Some curious dynamics of Christianity in Ethiopia today

When Christian missionaries were kicked out of Ethiopia by communists in the mid-1970s, they left behind a fledgling church in the poor south of the country. When they returned twenty years later, they were shocked to discover it had multiplied tenfold. Now, what is going on? Hasn’t Ethiopia been famously a Christian country since the fourth century? Well, only sort of. The ancient kingdom of Axum in the north converted to Christianity very early on, but the south Oromo regions were a completely different race and culture. Even when they were later brought into the empire and saw themselves as Ethiopians, Orthodox missionaries made only nominal inroads into the various villages. The poor rural people didn’t want to have anything to do with the religion of the elite, rich, and oppressive northerners. It was, unfortunately, a great stumbling block.

When protestant missionaries finally showed up in the late 1800s though, they were seen, as they are nearly everywhere, as outsiders. BUT, apparently being an outsider wasn’t as bad as being an oppressive elite. The reformation gospel began to take hold.

Fast-forward. When the communists initially took power, they tried to supress the national Orthodox church. But after a few years of that, they decided it was more useful to co-opt the church and manipulate it, using the strong cultural ties to the people as a way to defend against western democracies that sought to undermine the regime. During this time, protestant churches in the country (let entirely by natives) came under heavy attack. The pejorative name given to all of these Christian groups was “Pente”, short for Pentecostal, but used to describe all the different denominations, whether they were actually Pentecostals or not. To this day, this word and it’s negative associations have stuck, even though the communists were kicked out over 20 years ago. Their undermining of the word in this case had a lasting effect.

Poluha describes the situation in this passage:

In class I saw no aggressiveness and no derogatory remarks or religious insults were passed between Christains and Muslims. Both talked, however, of Pente in very negative terms. Poluha explains some of the situation here.

The children were unaware of [how the term ‘Pente’ was promoted by the communinists to demonize westerners] and did not make any distinction betwen various Protestant religions or between Protestantism and Catholicism. What was intersting was that even the Muslim children experienced the advanced of the ‘Pente’ as something negative. Both Orthodox and Muslim children saw their own religions as an integral part of Ethiopia and its history while ‘Pente’, which came from the USA was an alien religion and posed a threat to the children’s own Ethiopianness.

In their negative opinions of Pente both Coptic and Muslim children were thus remarkably united. This could make life difficult for any child adhering to a Protestant religion, as revealed to me by 11 year old Alemu, one of the boys in class. In an interview Alemu had told me about the religious situation in his home. Originally his father had been Orthodox Christian and his mother Muslim. Then both had become ‘Pente’. But in connection with the death of the mother’s mother, the mother had been conviced by relatives and a Muslim priest to return to Isla. This had happened some years previously. The father and the children tried to persuade her to come back to her Protestant religion but up to now she had refused. Alemu was categorized as Muslim by his classmates and his two closest friends were two young Muslim oys. One day, after I had started with my group interviews, Alemu found me alone in the compound and asked that I should not reveal to anyone in class what he had told me, namely that he was ‘Pente’. Since all his classmates though he was Muslim, he preferred it that way, he said. I promised him to keep silent.

-Eva Poluha, The Power of Continuity: Ethiopia through the eyes of its children, p.164

A brief side note: Notice how in the boy’s story, the persuasion of family members plays a much more explicit and prominent part in the mother’s religious affiliation. This sounds alien to us in the US where highly personal and individual thinking is considered to be the only thing that really matters. “Who cares what your parents think? Screw them.” But this is actually a very modern idea. I think we in the west say that if the mother is considering going back to Islam, than she can’t possibly have had a significant relationship or experience with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. That may indeed be the case, but let me tell you, it is not as simple as that. Life is hard and when your family strongly believes something else, the stress they can put on you can cause you to doubt what you believed before. It can confuse you and to ease the stress, you may go against what you know in your heart to be true – to make life easier in some other sense. We see this in the substantial accounts of crypto-Christian communities inside of Muslim regions today.

But back to what I was talking about before:

One potentially positive side-effect of all this is that it has given the long-standing Orthodox church in Ethiopia a close brother to be a rival with. Bear with me as I invoke Rene Girard’s insights. While the people on the fringes of society remained animist or moderately Muslim, the nations cultural Christianity became sleepy. But as many of the lower class began to accept Jesus as their king, though not the same church structure, the existing Christians felt an increased need to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. The growing influence of Protestant churches has spurred the Orthodox to get its act together in some cases. The result of the backlash has often been to bolster their own religious fervor, rather than start wars.

A major change in the Orthodox Church that I have been able to observe over the past 20 to 30 years has been a steady increase in the attempts of the Church to teach people about the Orthodox ideology and to involve the adherents more in the Church’s various activities. As a result of these internal missionary activities, probably combined with the political upheavals and insecurity in the country for the last three decades, many Orthodox Christians have become more conscious of their religion and more intellectually and emotionally involved in its future.


She goes on to describe how in the last 20 years fasting has become far more widespread and is now often observed by the many people – not just priests. Missionary fervor and discipleship was dramatically increased by the encroaching western Christianity. But both sides, despite their differences, have a high enough respect for each other and enough other unifying elements of culture that they ultimately try to get along and don’t kill each other. This is in contrast to the sectarian violence seen in Northern Ireland in the past century, or unofficially in Iraq today.

The people doing the most damage in the country today are the secularists – their pockets loaded with money from the Chinese and Saudis. These people may be nominally Orthodox still, but the promise of stacks of cash has eroded their deeper sense of brotherhood.