Christianity and Islam have coexisted in Ethiopia since the celebrated first migration in the formative period of Islam fourteen-hundred years ago. Ethiopia has overcome many attempts in the past to overthrow this coexistence, but modern Ethiopia remains a nation which prides itself on a tradition of religious tolerance between its populations of Christian, Muslim and Jewish citizens. This delicate balance however, is facing a threat by interference from outside interests attempting to establish control in the Horn of Africa. These outsiders are using religious non-governmental organizations such as evangelical Christian missionaries and Wahabist Muslim dawahs to influence the population against the traditional ruling Coptic Church.
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Heritage of Christianity in Ethiopia
The Judeo-Christian history of Ethiopia goes back to the time of Israel’s King Solomon in the tenth century BCE. The Holy Bible (First Kings) records that the Queen of Sheba (modern Ethiopia), visited King Solomon. The Ethiopian epic Kebra Nagast records that she bore a son by Solomon, Menelik, who is said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. This was the beginning of the Solomonid Dynasty of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Tewahedo Church (hereafter referred to as the Coptic Church) claims the Ark still resides in the Chapel of the Tablet in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in the town of Axum, Ethiopia (Raffaele, 2007).
Axum is also the name of the first Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, which was the first of any world nation to adopt Christianity as the official state religion. The Coptics relate that Christianity was first brought to Ethiopia by an Ethiopian royal official who was converted by Phillip the Evangelist, one of the first seven deacons of Christianity. In the fourth century, the Pope of the Coptic Church in Alexandria appointed Frumentius as the first Archbishop of Axum and Axum became officially a Christian nation. It should be noted that before this time the Coptic Church based in Alexandria (also known as the Oriental Orthodox) had already split off from what would become the Catholic churches and the Eastern Orthodox churches. This split was due to difference in opinion on the nature of the Christ (Gascoigne, From 2001, ongoing). This difference of opinion continues to alienate the Coptics from the rest of Christianity to this day, as will be seen.
Muslim Heritage in Ethiopia
In the year 613, the Companions and Family of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) were being persecuted by the Qurayshi clan in Mecca. One of the leading Companions was an Ethiopian slave. The Ethiopian king at this time was known to be a just leader and the Prophet was convinced that his followers would be safest in a Christian country where the people followed the scriptures of the Book rather than among the pagan tribes of Arabia. The Prophet ordered his Companions to migrate (hijra) to Ethiopia for their safety. During the six years the Companions stayed in Ethiopia, many Ethiopians converted to the new religion of Islam. In the sixth year of the first hijirat, a nephew of the Prophet, Amir ibn Umayya visited Ethiopia with an invitation to Negus, the king of Ethiopia to accept Islam. Amir was warmly received by Negus, who against the will of the rest of the royal family and the Coptic Church, converted to Islam. The royal family revolted against Negus and when Negus died, the Prophet offered the first ever in-absentia funeral prayer (Salatul Ghaib) in his honor (Mohammed, 2012).
Islam had established itself in Ethiopia, but Ethiopia would remain officially a Christian nation. The Solomonid Dynasty would continue to reign until the Marxist revolution of 1974 and the royal position was that there were no Muslim Ethiopians. The position of the royal family was that Muslim Ethiopians were foreigners living in the country (The First Hijrah Foundation (FHF), 2012). This “foreigner” label on Muslim Ethiopians is in part strengthened by ethnic and racial divisions within Ethiopia.
Racial and Ethnic Federalism
Ethiopia is currently divided into ethnically-based autonomous federal regions. For example, the Somali ethnic region is the most populous and takes up roughly the eastern third of the country with its population 97% ethnically Somali. The Somali people are a Cushitic (black African) ethnic group and predominately Muslim (98%). The next most populous region is Oromo. The Oromo are also a Cushitic ethnic group whose population is religiously divided between predominately Muslim in the eastern portion of the region and evangelical protestant (referred to as Penty) Christian in the west. The Amhara ethnic group is Semitic (like the Hebrew and Arabs) and lives in the highland region of Amhara (Population Census Commission, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 2008). The royal family of Ethiopia was of Amharic ethnicity and this ethnic group still maintains dominance in the Ethiopian federal government. The Amharic people are predominately Coptic and the Coptic Church in Ethiopia is primarily led by Amharics. This historical dominance of the Amharic people over the other ethnicities of the region has been the cause for some of the conflict in the region that to outsiders may appear to be simply religiously based.
Past Religious Conflicts
With the emergence and rapid growth of Islam in the sixth century, Ethiopia quickly became an isolated “Island of Christendom in a Sea of Islam” (Gascoigne, From 2001, ongoing). Although geographically isolated, Ethiopia maintained strong ties to the rest of Christendom. The Ethiopian Patriarch has always been appointed by the Oriental Orthodox Pope in Alexandria and monks from the Ethiopian Coptic Church maintain the unique right of being co-custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. By the end of the thirteenth century, Ethiopia was the only non-Muslim state in northern Africa.
During the fifteenth century, Ethiopian monks from Jerusalem attempted to attend the Council of Florence to discuss the re-unification of the Christian Churches. They were denied entry to the council by both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches because of the theological differences which had caused them to split off originally. The presence of the Ethiopian monks at Florence did, however, serve to attract the attention of Rome resulting in a Jesuit mission being sent to Ethiopia. This Jesuit presence would last nearly two hundred years and ultimately result in the Ethiopian king, Susenyos, renouncing the Coptic faith as heresy and adopting the Roman Catholic faith. After the departure of the Jesuits, Susenyos succumbed to pressure and reverted back to the Coptic faith.
