Religion in Eritrea

Religion in Eritrea mainly consists of Abrahamic faiths. Since May 2002, the Eritrean government has officially recognized the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, and Sunni Islam. All other faiths and denominations are in principle required to undergo a registration process; in practice they are not allowed to register.[1] Among other things, the government's registration system requires religious groups to submit personal information on their membership to be allowed to worship.[1]

There are two major religions in Eritrea, Christianity and Islam. However, the number of adherents is subject to debate. In 2010, the United States Department of State (USDoS) estimated that 50% of the population was Christian and around 48% was Muslim.[2] According to the ACS-Italia, around 49.6% of Eritrea's population in 2017 adhered to Islam, and 48.4% followed Christianity.[3] The remaining 2% of residents practiced other religions, including traditional faiths and animism.[4].

All communities in Eritrea are deeply religious and have coexisted peacefully and in harmony alongside each other for centuries. This is why there is a noticeable lack of religious extremism. The country straddles a region grappling with considerable fundamentalist and extremist tendencies. Furthermore, the State of Eritrea is a secular state. As such, there is no state religion; the State does not proscribe or support one faith over others; and all religions are equally treated and operate independently from the State. The GOE has from the outset officially sanctioned and provided protocol status recognition to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, the Eritrean Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Islam. Since 2002, all other faiths and denominations are required by law to undergo registration process. The Pentecostal groups did not comply with the registrations requirements, while other Protestant denominations such as Presbyterians still officially maintain their offices with pending approval. Generally, the government discourages proliferation of new religious groups.

The Kingdom of Aksum, covering much of modern-day Eritrea and the Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia, arose somewhere around the first or second centuries.[5][6] The Aksumites erected a number of large stelae, which served a religious purpose in pre-Christian times.[7] Over 200 years after the kingdom's formation, it adopted Christianity under King Ezana.[8] Eritrea was also one of the first Islamic settlements in Africa, as a group of Muslims facing persecution in Mecca migrated to the Kingdom of Aksum.

Faiths and denominations

The denominations of the religions in Eritrea also differ from source to source.

For Christianity the Pew Research Center indictes that, of the Eritrean population, 57.7% are Orthodox Christians, 4.6% are Roman Catholic, 0.7% are Protestants and less than 0.5% are other Christians.[9] Eritrea: Religious Distribution gives 58% Orthodox, 5% Roman Catholic, less than 1% Protestant.[10] The Department of State says that 30% are Orthodox, 13% Roman Catholic and others, which includes "Protestants, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Buddhist, Hindus, and Baha'is", at less than 5%.[2][11]

The United States Department of State indicates that 50% of the population are Sunni Muslims but gives no figures for Shias,[2] while a 2009 Pew Research Center report says that less than 1% are Shia.[12]

Around 0.9% of local residents follow traditional religions or other faiths. Atheism is low, while participation in religion is high among all ethnicities.[11]

All religious groups other than the four officially recognised faiths—the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Islam, and the Roman Catholic Church—must be registered with the government of Eritrea. The government has refused to register any religious group despite some of them meeting the requirements.[11]

Region[10] Population Christians Muslims Other
Maekel Region, ዞባ ማእከል 1,053,254 94% 5% 1%
Debub Region, ዞባ ደቡብ 1,476,765 89% 11% <1%
Gash-Barka Region, ዞባ ጋሽ ባርካ 1,103,742 36% 63% 1%
Anseba Region, ዞባ ዓንሰባ 893,587 39% 61% <1%
Northern Red Sea Region,
Semienawi Keyih Bahri ዞባ ሰሜናዊ ቀይሕ ባሕሪ
897,454 12% 87% <1%
Southern Red Sea Region,
Debubawi Keyih Bahri ዞባ ደቡባዊ ቀይሕ ባሕሪ
398,073 37% 62% <1%

Abrahamic religions

Judaism is thought to have existed as an important religion in Eritrea and Ethiopia before Christianity became the official religion of the Kingdom of Aksum (today's Ethiopia and Eritrea) in the early 4th century AD. Islam spread to Ethiopia and Eritrea around 615 AD with the arrival of Uthman ibn Affan, one of the Sahabah (companions) of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Uthman had been driven out of Saudi Arabia and found shelter at Axum in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia under the protection of the Axumite king, Aṣḥama ibn Abjar.

