Christians in Ethiopian Town Hit by Unexpected Attack

Orthodox church members strike two evangelical worship buildings, beat evangelist unconscious.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 15 (CDN) — Evangelical Christians in an area of Ethiopia unaccustomed to anti-Christian hostility have come under attack from Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) members threatened by their existence, Christian leaders said.

In Olenkomi, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, two church buildings were attacked by an EOC mob in Olenkomi town, Oromia Region, on Jan. 27 – leaving one evangelist unconscious and other Christians fearful of Orthodox hostility. Area Christians fear the assailants will not face justice due to the EOC’s powerful presence and impending elections.

A Mekane Yesus Church building was destroyed in the assault, while a Brethren Church structure suffered damages.

Attacks against evangelicals in the area are rare, but recently Christians have come under immense pressure as they face isolation and verbal threats, church leaders said. Located in the West Shoa Zone of Oromia Region, Olenkomi is a small town where most people there and in surrounding areas belong to the EOC. All officials in government are EOC members, and evangelical Christians encounter difficulties obtaining land for church buildings, church leaders said.

The attack followed an accidental fire from liturgical candles that burned an EOC building. EOC members blamed evangelicals, and in the ensuing assault evangelist Abera Ongeremu was so badly beaten the mob left him for dead. Another three Christians also sustained minor injuries.

Ongeremu was visiting from Neqemite, 260 kilometers (161 miles) away. After the mob stoned the Brethren Church, they next targeted Mekane Yesus Church, where Ongeremu was staying in guest quarters. A member of the mob took a Bible from his guest room and told him to burn it.

“How can I burn the book that showed me life?” the shocked Ongeremu asked.

He said that he told the mob that they could do anything they wanted, but he was not going to burn the Holy Bible. The attackers tied his hands and legs together and threw him back into the room, sprinkling diesel on the walls and roof and locking him in before setting it on fire, he said.

“I thought it was my last,” Ongeremu said. “I now understand nothing will happen to you without the will of God. That was not the day God allowed for me to die.”

Some of the assailants argued that Ongeremu should not die by burning, but by beating. Two of them dragged him out of the room and continuously beat him, covering his face in blood. He sustained wounds on his skull and right arm.

“After repeated beatings I lost consciousness,” he said. “I didn’t know how and when they left me. I only recall they argued about how to kill me.”


Federal police were summoned from Ambo – the nearest town some 50 kilometers (31 miles) away – to disperse the mob, but too late to avert the injuries and damages after their rugged journey of nearly three hours.

Prior to the attacks, according to church leaders, there was no substantial build-up of tension between the two groups, though EOC priests had expressed anger about the expansion of evangelical churches and had questioned why teachers from evangelical backgrounds were prevalent in the high school in Olenkomi.

Most of the teachers at Olenkomi Secondary High School are evangelical Christians, according to church leaders, who said this circumstance was solely coincidental. Although teachers of evangelical faith are prevalent in the school, they are forbidden by law to promote their faith in class.

The EOC members had been constructing a building for a church in Olenkomi, but because of funding shortfalls they revised the plan and built a temporary structure. Evangelical church leaders said EOC priests had seized the land without formal process, but sources said the EOC’s strong presence in the area kept evangelical church officials from protesting brazen construction efforts.

The EOC’s small structure was being used for liturgical purposes.

“The shelter-like house has faced fire disaster in various incidents,” said a church leader in Olenkomi. “The materials used to build it, and the curtains they hung on walls exposed the shelter to several fire incidents. The [candle and lantern] lights the priests used for liturgy were causing problems. We heard that a number of times the fire had lit curtains, and the priests stopped before it spread.”

Such a fire broke out on the day of the attack, this time out-pacing the frantic efforts of the priests. The fire consumed curtains inside the house and spread to roofs and walls. To douse it the priests went to a nearby government-owned water tank operated by an evangelical woman. She granted them water, and the structure did not burn entirely.

When they later returned to wash, however, they put their hands inside the tank and sullied the public water source. When the operator objected, the EOC members  spoke derogatorily of her as a “Pente” and began to spread the rumor that she was responsible for the burnt structure, church leaders said.

