Eritrea is almost equally divided between Muslims and Christians, who have co-existed peacefully throughout Eritrea's history. Christianity was introduced in the 4th century to the coastal region and then it was spread to the plateau. The majority of Eritrean Christians belong to the Orthodox (Coptic) Church; there are also small numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestants.

The Church is integral to the everyday life of Eritrean Christians. Their cultural practices are intimately connected with the rituals and calendar of the Orthodox Church-even when an individual is not a regularly practising church member, or is a member of another Christian denomination. For example, many Eritrean Christians do not eat meat or dairy products on Wednesday and Fridays, as these days are considered days of fasting by the Orthodox Church.

Services in the Orthodox Church are still conducted in the ancient Axumite language of Ge'ez; however, since this language is no longer spoken, sermons are usually given in Tigrinya or another local language. Veneration of icons is an important part of Eritrean religious life: Christians will often carry small icons in their pockets and hang them in their homes, offices or vehicles.

Roman Catholicism came to Eritrea in the 16th century. The first missionaries were Portuguese priests and were involved in religious and political activities, helping the locals fight against the Turks. Recently, Protestant missionaries established congregations in Eritrea.

Muslim Eritreans belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. The first people who converted to Islam were the coastal inhabitants in the 8th century. The religion spread rapidly with the invasion of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Islam is now predominant in the lower plains of Eritrea.

Devout Muslims are expected to acknowledge that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet; to pray five times a day; to give alms to the poor; to fast during the daylight hours in the month of Ramadan; and, if possible, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Animism is the indigenous belief system of Eritrea, and most Muslims and Christians have incorporated some animist beliefs into their faith. Followers believe that evil spirits can possess people and cause sickness or death. Most Eritreans fear Zar, an evil spirit who can enter and kill a person. The Afar believe that trees as well as the dead have special powers, while the Hedareb believe in the "evil eye"-the notion that some people have the power to bring on bad luck.

  Did you know?
Annually on May 21, Eritrean Christians make the colourful Miriam De'arit pilgrimage near the town of Keren. The event has religious roots, but it is now celebrated like a carnival. A small shrine is built in a baobab tree situated some distance from town. After a morning service, cows and oxen are slaughtered for a feast that often goes on into the afternoon.