Another great power came in the person of the Imam of Harar in Ethiopia, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, also known as Ahmad Gurey or Gragn. Al-Ghazi led Muslim forces consisting of Somali, Harari, Oromo, Afar, Saho, Argobba, Hadiya, Silte and Gurage soldiers from present-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. In 1530 he began to attack the plateau. Within four years he laid waste to the majority of the Christian highlands, including the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and Eritrea. He converted hundreds of thousands of Christians to Islam by force. Only by surrender and conversion could people save their lives. Only the intervention of the Portuguese transformed the flow of events. They landed at Massawa in 1541 and helped the Eritreans and Ethiopians to drive the Imams forces from the plateau. The Muslim forces dispersed, retreated and disappeared.

Catholicism was first brought to Eritrea by the Jesuits in 1600. In 1632, this order was expelled from Eritrea for wanting to convert the country (an Orthodox country) to Catholicism. In the 19th century the Italians began to bring Eritrea under their sphere of influence and introduced Roman Catholicism again. The Protestant presence in Eritrea is small. Missionaries appeared in the 19th century and established the Lutheran and Evangelical churches. These organizations have been allowed to continue to practice. New groups however, have been discouraged from establishing a base in Eritrea.


Christianity is the religion of about 50% to of the population of Eritrea.[2][9][10] While elsewhere on the continent, Christianity in Africa was primarily introduced by European missionaries, this was not the case with the Tigray-Tigrinya people of Eritrea and Tigray Region in neighbouring Ethiopia (or with the Amhara people of Ethiopia). The ancient empire of the Kingdom of Aksum centered in north Tigray and the central highlands of Eritrea had intimate connections with the Mediterranean world in which Christianity grew. Christianity arrived in the Eritrean and Tigrayan area in the 4th century, growing dynamically in the pre-existing Jewish/Animistic mixed environment. The Tigrayan-Tigrinyas thus converted to Christianity centuries before most of Europe, thereby establishing one of the oldest state churches in the world. The Eritrean Orthodox have their origins in the 4th century Coptic mission of Syrian Frumentius in East Africa, when the first Archbishop was elected for the Aksumite Empire, under Ezana of Axum (r. 320-360). Among ecclesiastical buildings, most notable date from the 6th to the 14th centuries; for example Libanos, Bizen and Sina.

Location and ethnicity

The majority of Christians are found in the Eritrean Highlands found in southern, central and parts of northern Eritrea. A majority of the Tigrinya who constitute almost 60% of the population are Christian. The majority of the Kunama are Catholic, with a small minority of Muslims and some who practice traditional indigenous religions. Approximately 40% of the Bilen are Christian, the majority being Catholic.[11]

Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church

According to some sources, Orthodox Christians make up 57.7% of the population. A majority of the Christian population of Eritrea belongs to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which used to belong to the formerly Coptic Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The Eritrean Church was recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria following independence in 1993, and in 1994 the two neighbouring churches affirmed their respective status.[13] In April 1998 the former Archbishop Abune Phillipos of Asmara was elevated to the rank of Patriarch. He died in 2004 and was succeeded by Abune Yacob. The reign of Abune Yacob as Patriarch of Eritrea was very brief as he died not long after his enthronement, and he was succeeded by Abune Antonios as 3rd Patriarch of Eritrea. Abune Antonios was elected on 5 March 2004, and enthroned as the third Patriarch of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Eritrea on 24 April 2004. Pope Shenouda III presided at the ceremony in Asmara, together with the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and a Coptic Orthodox Church delegation. He was later formally deposed by the government. However many believe that Abune Antonios was wrongly deposed and still consider him Patriarch. Many Eritrean Orthodox followers disagree with the Eritrean government making decisions in religious matters.


