The Amhara and Tigray peoples of the northern and central highlands have historically been the principal adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and the church’s religious forms and beliefs have been the dominant element in Amhara culture. Under the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian monarchy, the Ethiopian Orthodox church was declared to be the state church of the country, and it was a bulwark of the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie I. Upon the abolition of the monarchy and the institution of socialism in the country beginning in 1974, the church was disestablished. Its patriarch was executed, and the church was divested of its extensive landholdings. The church was placed on a footing of equality with Islam and other religions in the country, but it nevertheless remained Ethiopia’s most influential religious body.
The clergy is composed of priests, who conduct the religious services and perform exorcisms; deacons, who assist in the services; and debtera, who, though not ordained, perform the music and dance associated with church services and also function as astrologers, fortune-tellers, and healers. Ethiopian Christianity blends Christian conceptions of saints and angels with pre-Christian beliefs in benevolent and malevolent spirits and imps. Considerable emphasis is placed on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Further, the church recognizes a wider canon of scripture that includes such texts as the apocalyptic First Book of Enoch. Circumcision is almost universally practiced; the Saturday Sabbath (in addition to Sunday) is observed by some devout believers; the ark is an essential item in every church; and rigorous fasting is still practiced.
The priesthood of the Ethiopian church, on the whole, is not learned, though there are theological seminaries in Addis Ababa and Harer. Monasticism is widespread, and individual monasteries often teach special subjects in theology or church music. Each community also has its own church school, which until 1900 was the sole source of Ethiopian education. The liturgy and scriptures are typically in Geʿez, though both have been translated into Amharic, the principal modern language of Ethiopia. In the early 21st century the church claimed more than 30 million adherents in Ethiopia.