Psalm 68, written for King David around 1000 BC (BCE), says that "Ethiopia shall reach out her hand unto God." 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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.