Catholics make up 4.6% of the Eritrean population.[2][9][10] The Eritrean Catholic Church and Roman Catholic Church has dioceses of Asmara, Keren and Barentu. Catholics in Eritrea mainly follow the Ge'ez variant of the Alexandrian Rite, but the Roman Rite is also used. There are four territorial jurisdictions in the country known as eparchies. Before the era of Italian Eritrea, Roman Catholicism was already introduced into the country by Saint Justin de Jacobis and the Vincentian Fathers. Today the church is a distinctly Eritrean church, using the Ge'ez language in the liturgy, although Mass (liturgy) Masses continue to be celebrated also in Italian and Latin for the small Italian and Italo-Eritrean community, mainly in Asmara. When Eritrea was an Italian colony, all the colonists and the Italian military were of the Latin Church: in 1940 they constituted 11% of the total population. The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary was their main church. So, in the early 1940s Catholicism was the religion of nearly 28% of people in the colony of Italian Eritrea.[14]


Protestants, sometimes known by the slang name P'ent'ay, in Eritrea make up between less than 1% to 5% of the Christians.[2][9][10] A minor church is the Kale Hiywot Church of Eritrea. Protestant denominations include Christian Brethren, Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. In 1926, Swedish missionaries founded the Evangelical/Lutheran Church of Eritrea. However there was tension between the Catholic Church as the Roman Catholic Italians resisted and discouraged the spread of Protestantism in their colony and even lay prohibitions and numerous constraints on the activities of the Swedish missionaries. The Lutheran Church of Eritrea and its Swedish and Eritrean missionaries were the ones who translated the Bible from Ge'ez language only understood by higher clergymen, into the Tigrinya language and other local languages and their main goal was to reach and "enlighten" as many people as possible in the world through education.


Islam accounts for approximately 50% of the population.[2][15][16] More than 99% of Eritrean Muslims practice Sunni Islam.[12]

Islam first arrived in the region when immigrants from Mecca, persecuted by the ruling Quraysh tribe were accepted into the Aksumite Empire by whom Arabic tradition has named Aṣḥama ibn Abjar, and he settled them in Negash, located in what is today the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. Prophet Muhammad himself instructed his followers who came to Aksum, to respect and protect Aksum as well as live in peace with Aksumite Christians. In the late 11th century, a Muslim sultanate was founded in Dahlak. Islam later spread in Eritrea under the Ottoman Empire when ethnic groups like the Tigre people in mainland Eritrea began converting to Islam. In the late 19th century, during the reign of Emperor Yohannes IV, who was a devoutly Christian Tigrayan, Muslim Tigrayans were forcibly expelled from their homes and found refuge in the nearby northern areas in what is now Eritrea, out of reach of royal Ethiopian authority.

Location and ethnicity

The majority of Muslims in Eritrea inhabit the eastern, coastal lowlands as well as the western lowlands near the border with Sudan. Most belong to various Afro-Asiatic communities, especially the Tigre, Saho, Afar, Rashaida, Beja and Bilen ethnic groups.[11] About 5% of the Tigrinya are also Muslims; they are known as the Jeberti, though they claim a different ethnic background from the Biher-Tigrinya; the Rashaida are an Arab tribe who migrated from Yemen.

Additionally, many of the Nilo-Saharan-speaking Nara ethnic minorities also adhere to Islam, as do some of the Kunama Nilotes.


It is believed that before Christianity became the official religion of Abyssinia (ancient Eritrea and northern Ethiopia) in the 4th century, Judaism had a heavy presence in Eritrea. Those who refused to embrace the new religion were compelled to seek refuge in the mountains of southern Ethiopia. This explains the concentration of Jews known as Beta Israel or Falasha in Gondar, Ethiopia and southern Tigray. However, there was not much oppression against ethnic Jews.

The present Eritrean Jewish community is believed to be started by Yemenite Jews from Yemen attracted by new commercial opportunities driven by Italian colonial expansion in the late 19th Century. The Jewish population then later increased from European refugees coming to Eritrea to escape the anti-Semitic regimes in Europe at the time. Many returned to Israel in 1948. During British administration, Eritrea was often used as a location of exile for Irgun and Lehi guerrillas. Among those imprisoned was future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and Haim Corfu, a founder of Beitar Jerusalem. In 1961 the Eritrean War of Independence began after Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia. It was then that Jews began to leave Eritrea. In the early 1970s, Jewish emigration increased because of ensuing violence between Eritrea and Ethiopia (up to and beyond Eritrea's official declaration of independence in 1993). Judaism is not one of the four religions recognized by the Eritrean government and indeed, as of 2006 there was only one last native Jew left in Eritrea - Sami Cohen, who tends to the Asmara Synagogue and cemetery.[17]

