Peace in 2015 – Tolerance and respect mark origins of Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia

The first Muslims came to Ethiopia for the protection of the Christian king (Aksumite title “Negus”) of Axum at the beginning of the 7th century. They were fleeing Mecca and persecution by the Quraysh tribe. In 615 AD, the Prophet Mohammed told a group of 70 converts to find safe haven in northern Ethiopia, Abyssinia, where they would “find a king there who does not wrong anyone.” It was the first hijra (migration) in Islam history.

The king may be King Sahama, known from coinage, or it may have been King Armah or his father or son. He is known as Ashama ibn Abjar in Arabic tradition, according to Wikipedia. He settled the exiles in Negash in the Tigray region and the Quraysh sent an emissary, Amr ibn al-Aas who was friend of Sahama, to bring them back.

Considered response based on study
According to another Wikipedia account: “Sahama did not act in a hurry but showed patience and demanded the holy scripture of Muslims to be read. At this, Ja`far ibn Abi Talib recited some verses from the Quran from the chapter of Maryam (Mary). According to Ibn Hisham, al-Najashi and the Ethiopian Orthodox priests in his court were greatly affected by the touching verses that they began to shed tears. And so, Sahama firmly denied Amr’s request to be handed the Muslim refugees.”

The account continues: “The very next day, Amr tried to play a trick, in order to sow dissension between Sahama and the Muslim refugees. Amr was greatly distressed, and promised Ja`far and other Muslims that he’s going to cause a great schism between them and King Sahama. Amr arrived the next day at the court of Sahama, and demanded in his presence that the Muslims make known their creed about Jesus. This was a difficult situation because Jesus is not considered as the son of God in the Qur’an, which was expected to greatly enrage a devout Christian like Emperor Sahama. To this, he explained that Jesus is considered in Islam to be a messenger of God, the word of God, and the miraculously born son of the Virgin Mary.”

According to the article: “In reply to this statement, King Sahama made a line on the sand with his mace and said, “By God, Jesus is not more than what you have described him. By God, I will never give you up to anyone.” He then declared that Muslims could live in Axum for as long as they wished for. According to Muslim tradition, it is during this situation that King Sahama converted to Islam.” Other traditions do not support this and say he is buried at Wukro.

Mosque in Negash (credit
Mosque in Negash (credit

Muslims respect Christians
The Prophet instructed his followers who came to the Axumite empire, to respect and protect Axum as well as live in peace with the native Christians. Even after the exiles returned to settle the city of Medina, north of Mecca, many remained on in Negash, as shown by a 7th-century cemetery excavated inside the boundaries of Negash.

According to the paper mentioned earlier and other accounts, the Prophet had instructed his followers: “Leave the Ethiopians alone as long as they leave you alone”. The earliest Ethiopian model for Muslims was the acceptance of a non-Islamic regime and living in peace under the Christian government, a model still respected by Muslims. They were also able to flourish. Harar in Eastern Ethiopia has 82 mosques, 3 of which date from the 10th century, as well as 102 shrines. It is a key centre of Islamic culture, learning and propagation and classed by UNESCO as the fourth holiest Muslim site. Trade routes were able to pass through the different religious areas.

The term “People of the Book” features in several religions, according to a Wikipedia article, but in the Qur’an “Ahl al-Kitāb” refers to followers of monotheistic Abrahamic religions that are older than Islam including Christians, all Children of Israel (including Jews, Karaites and Samaritans), Sabians and in some places Zoroastrians. They share many similar views

Does this tolerance exist today?
Ethiopia started in the Jewish tradition and converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD. The three religions grew side by side and existed in a tolerant atmosphere, according to one paper. Successive Ethiopian governments have continued tolerance and accommodation since those days. However, I have heard Ethiopians say that pressures from foreign fundamentalists on both sides are seeking to push the religions apart.

According to a facebook discussion by Abebe H Woin “Ahl al-Kitāb” refers to those who are possessors of divine books (i.e., the Torah, the Gospel, and the Avesta), as distinguished from those whose religions are not based on divine revelations. He argues: “We Ethiopians, Christians and Moslems need to understand and respect each other. Respect comes from knowledge. Ignorance leads to hatred, misunderstandings and worse. Tolerance is the result of knowing and not guessing.

“The Prophet Muhammad gave many privileges to Ahl al-Kitāb that are not to be extended to heathens. Ahl al-Kitāb are granted freedom of worship; thus, during the early Muslim conquests, Jews and Christians were not forced to convert to Islam and had only to pay a special tax (jizya) for their exemption from military service.

“Muslim authorities are responsible for the protection and well-being of Ahl al-Kitāb, for, according to a saying of the Prophet, “He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself [the Prophet] as his indicter on the Day of Judgment.” After Muhammad’s death, his successors sent strict instructions to their generals and provincial governors not to interfere with Ahl al-Kitāb in their worship and to treat them with full respect.”

Abebe asks: “Do you think this was respected in our history as well as exemption of Abyssinia from jihad by the prophet Mohammed? Are these concepts taught to Ethiopian Muslims in the Mosques and madrasahs?”

