Ethiopia: Foreign Missions

Posted: March 6, 2008 in History
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Foreign Missions

In a 1944 decree, Haile Selassie forbade missionaries from attempting to convert Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and they had little success in proselytizing among Muslims. Most missionaries focused their activities on adherents of local religions–but still with only little success. In the 1960s, there were about 900 foreign missionaries in Ethiopia, but many were laypersons. This fact was consistent with the emphasis of many such missions on the education and vocational training of the people they sought to serve. One obstacle to the missions’ success in the rural areas may have been the imperial government’s insistence that Amharic be used as the medium of religious instruction except in the earliest stages of missionary activity. There was also some evidence that Ethiopian Orthodox priests residing outside the Amhara and Tigray heartland, as well as local administrators, were hostile to the missionaries.

In the late 1960s, there were 350,000 to 400,000 Protestants and Catholics in Ethiopia, roughly 1.5 percent of the population. About 36 percent of these were Catholics, divided among those adhering to the Ethiopian rite (about 60 percent) and those following the Latin rite. The three bishops were Ethiopians. Protestants were divided among a number of denominations. The largest, nearly equaling in number the size of the Catholic congregation, consisted of adherents to the Fellowship of Evangelical Believers, the Ethiopian branch of the Sudan Interior Mission. The next largest group, about half as large, was the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, an entity that was fostered jointly by Scandinavian, German, and American Lutheran groups. This group claimed 400,000 members in the late 1970s and had an Ethiopian head. Several other groups, including the Bethel Evangelical Church (sponsored by the American United Presbyterian Church) and the Seventh-Day Adventists, had between 5,000 and 15,000 members each.

Many missionaries and other observers claimed that the revolutionary regime opposed missions and harassed the clergy and communicants. Although the government denied these accusations, its approach to those accused of not accepting its authority suggests that the mission churches and the regime had not reached a modus vivendi.

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