Religious affiliation by geography and by ethnic group

The highland region is predominantly Christian while Muslims predominate in the east and west lowlands.[11]

Among the ethnic groups of Eritrea the Tigrinya are mainly Orthodox Christian and Catholic and an exception to this is the Jeberti people (Djiberti Tigrinya) who are Muslim .[11] More than 50% of the Kunama people are Catholic, with a sizable minority of Muslims and some who practice traditional religions.[11] Approximately 40% of the Bilen people are Christian, the majority being Catholic, but most are Muslim.[11] Along with the Bilen, most members of the Tigre, Saho, Nara, Afar, Rashaida and Beja ethnic groups are Muslim.[11]

The Christian Tigrinyas along with some Muslim Djiberti Tigrinya and Saho live in the central and southern highlands.[11] The eastern lowlands are inhabited by the Afar, the Rashaida along with some of the Saho and Tigre.[11] The border formed between the western lowlands and the central highlands are the home to the Bilen who are concentrated in the Keren area. The area is also home to a large minority of Tigre and Tigrinya.[11] The western lowlands are home to the Beja, Kunama, Nara and the majority of Tigre.[11]

Ethnic Group Main Regions Population Percentage of total population Christians Muslims Other
Tigrigna Maekel Region, Debub Region 3,319,680 57% 91% 8% 1%
Tigre Gash-Barka Region, Anseba Region 1,630,720 28% 6% 90% 4%
Saho Northern Red Sea Region, Debub Region 232,960 4% 7% 93% <0.1%
Kunama Gash-Barka Region 174,720 3% 41% 23% 36%
Afar Southern Red Sea Region 174,720 3% 2% 98% <0.1%
Bilen Anseba Region 116,480 2% 48% 47% 5%
Nara Gash-Barka Region 58,240 1% 14% 85% 1%
Beja Gash-Barka Region, Anseba Region 58,240 1% 1% 98% 1%
Rashaida Northern Red Sea Region 58.240 1% <0.1% 99% <0.1%

The Eritrean constitution provides for the freedom of thought, conscience, and belief; and guarantees the right to practice and manifest any religion . The constitution has not been implemented since its ratification in 1997. Since the constitution has not been implemented, the Proclamation to legally standardize and articulate religious institutions and activities is provided in Proclamation No. 73/1995 of 1995. Although Proclamation No. 73/1995 clearly enshrines the strict principle of secularism, it also states that that every Eritrean national's right of freedom of thought, conscience and belief is guaranteed and respected by the law.

However, Proclamation No. 73/1995 also defines that: 1) religious activities are not spread with seduction but with understanding and belief (thus explaining the hostile stance toward new religious movement and evangelical Christian group proselytism); and that 2) religious activities are carried out in accordance with and respects the law of the nation and particularly preserves the peace, stability, and unity of the people and the country.

Moreover, the Proclamation is also clear on the fact that (due to the secular principles) the relation as between the government and religion and religious institutions, as well as policies that deal with religious institutions should be formulated in accordance with the law. Pursuant to this Proclamation there is the establishment of the Department of Religious Affairs within the Ministry of Internal Affairs. This is tasked with regulating religious activities and institutions. The Proclamation emphasizes that religions and religious institutions must not engage in political activities or comment on political issues which would hamper the secular character of the State.. The decree additionally prohibits religious groups from initiating or offering social services based on sectarian parameters.

The Proclamation requires religious groups to register with the government or cease activities. Members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law are subject to penalties under the provisional penal code. The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official recognition.

Religious groups must renew their registration every year. In 2002, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation) were required to submit registration applications and cease religious activities and services until applications were approved.

Treatment of unregistered religious groups

On October 25 1994, the Government revoked the business licenses of Jehovah’s Witnesses due to their refusal to recognize “the temporal government” and take part in the referendum on independence. Jehovah Witnesses have also refused to participate in national service. Political neutrality and conscientious objection to military service are key aspects of faith for Jehovah’s Witnesses. While national service in Eritrea does include a civil component, all Eritreans are required to undertake military training and Eritreans cannot generally choose which type of service they will perform. Since the decree was issued, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been barred from obtaining government-issued identity and travel documents (required for legal recognition of marriages or land purchases); or obtaining government jobs; as well as securing business licenses.[18]


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