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Christians in the Muslim World

Many Kings, Few Wars and a Long Co-existence

An 'Island of Christianity' and at the same time a museum of cultures and beliefs, Ethiopia (where today the majority of the population is Muslim) is a singular case in the historyof relations between the two great religions. A very ancient history that goes back, on the one hand, to the Acts of the Apostles and, on the other, to the first years of the preaching of Mohammed. But now obscured by some examples of tension.

It may sound somehow strange to talk about 'Mutual Respect and Peaceful Coexistence with Islam' at a time and within a society where the threat of suicide bombers seems to sow terror everywhere, day in and day out.


Talking to an ambassador of one country I once asked whether there were Ethiopians in his country. Without any hesitation, the ambassador gave me the exact statistics. There were over 200,000 Ethiopians, most of whom were Christians. My next question concerned places of worship. So I asked whether Christians would ever have the right to worship in their own churches. Then the answer came straight and clear to me: this will never happen. It is an Islamic country.


Still, there are examples of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity that may serve as models for today's society.


Ethiopia has something to offer along these lines. Carlo Conti Rossini, a well-known historian of the Horn of Africa, has defined Ethiopia as a museum of cultures and religious beliefs. Ethiopia is known also as the Island of Christianity in Africa and rightly so because whereas flourishing Christian communities in North Africa were wiped out by Islamic conquest in the seventh century, Ethiopia remained the only country in Africa to preserve the Christian faith and heritage. Still, Christianity's spirit of tolerance has left enough room for other religions. So much so that today Islam accounts for 55% of the total population of Ethiopia and up to recent times the spirit of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence among Christians and Muslims has been truly remarkable.



This is the experience I personally had recently when His Holiness Pope John Paul II, of Happy Memory, created the Eparchy of Emdibir in Guraghe from territories detached from the Archdiocese of Addis Ababa, on 25 November 2003. The new Eparchy extends 9,000 square kilometres and comprises the Wolisso Zone in the Oromia region and the Guraghe Zone in the southern region. Although the majority are Christians, of the 3,000,000 people estimated to live in the area some 35% are Muslims. Relations between Muslims and Christians in the Emdibir Eparchy, to say the least, have been cordial. The creation of a new Eparchy in the Wolisso and Guraghe zones was greeted with enthusiasm and expectations by both Christians and Muslims alike. The welcome I was given in Emdibir on 15 February 2004 when I first entered the Eparchy and the cooperation I am enjoying in the exercise of my ministry is a clear indication of the mutual respect and peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims.


It is certainly the case that Muslims and Christians have separate places of worship in Emdibir and each person is free to follow the dictates of his conscience as far as religious beliefs are concerned. At the same time, however, most social activities are done together. Muslims and Christians join together for marriage celebrations, funeral services, traditional court cases, peacemaking initiatives, relief operations and, at times, some religious celebrations such as the Mesqel (Triumph of the Cross) celebrations. There are instances where Christians and Muslims live in peace and harmony within the same compound and within the same family context.


The promotion of the Catholic faith in Emdibir is attributed to a Muslim convert who happened to meet Catholic missionaries and followed the dictates of his conscience. He became an apostle among his own people and for over twenty years he carried out apostolic work together with other catechists, without the assistance of resident priests. One of the catechists lived such an exemplary life that he was recognised as the Saint of Emdibir by Muslims and Christians alike.


Where does this spirit of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence come from?


Islam and Christianity are two major religions that are widespread throughout Ethiopia. They both entered the country soon after their early foundation. According to tradition, Christianity entered Ethiopia soon after the eunuch of the Queen of Candace, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 8, was baptised by the deacon Philip. From reliable historical sources reported by Rufinus (345-410), however, we know for certain that it was during the reign of King Ezana (c. 330) that Christianity became the official religion of Ethiopia after the apostolic work of two brothers from Tyre (Syria), Frumentius and Edesius, who happened to be in Ethiopia. Eventually, Frumentius became the first Bishop of Ethiopia and he was appointed and ordained by St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Soon afterwards, the nine Roman saints consolidated the Christian faith in Ethiopia, founded monastic life, and translated the Scriptures and several other religious texts into Ethiopian.


Islam, on the other hand, came to Ethiopia in order to flee the persecution mounted by the Quraysh in Mecca against the followers of Mohammed during the fifth year of his public preaching. In 615 A.D. the Prophet Mohammed told his followers 'if you go to Abyssinia you will find a king (nejashi) under whom none are persecuted. It is a land of righteousness where God will give you relief from what you are suffering.' In those days Aksum was one of the great powers of the known world and its dominion extended to South Arabia. King Kaleb, venerated as a saint both in the East and West, is said to have sent a military expedition to defend the cause of Christians persecuted in Yemen at the beginning of the sixth century. Prophet Mohammed must have been acquainted with Ethiopian culture and tradition when he urged his followers to take refuge in Ethiopia.


