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 


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Rajasthan, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) on March 21 attacked Bible students and staff members of the Believers Church and demanded 10,000 rupees (US$193) from them in Udaipur. A church source said the Christians were distributing gospel tracts in a Jeep when the extremists stopped them and dragged the driver out. Commandeering the vehicle, the Hindu extremists drove toward a remote area and beat the Christians, tearing up their gospel tracts. The church representative told Compass some Christians sustained minor injuries. The Christians later reached an agreement with the extremists without bowing to their demands to cease evangelistic activity.


Kerala – About 10 Hindu hardliners from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on March 15 attacked an evangelist in Malapuram. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists pulled away Tribal Mission evangelist O.J. Andrews as he was leading a worship service, dragged him about 30 kilometers (19 miles) in the street and beat him. The extremists had earlier accused the pastor of forceful conversion in a poster they had pasted on a wall, a charge he denied. Andrews filed a police complaint in Nilampur police station, but Sub-Inspector Ommer, who goes by one name, told Compass that the evangelist agreed to withdraw the charge after the extremists agreed to live peaceably with Christians. Police gave the hard-line BJP members a stern warning not to disturb the Christians again.


Punjab – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on March 15 accused a pastor of trying to convert people to Christianity by offering them money and seriously injured another Christian in Ludhiana. A source told Compass that at about 4 p.m. on the previous day, a pastor identified only as Tiwari and other Christians were distributing gospel tracts when a group of Hindu extremists attacked them. They beat six Christians in all, including women, all of whom sustained minor injuries. The next day, about 200 area extremists massed and removed a cross, pictures and gospel literature and burned them in a fire as they danced around it. They beat Christians present, seriously injuring Ayub Masih. Police arrived, and each party filed complaints against the other. Superintendent of Police Harbinder Singh told Compass that about 20 police officers are posted in the area and that officials were trying to arrange a peace agreement between the two parties.


Himachal Pradesh – Gospel for Asia (GFA) reported that Hindu extremists beat two Christian missionaries on March 14 in an undisclosed village in Himachal Pradesh. A mob of about 30 Hindu hardliners beat and kicked GFA missionaries Murari Jay and Atul Rajesh, leaving Jay with severe injuries to his back and Rajesh with acute head trauma. GFA representative Sushant Sona told Compass that, besides beating the Christians, the intolerant Hindus stormed into their home and burned their belongings. At about 6:30 p.m. the extremists took the Christians to the police station, and officers took them into custody allegedly as a security measure. They were released at about 11:30 p.m. The assailants reached an agreement by which they agreed not to attack the Christians again if the Christians agreed to drop charges.


Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists on March 12 splashed gas on the house of a pastor in Nainpur, Mandala and set it aflame. A source said the extremists burned the house of pastor James Masih of St. Mark Church at midnight, damaging doors, windows, curtains, files and furniture. Pastor Masih told Compass that local people opposed his congregation because of their Christian activities. The pastor filed a police complaint at Nainpur police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Report from Compass Direct News


With Orissa still reeling, violence in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh shocks believers.

NEW DELHI, September 8 (Compass Direct News) – Still reeling from violence in Orissa state, India’s Christians suffered major blows in two other states over the weekend.

As the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) revised its estimate of deaths from the last two weeks of violence in Orissa state from “more than 100” to 53 today, Christians in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh were shocked when suspected Hindu extremists yesterday burned down the 86-year-old St. Bartholomew Church of North India.

Christian leaders said suspected members of the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) burned down the venerable church after parishioners had elaborately decorated it for its 86th anniversary. VHP members are also responsible for ongoing violence in Orissa state following the killing of a state VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates in Kandhamal district on August 23.

Thousands of houses, churches and institutions have been damaged or destroyed in the violence that began after VHP members led a funeral procession of Saraswati’s body to stir up anti-Christian sentiment. Maoists have since claimed responsibility for the murders, but the Hindu extremist groups continue to blame Christians.

Damages to the St. Bartholomew church building in Ratlam were estimated at US$18,000. It was the only English-language church in the district, with most of its members senior citizens and retired railway employees.

VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders have denied the allegations against them, claiming the church building caught fire due to a short circuit. But local Christians said a short circuit could not have led to a fire of the more than five hours needed to burn down the entire structure.

“The entire episode was planned and carried out by the VHP and Bajrang Dal,” Lalu Stephen, district president of the Madhya Pradesh Isai Mahasangh, an umbrella body of Christian organizations, said in a statement. “We have no doubt about their involvement in the entire episode.”