EOC members quickly formed into groups of various sizes, sources said, and rolled into town chanting, “This is the day to destroy Pentecostals and their churches!” They first went to the Brethren Church, located by the side of a highway that stretches through Olenkomi to western Ethiopia.

“When we first heard stones falling on the roof, we thought the wind was tearing up iron sheets,” said one evangelist. “We also heard a loud noise from outside. It was around 12:30 p.m. I opened the main door to check what was happening. The whole compound was filled by men and women who carried stones and sticks. It was a very scary sight.”

They were stoning the church building, forcing the praying believers to escape through a back door. The assailants continued breaking doors and windows, thinking worshippers were trapped inside.

Local police arrived, the evangelist said, but they failed to disperse the violent mob.

“Despite firing into the air, the officers didn’t do anything serious to stop the mob,” he said. “They later said it is beyond their capacity and would call Federal Police from Ambo town. The anti-riot police arrived two and half hours later, practically after the mob effectively carried out all the destruction.”

Of the attack on Mekane Yesus Church, one church leader said the mob broke in and set fire on everything they found.

“They gathered benches, office chairs and tables, documents, musical instruments, public address system, choir uniforms and other materials and set them on fire,” he said. “They also lit fire to the church building, which reduced it to ashes.”

The mob was not finished. They proceeded to the high school, where they attacked Christian teachers as students rushed to defend them. Church leaders said the targeting of the school was evidence that the attack had been planned before with well-considered aims.

With Ethiopia scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on May 23, government officials don’t want to upset voters by punishing those behind the attacks, church leaders said. It is likely that officials would pressure church leaders from both camps to settle for the sake of stability, but Christians fear that in doing so their complaints will be overlooked.

Some suspects have been identified, but church leaders don’t expect they will be punished.

“It is like hitting a fire ball,” said a church leader from Brethren Church. “When you hit the fire, it would round back to you. It can even burn you. You may also distribute the fire to new places.”

In spite of the violence, evangelical Christians have engaged in “fervent witnessing ministry and prayer,” he said.

“It awakens us to think, pray and unite,” he said. “There is no good in persecution. But God turned it around for the good of us. The persecution was intended to destroy our commitment, but it rather built our faith.”

As election day draws closer, said the leader, EOC priests could easily motivate followers to attack.

“That would be bad times for believers,” he said. “Let’s pray for people in Olenkomi to know the will of God and repent from evil from which they assume to serve God.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Proposed amendment reportedly shot down after international outcry.

LOS ANGELES, June 29 (Compass Direct News) – A member of Iran’s Parliament reportedly revealed last week that the country’s Parliamentary Committee has stricken the mandatory death penalty for those who leave Islam from proposals for an amended penal code.

Citing a BBC Persian news service report on Tuesday (June 23), United Kingdom-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) announced on Friday (June 26) that a member of Iran’s Legal and Judicial Committee of Parliament, Ali Shahrokhi, had told the Iranian state news agency (IRNA) of the decision to eliminate the mandatory death penalty amendment, which had drawn international protests.

The Parliamentary Committee had come under intense international pressure to drop clauses from the Islamic Penal Code Bill that allowed stoning and made death the mandatory punishment for apostates.

The new penal code was originally approved in September 2008 by a preliminary parliamentary vote of 196-7.

In Friday’s statement, CSW said that the bill must now pass through a final parliamentary vote before being sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision. Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said the timing of the announcement of the decision during protests over contested elections might not be coincidental.

“Were the regime to maintain [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency then pass and enforce a restrictive penal code, the international pressure on Iran would be unbearable for the regime,” said Grieboski. “I do not consider it a sign of opening up. Instead, I see it as a sign of self-preservation.”

Security Backlash

Huge protests over the election results demonstrated considerable opposition to the Iranian government’s heavy-handed tactics, and although the official churches have taken no official stance, many Christians have supported the opposition, according to sources connected to social networking sites.

In the face of the massive protests, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Hassan Qashqavi, released a statement condemning Western involvement in Iranian affairs and accusing the BBC and Voice of America networks of spreading “anarchy and vandalism.”

