The Ethiopian Orthodox Union church, an autonomous Christian Church headed by a patriarch and closely related to the Coptic Church of Egypt, was the state church of Ethiopia until 1974. About 40 percent of the people of Ethiopia are Christians, and Christianity is predominant in the north. All the southern regions have Muslim majorities, who represent about 45 percent of the country's population. Most of the Christians, belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose 4th Century beginnings came long before Europe accepted Christianity. A further small percentage of the population adheres to traditional and other beliefs, including Judaism. A sect known as Beta Israel or Falashas, who practice a type of Judaism that probably dates back to contact with early Arabian Jews, were airlifted to Israel in 1991 during Ethiopia's civil war.
The kingdom of Axum officially adopted Christianity in the 4th century. But it wasn't before the 12th century (and up until the 15th) that Christianity spread, along with the Christian state, to the highlands of central Ethiopia. A remarkable collection of rock-hewn churches dates from this era. They were associated with monks, who were considered on a level with saints and whose lives were often recorded in writing. These monuments and manuscripts are still very important today as the living memory of Ethiopia's Christians.
Ethiopia has a rich history that predates the Old Testament. According to the Old Testament, The Queen of Sheba was born in Axum, but travelled to Israel to meet King Solomon. They had a son named Menelik, who later became the first emperor of Ethiopia and adopted Christianity in Ethiopia about the beginning of 4th Century long before Europe accepted Christianity. Menelik brought the original Ark of the Covenant back to Ethiopia from Izse sole commitment is to protect the sacred vessel. Ethiopia's religious tradition is reflected in the day-to-day lifestyle of the people, and nowhere does this spiritual energy echo more than in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
On the central plateau, the Ethiopian Orthodox church holds sway, again an individual and fascinating feature of this unusual country. Priests and deacons abound in their often colorful robes, carrying their staffs and ornate crosses that people frequently kiss as they pass. Christianity came to Ethiopia in ancient times and became the official Ethiopian religion in the 4th century. The Orthodox Church has many connections with ancient Judaism. Fasting and detailed food restrictions, the specific ways of slaughtering animals, circumcision and the layout of the churches, all these things make for a very particular religious culture.
Islam is also very strong in many parts of Ethiopia, frequently existing peaceably alongside Christianity. The city of Harar, in the east of the country, is officially the fourth most holy Muslim site in the world. Ethiopia has communities of 'falashas', Ethiopian Jews, especially in the Gondar region in the north. Many of these however have now departed to live in Israel, having been airlifted out of the country with Operation Solomon and Operation Moses in the latter part of the 20th century.