Widely celebrated for its coffee and long-distance runners, but notorious for its extreme poverty, Ethiopia is the only sub-Saharan nation with a Christian culture dating to the earliest days of the church ”“ a little known fact that it shares with Eritrea, its former province and northern neighbor. About 50 percent of Ethiopia’s estimated 77 million people belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a dominant force that, with Ethiopia’s monarchy, had defined this ancient land and its people for more than 16 centuries.
But the entrenched church is losing ground to a burgeoning Sunni Muslim population in the country’s south and southwest ”“ who now account for almost half of the nation’s people ”“ and to successful proselytizing efforts among the Orthodox by evangelical Christians from the West.
Some 500 years ago Ethiopia’s distinctive Orthodox Christian community faced the Counter Reformation zeal of the Jesuits, who worked to restore full communion between the Roman Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The Jesuits failed and Ethiopia slipped into civil war. Once the dust settled, hundreds of Catholic missionaries were expelled or put to death. Europeans were forbidden to enter this “African Zion,” which, more than any other factor, preserved Ethiopia’s independence during Europe’s empire-building land grab centuries later.