The investigating officer in Ratlam, Manish Agarwal, said police are investigating the church building fire and do not know whether the VHP or Bajrang Dal are involved.

Christians were further stunned when police presented the watchman of the church, Noel Pare, before media late at night accepting blame for the crime. The mother of the watchman, Rosy Pare, subsequently stated in an affidavit that her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild were sleeping at home when the incident took place.

She further said in the legal document that it was police who woke Noel Pare to inform him that the church was on fire. Pare, along with his wife, was taken to the police station for questioning, with his wife later released. After a few hours, local Christian leaders were called to the police station to be told that the watchman had accepted responsibility for the crime.

Rosy Pare claimed that police concocted the scheme to protect the real culprits.

Father Anand Muttungal of the Madhya Pradesh Catholic Bishops Conference of India said the conference will set up an independent committee headed by a retired High Court judge to include journalists, social activists and leaders from various religions to investigate.

“The members will be declared soon,” he said. “Police are trying to save the culprits and put the blame on the Christian community. We will not tolerate this attempt by the police.”

According to the police’s own report, at least 200 liters of kerosene were used to burn the church building.

“It cannot be the work of one man only,” Fr. Muttungal told Compass. “Clearly the police are trying to hide the facts here. The arrest of the church watchman is an attempt to malign the community. Every time it is done, and this time it was planned.”

Hindu extremists have a history of violence in the area. Most recently, on August 15, VHP and Bajrang Dal members attacked a youth meeting in Ratlam after a neighbor complained, said pastor Jose Mathew of Ratlam.

“They beat up many participants,” including a pastor, his wife and the district manager of World Vision, Mathew said. “Later the police without any enquiry charged them with attempted forcible conversion.”


Nuns Assaulted

In Chhattisgarh state, on Friday (September 5) about 20 Bajrang Dal extremists boarded a train at the Durgh railway station and took four babies 1 to 2 months old from two nuns of the Missionaries of Charity and from two women helpers. Subsequently the Hindu extremists beat a nun and a driver sent to help.

The nuns and two women helpers on the train were taking the babies from Raipur to the Shishu Bhava charity center in Bhopal when the Hindu extremists forced their way into the train shouting anti-Christian slogans. Christian sources said the extremists snatched the babies and left the train, with the nuns compelled to come after them.

Accusing the nuns of forced conversion, the Hindu extremist mob handed them over to the Government Railway Police (GRP). When one of the two sisters, identified as Sister Mamta, requested that she be allowed to make a phone call to get legal help, police flatly refused. After much pleading she was able to make a phone call to the archbishop from the mobile phone of a visiting officer.

The archbishop promptly sent two nuns in an ambulance along with a driver to the Durgh railway station to assist the nuns. But before they could reach the station, they were sighted and surrounded by the Bajrang Dal mob outside the railway station.

One of the arriving nuns, identified as Sister Laboure, and the driver of the ambulance were mercilessly beaten in public view by the mob. The Hindu extremists continued to shout anti-Christian slogans even as they were beating and threatening to kill the nun and driver.

Subsequently the GRP took the two arriving nuns and the driver into custody, and they were kept in the police station for five hours, with the wounds and other injuries of Sister Laboure and the driver unattended. The next morning police escorted the nuns to their respective convents. Reportedly Sister Laboure was later admitted in a hospital for treatment of her injuries.

The babies were not returned to the nuns but rather taken to a government hospital, where they remained at press time.

Fr. Muttungal said local newspaper Hari Bhoomi later covered the incident of the beating “and used very derogatory language, which is quite insensitive.”

In Orissa state, the GCIC confirmed that on August 25 VHP extremists killed three Christians at a place known as Jarginaju: Pastor Fitham Nayak, 62; Madan Nayak, 62; and Nathura Nayak, 60. The GCIC reported that before killing them, the Hindu extremists asked them to reconvert to Hinduism, killing them when they refused.



In Karnataka state, Christians leaders reported that about 30 attackers on motorcycles and in an SUV stormed into a church served yesterday and abducted pastor R. Babu.

After disrupting the service in Mulbagal, Kolar district by tearing up Bibles, hymnals and curtains and beating church members, the attackers carried Pastor Babu to a temple about five kilometers (three miles) away and forced him to observe Hindu rituals.

They released him only after he gave a written declaration in front of the police at Mulbagal police station stating that he would not go back to the village or continue any church activities.

Report from Compass Direct News