During the sixteenth century when the Jesuit presence was at its strongest, Ethiopia was also facing jihads from the Muslims. The first jihad was from the Sultan Grañ (aka Ahmad ibn Ibrahim) who had based his sultanate in Harar. His decision to declare holy war on Ethiopia was due in part to marginalization and discrimination against the Muslims influenced in part by the Jesuit missionaries. Grañ moved an army of Somalis west and destroyed a great many of the Christian shrines and holy places (Gascoigne, From 2001, ongoing).
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Ethiopia fought to maintain its independence from the colonial powers of Portugal and Italy. The Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, led in the formation of the League of Nations and the Organization of African Unity. After the second world war, Ethiopia – backed by the United States, who was looking for a possible Red Sea port – annexed Eritrea. Eritrean opinion was divided on this between Christians who were pro-unification and Muslims who were for Eritrean independence. This led to nearly 40 years of conflict. As part of the larger global cold war, a Marxist element emerged in Eritrea. This Marxist element eventually performed a military coup against the royal family, deposing Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. A period of instability prevailed until 1991 when the current constitution was affirmed and Eritrea was granted independence in 1993.
From 1991 until 2012, Ethiopia was
under the control of the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Occasional wars continued to break out along Ethiopia’s borders and the conflicts would spill over into the neighboring countries of Somalia and Sudan. Meles supported, and was supported by, the Coptics and the Amharic population. Although no longer in power by law, the Coptics and the Amharic peoples still hold much influence. Meles support of the Coptics and marginalization of the Muslims and Penties is part of the cause of recent violence in the country (Heinlein, 2012).
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On the second of March, 2011 in Asendabo, a Penty allegedly desecrated the Koran. It was believed by the Ethiopian Government that the Kawarja Muslim sect used this alleged act to incite a riot that resulted in up to 10,000 Christians fleeing the area. Approximately fifty churches and many Christian homes were burned to the ground. This was the largest in a series of Muslim attacks against Christians, especially Penties in Muslim dominated regions. In November of 2010, Christian residents of Besheno found warnings nailed to their doors to convert, leave the city, or be killed. On the twenty-sixth of February, 2011, a Muslim mob attacked seventeed Penty college students with rods and sticks for attempting to distribute Bibles in a Muslim village (Macedo, 2011). Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Ethiopian constitution, each autonomous region may interpret that freedom in its own way.
In November of 2011, the Ethiopian Government identified the Kawarja sect with Al-Qaeda and expressed concern over a growing force of Wahhabi Muslims promoting violence against moderate Muslims and Christians with the aim of making Ethiopia an Islamic country governed by Sharia law. Wahabist teachings would upset the balance between Christians and Muslims and challenge United States interests in the region as well. The Ethiopian Government responded by backing a competing Muslim sect, Al-Ahbash. Al-Ahbash was founded by an Ethiopian and is very anti-Wahabi/Salafi in its beliefs, going so far as to declare takfir against them (declaring the Wahabi/Salafi as heretics). The Ethiopian Government appointed an Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (IASC) that was Ahbash heavy with no representatives from the Wahabi or Salafi sects. This council seeks to create Ahabash based Islamic schools in Ethiopia so that Ethiopians will not have to go to Arabic countries to learn to become Imams (Fentaw, 2012).
With the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August of 2012, some Ethiopian Christians and Muslims are hoping for unity in the future. Ethiopian college students of both Christian and Muslim faiths joined together to found the group “Concerned Ethiopian Students” to work toward peace. When Egypt and Libya saw riots in September of 2012 because of the film “Innocence of Muslims” produced by Coptic Christians living in the United States, Coptic leaders were quick to denounce the film. On the fifth of November, 2012, the new Pope of the Oriental Orthodox Communion was elected and took his place ruling the Coptic Church in Alexandria. The next day he issued a statement stating that the Coptic Church has no political role, but that he fears Sharia law will threaten the religious freedom and safety of the Christian community (Schiava, 2012). On the seventh of November, 2012, the Ethiopian Government announced the newly elected members of the IASC. The government hopes the IASC can bring peace within the Muslim community (VanDerWolf, 2012). Muslims, especially Wahabis, had been protesting the elections for months. The Wahabis had requested the elections be held in mosques instead of public meeting halls. The Wahabi fear is that the elections were influenced by the government which they say is trying to ban the Wahabi sect and promote Ahbash (Heinlein, 2012). More than one hundred Muslims are being held on terrorism charges for the protests (VanDerWolf, 2012).
The Way Ahead for United States Interests
The United States’ involvement in the Horn of Africa, particularly Ethiopia sits in the same delicate situation as the Coptic Church. With the United States alliance with the Amharic ruling parties of Ethiopia, any move by the government against Islam or any sect of Islam, such as Wahabi, is seen by the radical Muslims as an act backed by or even directed by the United States and Israel (The First Hijrah Foundation (FHF), 2012). The evangelism of the Penty churches into Muslim and Coptic areas is seen by some as interference from the United States, though through such entities as the Ku Klux Klan (comment to (CBS News, 2012). While this may seem ridiculous, it conveys the fear that is bred in the minds of some Ethiopian Muslims.
The Ethiopian Coptics may be facing the greatest struggle in their nearly two-thousand year history. If an Islamist faction gains control of the nation, many will flee the country much as most Christians have fled from Iraq and most recently Egypt. Any move by the United States government or American based organizations to aid the Christians in Ethiopia will only strengthen the resolve of the Islamist sects to eliminate the Christian powerbase. Perhaps they may find peace in true democracy in the post-Zenawi era.