history. By 2023, 40 to 50 religious organizations had received such a license. At the same time, religious issues began to transform into a «conflict topic» in the media. Events such as the quarrel at the Ethiopian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in 2021, the dispute over the ownership and use of Meskel Square in Addis Ababa in 2020–2022, the assassination of religious leaders and followers of Christianity and Islam in many parts of the country, arson attacks on churches and mosques, and an attempted split within the Orthodox Church in 2023, have reached the national level of discussion. And these are just some of the significant issues that could eventually trigger religious conflict.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seems to have opened Pandora’s box. Probably, an attempted church split in February 2023, when local priests in the Oromia region formed an alternative synod in support of «the nation and the Oromi people» was a green light for him.

At the time, the prime minister’s statements angered the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Holy Synod demanded that he recant, not interfere in the affairs of the church or exceed his authority.

It is now clear that Ethiopia is a rather fragile federation that could have disintegrated over the past centuries due to various separatist outbursts. However, the church has been bringing the people closer together. What happens next is not a matter of a few years.

But it is important to remember that playing with religion, especially in Africa, is a dangerous thing.