Eritrea: The Little-told Story of Religious Co-Existence

News Opinions
The Eritrean people have a noble culture of religious tolerance. They have worked very hard to preserve their religious harmony and union, and co-existed in an exemplary way for more than 200 years. Eritrea’s culture of religious tolerance is sacrosanct.
The Eritrean people have a noble culture of religious tolerance. They have worked very hard to preserve their religious harmony and union, and co-existed in an exemplary way for more than 2000 years.

By Dr. Samuel Mahaffy,

In the capital city of Asmara, Eritrea, an Orthodox Christian Church and a Muslim Mosque stand within a stone-throw distance of each other. But, there are no stones being thrown. The story of the peaceful co-existence of the religions of Islam and Christianity in the Country of Eritrea is an informative story seldom told.

The invisiblization of Eritrea in western media sadly leaves untold an account of a country in the Horn of Africa where the two religions have an ancient history of interacting with respect for their differences. Especially, as conflicts between fundamentalists of both faiths flair around the world, the situation in Eritrea is significant for both the peace building and interfaith communities. 

The major religions of Eritrea are the very ancient Orthodox Christian church and the religion of Islam. The peaceful relationship between the two grew from Muslim communities finding refuge from persecution long ago in the country of Eritrea.

What are the roots of this relationship of peace between two very different religious streams? Unlike other countries in this part of the world, the modern country of Eritrea, since its independence, has not allowed Muslim extremism to take root within its borders. Recent accounts of extremist groups finding haven in North Africa and launching attacks against targets in other countries simply do not reference Eritrea.

The country of Eritrea, post-independence, has taken a policy of officially acknowledging (institutionalizing) the existing major religions in the country. Besides the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the religion of Islam, the Evangelical Lutheran and Catholic church have a significant presence there. In a policy that has come under criticism, there is a requirement that religious groups choosing to worship in the country, outside of these mainstream groups, register with the government. Eritrea has quite simply taken a dim view of proselytizing for converts to other religions. Essentially, there is a requirement that the registration of other sects and denominations be through one of the established religious groups.

This post is shared to focus on the larger issue of the peaceful coexistence of major religious streams of practice within the country. The policy of Eritrea toward other groups has been well-debated elsewhere. What is little known or stated, is that religious leaders from the major faiths in Eritrea frequently communicate with each other and work together in identifying needs and priorities of local communities. Leadership in Eritrea is exceptionally inclusive of members of both the Muslim and Orthodox Christian faiths.

The very name of Asmara in the Tigrinya language is a word expressive of unity. It literally recounts the coming together of four clans in the region long ago, reportedly under the initiative of women to find a pathway of peaceful co-existence among Tigre and Tigrinya people.

The religious traditions of Eritrea are rich and diverse. In an effort to cast Eritrea in a negative light, images of the Capital City sometimes exclude the proximity of the Orthodox Church and the Mosque to each other. In my interactions with Eritreans around the world, it is a misrepresentation that they find offensive.

I recently returned from the Western USA Eritrean Festival 2014 in Oakland California. Besides being honored to be a speaker at that celebration, I had the opportunity to both visit with speakers of the Saho language who are Muslim and to be an invited guest at the worship service of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Oakland. While the ancient language of Geez was mostly foreign to me, the liturgy in that language had many similarities to that of Christian worship services around the world. I was warmly welcomed by both the Christian and Muslim participants at the Eritrean Festival as they celebrated their country and culture together.

As part of a delegation planning a trip to Eritrea in the months ahead, I look forward to meeting with representatives and communities from the Eritrean Orthodox Church–including visiting some historic monasteries–as well as Muslim, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran communities. I hope to learn more about their historic interactions with each other and the ways that they find to engage with each other. It is a story that might well be informative for those of us who seek and support religious tolerance and inter-faith relationships.

I expect it is a rich story interwoven with that of the compelling unity Eritreans found in fighting for their Independence. In an interview with a young Eritrean woman, she shared the account of her father, a major leader in the fight for liberation. He slipped into his home, often in the middle of the night, to safely visit with his family. She recounts that her memories of him as a young girl were that he carried with him his rifle and also a sheet of paper, folded into his clothing. The creased paper contained songs from a Tigrinya language hymnbook developed by the Swedish Lutheran community in Eritrea. She recalls that songs and prayers from that tradition sustained her father during difficult days and nights of struggle for independence. Certainly, people of very diverse faiths fought side-by-side for a free and independent Eritrea.

The interfaith community and peace workers promoting religious tolerance might well find reason to understand and learn from the faith communities in Eritrea and the ways in which they have co-existed over decades and centuries. It is my hope that it is a tradition of tolerance that will be seeded into the next chapters of post-liberation Eritrea and integrated into the process of evolving a new Constitution for the country.

This coming week I am honored to present at the 10th Annual North America YPFDJ & PFDJ 2 Conference in Washington D.C. ( It will bring together as many as five hundred young Eritreans from across North America. It is my hope to share what the Country of Eritrea has meant to me growing up there during my formative years. At the same time, I hope to support their dreams and aspirations as young people seeking a positive future for their country that is inclusive of the vision for peace and justice. Religious tolerance is surely a cornerstone of peace building.

The work of promoting religious tolerance and interfaith collaboration is fundamental to peace building. No country that I know of has a perfect model. But, when religious fundamentalism and extremism in any tradition is set aside, the core teachings of all the major religions of the world suggest the compelling importance of such engagement. We do well to be attentive to what we can we can learn from the history of Eritrea.

Dr. Samuel Mahaffy was born in Asmara, Eritrea and raised in Senafe, Eritrea before coming to the United States. The town of Eritrea mirrored the religious composition of Eritrea with both a majority Tigrinya speaking Orthodox Christian and Saho speaking Muslim population along with a small community of both the Catholic and Evangelical Protestant faiths. Samuel Mahaffy had been active in conflict transformation work for several decades. He advocates for peace building and interfaith understanding and writes frequently about Africa and Eritrea on his website at Follow him on Twitter @samuelmahaffy.