Congratulations to Autumn 2014 beginners’ students

Congratulations to the students who just finished the beginners’ course of Amharic lessons this Wednesday (17 Dec). We have had some great students of Amharic, who made a lot of progress and can now read and write feedels (Ge’ez letters used for Amharic language) and say a good range of sentences.
They have been working through their handouts well each week and they understand and can use different tenses and restructure words for negatives and other grammatical changes, under the expert guidance of our very professional tutor.
They have also learned some colloquial expressions and shared a few tips about Ethiopia for travel and living.
The course ended with handing out certificates. Comments included: “Very attentive, friendly and personalized teaching, lots of opportunity to improve quickly” and “I am really enjoying it”.
Many of them are keen to continue to the intermediate classes launching on 15 January and we are keen to take them forward, while also launching the next beginners’ classes on 13 January.

Some other excellent students (credit
Some other excellent students (credit

Ethiopia first African country for new climate change fund

Ethiopia has been the first country to secure funding from the newly launched ClimDev-Africa Special Fund (CDSF). It secured $1.1 million to strengthen its climate-information and early-warning systems.
The news was released in a press release from the Economic Commission for Africa, a United Nations regional body based in Addis Ababa, and came during the 20th Session of global climate negotiations (COP20) meeting in Lima, Peru. The fund was set up by the African Union Commission, the African Development Bank and the ECA.
The $136m ClimDev Special Fund (CDSF) gives grants to projects that will be put into action by national and regional organizations. Partners in the ClimDev-Africa Programme consider climate change to be a serious threat to Africa and fear it could undermine development and progress, including poverty reduction.
The money will support the second phase of building national capacity to monitor the weather, and in data analysis, interpretation, forecasting and dissemination. The National Meteorology Agency says it will continue the project after the current funding.
Severe weather such as drought and floods, has severe effects on food production as well as on infrastructure such as roads and power, in Ethiopia, as in many African countries. Ethiopia has sought to build its strategic responses. Having good quality climate data should support the economic development strategy of promoting agriculture and industrial growth. Previously Ethiopia received help in 2013 through the ECA’s African Climate Policy Centre.
Many development experts are working in Ethiopia on pioneering programmes including using science and data to support development. It is another reason many experts wish to learn Amharic, to help them further their knowledge.

Flooding in 2005 killed more than 150 in Eastern Ethiopia. (Credit China Economic Net
Flooding in 2005 killed more than 150 in Eastern Ethiopia. (Credit China Economic Net

Investors lend $1bn to Ethiopia for 6.625% Eurobond

There was good demand yesterday (4 Dec) when Ethiopia offered its first hard-currency Eurobond to the international market. International investors are increasingly keen to get involved in Ethiopia’s economy, one of the fastest-growing in Africa, spurring interest to learn Amharic in London.
Businesspeople and investors keen to visit Addis have been approaching us for Amharic classes. They join tourists, charity, volunteers and others with strong ties to Ethiopia.
The new bond is denominated in US dollars. Investors bid a total of $2.6bn according to the news reports. Ethiopia issued $1bn at 6.625% interest (towards the lower end of its target range) and will pay the money back after 10 years. The rate was good, similar to that obtained by Zambia.
The Financial Times reported : “The debut sees one of the biggest, most closed — and, some observers say, most promising — African nations joining a number of other countries in the region that have issued similar bonds in the past 5 years. Africa has become a magnet for pension funds, insurers and sovereign wealth funds seeking higher-yielding assets.”

Ethiopia needs $50bn over 5 years

The FT quotes Kevin Daly, senior portfolio manager at Aberdeen Asset Management, that the bond’s yield “is decent value for the deal given the limited knowledge and different nature of the Ethiopian economy and the challenges it faces compared to these countries”. According to a Bloomberg report he said Ethiopia made a strong case for infrastructure development and financing needs at investor meetings, “which suggests they will be looking to come back to the market in near term.”.
Bloomberg added that Finance Minister Sufian Ahmed said on 7 Oct that Ethiopia will probably need to invest about $50bn over the next 5 years, of which $10bn to $15bn may come from foreign investors. Most will be used to develop sugarcane plantations, a 6,000-megawatt hydropower dam on a tributary of the Nile River and the country’s railway network.


Claudia Calich, emerging market bond fund manager at M&G told the FT that Ethiopia was one of the region’s weaker credits: “I am concerned over lack of transparency and levels of SOE [state owned enterprise] debt.” Mark Bohlund, senior economist for sub-Saharan Africa at consultants IHS, said investors were attracted to Ethiopia on the back of “strong economic growth prospects and limited external indebtedness”. He added: “We wish to highlight that there are still non-negligible risks to repayment.”
Deutsche Bank and JPMorgan were the lead managers for the bond and Lazard advised the Federal Government of Ethiopia.

Fast 9% growth, limited foreign reserves

Ethiopia has some of the fastest growth rates in Africa, around 9%, according to the International Monetary Fund. According to Reuters, the IMF said in a September report that the risk of Ethiopia facing external and public “debt distress” remained low but said it was on the “cusp of a transition to moderate” risk. It estimated public debt at 44.7% of GDP in fiscal 2013/14. Ethiopia’s foreign reserves covered only 2.2 months of imports in 2013/14 and capacity to increase this remains under pressure due to limited capacity to increase exports and foreign investment.

African debt warning

According to the African Development Bank’s Making Finance Work for Africa website (, a few weeks ago the IMF warned African States against rushing to issue Eurobonds, saying they may face exchange-rate risks and problems repaying debts. African governments facing falling levels of foreign aid are on a borrowing spree to pay for new roads, power stations and other infrastructure, prompting concern this could raise debt levels and undermine growth.
According to Standard Bank, African governments and big businesses have issued a record $15bn in Eurobonds this year.