The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, died on Wednesday at the age of 76, the government has announced.
"His holiness has passed away," government spokesman Shimeles Kemal told Agence France Presse, but did not provide details of his death.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported on Thursday that the patriarch had been receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness in recent weeks. The patriarch's office is expected to hold an emergency meeting on Friday to finalize the funeral arrangements.
"In his absence, based on the bylaws and canons of the Coptic Church, a new leader will come into office," spokesman Shimeles said.
Abune Paulos served as the patriarch of Ethiopia's Orthodox Church since 1992, when he was elected to the highest order of the denomination.
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The patriarch had a most eventful and hectic life.
After the Derg communist regime seized power in Ethiopia in the 1970s, Abune Paulos was arrested by the junta and imprisoned for nine years, before he fled into exile in the U.S. It was not until Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came to power in 1991 that Paulos returned to Ethiopia.
Abune Paulos was seen as instrumental in brokering peace in the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war that ended in 2000, and was awarded a Nansen Medal by the United Nations refugee agency in 2000 for his peace and humanitarian work.
Unique in sub-Saharan African, Ethiopia has a long tradition of Christianity stretching all the way back to the beginning of the Christian era.
In fact, the Kingdom of Aksum, which is located in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, was the first empire to have adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. By the 7th century when Islam swept across the Middle East and North Africa, Christianity remained a strong force in Ethiopia, although the church became isolated from the centers of Christianity in Europe and the Near East.
Still, today, well more than half of the population adheres to the faith.
According to the 2007 National Consensus, 62.8 percent of Ethiopia's 84.7-million people are Christian, while 43.5 percent of the total adhere to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Up to 45-million people -- living in and outside of Ethiopia -- followed Abune Paulos' leadership.