This passing of blame bodes ill for minorities in the country, including Christians, whom the Iranian government sees as pawns of the West; they could expect even harsher treatment in a feared post-election clamp-down.

“Since minorities, especially Baha’is and Christians, are often seen as fronts for the West, we can expect that they will feel the greatest backlash by the regime during the protests, and I would argue an even worse crackdown on them if Ahmadinejad and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei come out of this,” said Grieboski.

An Iranian Christian who requested anonymity told Compass that both Christians and Iranians as a whole were tired of the dictatorial regime and asked for prayers for relief.

“The people are really tired, they have no hope, mentally, financially, spiritually, it is really difficult to live in Iran,” the source said. “You can’t have a private life, you can’t make a decision about what you believe, women can’t even decide what to wear. We just pray for the whole nation.”

The Iranian source was reticent to predict how the government might react to Christians following the elections but said that if there were a reaction, they could be among the first victims.

“So what the reaction of the government will be we can’t be 100 percent sure,” the source said, “but they could have a very radical reaction.”

Iranian Christians Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were arrested on March 5 for their Christian activities, are still held in the notorious Evin Prison. The facility has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years.

Compass has learned that the women have been placed in solitary confinement.

Report from Compass Direct News


International pressure sought against mandatory death penalty for ‘apostates.’

LOS ANGELES, September 23 (Compass Direct News) – Without international pressure there is little to stop the Iranian government from ratifying a bill that will make “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, a capital crime, say human rights groups and experts.

On Sept. 9 the Iranian parliament approved a new penal code by a vote of 196-7 calling for a mandatory death sentence for apostates, or those who leave Islam. The Christian and Baha’i communities of Iran are most likely to be affected by this decision.

“Unless there is a coordinated and very strong effort from the international community to place pressure on Iran for this, I don’t think there will be anything stopping the Iranian government from passing this legislation,” Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, told Compass.

The bill still has to make its way through Iran’s policy-making process before it becomes law. Parliament is reviewing it article by article, after which it will be sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which will rule on it.

The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament. This body has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

In the case of the new penal code, however, which appears to be a return to a strict adherence of sharia (Islamic law), sources said they do not expect the Guardian Council to reject the penal code.

The timing of the debate on the penal code is not coincidental, said Grieboski. While the international community is focused on Iran’s nuclear activities, he said, the Iranian government appears to be taunting the West with deliberate human rights violations.

“Because of the nuclear issues, ones like these get put on the backburner, which means that the regime can move with great liberty to install legislation like this with impunity, because the nuclear issue gives them cover,” said Grieboski.

Iran has been criticized for its treatment of Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Christians, who have all suffered under the current regime.

“The Baha’is and the Christians are the ones being used as pawns by the regime in its dance with the West,” said Grieboski. “Iran is a human rights black hole in the middle of the world.”

A source told Compass that when he discussed the apostasy article in the penal code with some of the reformists in Iran’s parliament, they responded by saying they were not aware of the apostasy bill. The source argued that the Iranian government was trying to bury the apostasy article in the 113-page penal code.

“I am not sure there is an adequate means of underscoring how serious this law is in terms of violation of international law and a violation of the fundamental freedom of religion or belief,” said Kit Bigelow of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States.

She urged people to write their representatives in their respective governments.

International pressure is crucial if the apostasy bill is to be countered, agreed a Christian source. He recalled how in 2005 Christian convert Hamid Pourmand was acquitted of apostasy as a direct result of international pressure.

“I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does,” the presiding judge had told Pourmand, according to media sources. “You must be an important person, because many people from government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

The news of parliament approving the bill comes on the heels of two Christians being officially charged with apostasy this summer. Mahmood Matin Azad, 52, and Arash Basirat, 44, have been in prison since May 15 and now await their court date.

Although their future and that of other non-Muslims looks grim, some believe this bill is the act of a government desperately trying to hang onto power.

“I have to say the Iranian regime is tightening severely its control over as many aspects of the lives of Iranian people as they possibly can,” said Grieboski. “And that, I think, is the sign of a weakening regime.”

The original penal code was passed into law in 1991 and last amended in 1996.

Report from Compass Direct News