At any rate, when Islam came to Ethiopia the Christian faith was already well consolidated in the Kingdom of Aksum and it was with a spirit of great tolerance, respect and hospitality that Christian Ethiopia welcomed the followers of the Prophet Mohammed. When they eventually reached Ethiopia and were given fair treatment, Ethiopia was spared any Muslim jihad.



Friendly relations between Islam and Christianity continued for some time thereafter. At the same time, however, this opened up the path for the Muslim penetration of Ethiopia. At this early stage it did not have the same devastating effect as in North Africa because Christianity was deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture.


As time went on Muslim infiltration into Ethiopia through the Red Sea continued to increase. Axum lost its field of influence in the Red Sea and the surrounding areas. With the decline of Axum, and the uprising of some pagan ethnic groups, Ethiopia plunged into the darkest age of its history. Christianity suffered a set back at the persecution of a pagan Queen by the name of Gudit o Esatu, but only for a short time because with the rise of the Zague dynasty in the twelfth century normality returned. This had two effects. On the one hand, the inculturation of Christianity took definitive shape, and, on the other, it opened the door to the consolidation of Muslim sultanates in Ethiopia.


As the Ethiopian Church depended on Alexandria for bishops and religious directives, the isolation imposed on Ethiopia also became a pretext for concessions to the Ethiopian Muslim community.


When pilgrimages to the Holy Land became almost impossible for Ethiopian Christians because of Muslim isolationism, King Lalibela devised a way of reproducing the Holy Land within Ethiopia by inviting skilful and talented people to work on the eleven rock-hewn churches of Roha, later named


Lalibela. These churches today are one of the wonders of the world.


The restoration of the Salomonic Dynasty by Yekunoamlak in 1270 coincided with the renewal of monastic life in Ethiopia. The reform of monastic life was carried out by two charismatic leaders: Abune Ewostatewos in the North and Abune Teklehaimanot in the South. The well-known text of the Kibre Neghest that hails Ethiopian Kings as heirs of the throne of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba saw the light of day during this period. Church and State then joined forces to defend the cause of the Christian faith until Emperor Hailesellassie, the last king of the Salomonic dynasty, was overthrown by the Communists in 1974.


From the time of the restoration of the Salomonic dynasty onwards, every threat of aggression against the Christian faith in Ethiopia was reversed by military action. King Amdezion's military expedition against the neighbouring sultanates is well recorded in his own chronicles (1330). King Zer'a Yakob (1438-68) contributed greatly to the reform of the Church which had lasting effects to this today. He had several theological, disciplinary and devotional treatises to his credit and did everything possible to eradicate heretical movements.


There was a short period of time when Ethiopia seemed to have lost every hope of survival. During the first half of the sixteenth century Mohammed Gragn (the 'Left Handed'), devastated the whole country, destroyed churches, burned manuscripts and killed Christians. Ethiopia was on the brink of collapse when the Portuguese army came to the rescue of the Christian kingdom. With the Portuguese army some Jesuit missionaries also came to Ethiopia as chaplains and had a successful mission. Pedro Pais managed to persuade Emperor Susenios of Ethiopia to sign a decree of union with Rome. Unfortunately, the low respect Jesuit missionaries had for Ethiopian rites, culture and traditions provoked a strong reaction. As result of this, the Catholic faith was banned from Ethiopia for two hundred years. Several Franciscan missionaries paid with their own lives in an attempt to restore the Catholic faith in Ethiopia. Symptoms of the overreaction of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church against the Catholic Church are still felt to this day. Strange as it may sound, people are inclined to see Islam as a lesser evil.


Once the Muslim threat of the sixteenth century was over, Christian Ethiopia settled down to peaceful coexistence with Islam. During the era of colonisation Muslims found fertile ground for expansion and peaceful coexistence. Emperor Hailesellassie was head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church but he respected and gave ample freedom to the Muslim community. The Communist regime involuntarily encouraged a revival of faith amongst Muslims and Christians, and Muslims and Christians joined forces for relief work when guerrilla activities paralysed government movements, especially in the northern part of the country.


Today, with the separation of Church and State the proliferation of religious movements has increased considerably. In the meantime, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church and the Muslim community are working hard to reaffirm their own respective identities.


Although relations between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia are still good, there are symptoms of dissatisfaction on both sides. The Christian community feels somehow powerless in the face of the ever growing expansion of Islam while the Muslim community laments the injustice done to Islam by defining Ethiopia the Island of Christianity, thereby disregarding its own significant presence. Tensions have been building up during recent years between the two major religions represented in Ethiopia. The Mayor of Addis Ababa was removed from his office a few year ago because of charges that he created suitable conditions for Muslims to build over eighty places of worship. There have been instances of tensions and violent reactions on both sides in the capital and elsewhere in the country.


Despite all this, Ethiopia still has a great potential, which is deeply rooted in history, to build up a healthy society where all religions can live together side by side in harmony and peace. Mutual respect and peaceful coexistence is the only civilised way forward for the future.



There is no other man than man who acts in the world and in history. This reflection on the impact of Revelation on the concrete individual, on the individual that I am, begins from here. The experience of the 'dual unity' of the individual and the community.