The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent nation, and one of its poorest – many Ethiopians depend on food aid from abroad, and two-thirds are illiterate. The economy depends on agriculture (coffee is the main export) but the frequency of droughts is increasing.
Ethiopia was never colonised, apart from Mussolini’s occupation 1939-41. British troops helped to oust the Italians in 1941 and put Emperor Haile Selassie back on his throne. In 1974, a Marxist junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Haile Selassie. Thousands were killed, property was confiscated and defence spending soared.
Drought, famine and war brought millions to the brink of starvation in the 1970s and 1980s, and contributed to the collapse of Mengistu’s regime in 1991. Conditions then stabilised.
Two major economic drains have been Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea (1998-2000) and military engagement in Somalia. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, but tens of thousands were killed in the war that followed. A fragile truce now holds.
In 2006, Ethiopia sent up to 10,000 troops into Somalia to support the forces of its transitional government, helping to oust the Islamists in control of the south. However, the Ethiopians were unable to break the power of the Islamists, who gradually began to win back lost territory, and in 2009 Ethiopia pulled out under an agreement between the transitional Somali government and moderate Islamists.
About 34% of Ethiopians are Muslims but the majority are Christians – mostly Ethiopian Orthodox (40%) and evangelical/Pentecostal (18%). The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) was the state church from 1270 until 1974, when the Marxist junta overthrew the Emperor.
The Marxist regime persecuted all perceived opponents including Christians, especially evangelicals: many were martyred and churches were destroyed. However, many people became Christians during that period (in 1974, evangelicals numbered only 5%). This growth was despite the fact that young people who join evangelical or Pentecostal churches are often rejected by their families and forced to leave home.
The overthrow of the junta in 1991 led to stability, and freedom for Christians. The constitution protects freedom of religion, but the government restricts this freedom, fearing that religious groups could bring about a regime change. Legislation limits the activities in which religious groups can engage, and non-EOC churches must register with the government. Also, the EOC has caused problems for members joining renewal movements or leaving for other denominations.
The rise of Islamic extremism means that attacks on the church are common in predominantly Muslim areas, especially the west, where Christians are often subject to harassment and intimidation. Pastors and evangelists often face violent attack and evangelical meetings are sometimes broken up by mobs that beat and occasionally kill those gathered. Thousands of Christians have fled the west.
In March 2011 at least one Christian (thought to be a member of the Orthodox Church) was killed and many were injured in Islamist attacks in a predominantly Muslim region about 300 km southwest of Addis Ababa. Enormous mobs rampaged throughout the area after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran. Thousands of extremists set fire to 69 churches, a Bible school and a Christian orphanage and burned down the homes of 30 Christian leaders. At least 7,000 Christians fled. The cost of the attack was estimated at over ‚€2.5million.
Sources: BBC, Church in Chains Global Guide, Open Doors, Operation World, World Watch List
At least one Christian has been killed and many injured in Islamist attacks in southwestern Ethiopia.
Thousands of extremists set fire to 69 churches, a Bible school and a Christian orphanage and burned down the homes of 30 Christian leaders. At least 7,000 Christians have fled and are in shelters. The Christian who was killed is believed to have been a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.