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.”

Premeditated?

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 

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Two Evangelists in Ethiopia Released from Prison


Judge acquits Christians falsely accused of insulting Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 28 (CDN) — The latest in a series of false charges against two Ethiopian evangelists was put to rest on Friday (Oct. 23), and they were released.

A court in Debiretabor, Ethiopia acquitted the two evangelists of insulting the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) in prison, an accusation made by fellow inmates after the two were jailed on false charges of offering money for people to convert. The charge that the two Christians insulted the EOC was orchestrated by EOC members both inside and outside the prison, according to area church leaders.

Temesgen Alemayehu and Tigist Welde Amanuel had been sentenced to prison for six months on the false charge of offering money to people to convert but successfully appealed the punishment; after a lower court in Amhara state had thrown out their appeal on Sept. 21, the State Supreme Court in Bahir Dar ordered them to be to be released after paying a 500 birr (US$40) fine.

Before they could be released, however, inmates signed a petition raising the second charge against Alemayehu and Amanuel. On this charge of insulting the EOC while in prison, the judge rejected witnesses’ testimony as contradictory and of no value.

“Thank you to those who prayed for us,” Alemayehu said after his release, adding that he was eager to return to ministry.

“The enemy has tried to frustrate us and delay our freedom,” said Amanuel. “But through prayers and God’s intervention, we are now released from prison. We thank those who prayed on our behalf.”

Alemayehu and Amanuel, of Wengel Lealem church in Addis Ababa, had gone to Debiretabor, Amhara state in July to help establish a church.

“Temesgen and Tigist are extremely happy to again reunite with the church,” said a Christian source, adding that the two evangelists would return to Addis Ababa.

On July 22 they had appeared at district court in Debiretabor to hear charges against them that they were offering money and gifts to people to change their religion; Christian sources said witnesses falsely testified to that effect. Members of the EOC produced the false witnesses, the sources said.

Alemayehu and Amanuel were incarcerated for three months and six days.

They would have been released after their sentences were reduced to the fines, but on Oct. 7 the district prosecutor claimed they would not appear for the next court date, and the judge decided to keep them in prison. Church leaders in Debiretabor said Alemayehu was suffering from kidney infections and had sought permission to get treatment, but prison officials refused.

Debiretabor is the seat for the south Gondar Zone administration in Amhara state. As in the rest of Amhara, Debiretabor’s population is predominantly EOC with hostile attitudes towards evangelicals.

The two Christians’ arrests stemmed from a July 19 incident in which passersby began to question them as they were preaching on a roadside. Christian sources said a heated argument led to a group attack on the two evangelists, wounding Alemayehu. Amanuel sustained minor injuries, the sources said .

Christian sources said a group within the EOC called “Mahibere Kidusan” (“Fellowship of Saints”) had incited members to attack the two evangelists as they were proclaiming Christ. The increasingly powerful group’s purpose is to counter all reform movements within the EOC and shield the denomination from outside threats.

In some cases, the sources said, EOC priests have urged attacks against Christians, and government authorities influenced by Mahibere Kidusan have infringed on Christians’ rights.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Prison Terms Upheld for Two Christians in Ethiopia


Judge rejects appeal of evangelists said to be falsely accused of offering money, gifts.

NAIROBI, Kenya, September 25 (CDN) — An Ethiopian court on Monday (Sept. 21) threw out an appeal by two evangelists said to be falsely accused of offering money and gifts to people to convert to Christianity, thus upholding their six-month prison sentences.

Temesgen Alemayehu and Tigist Welde Amanuel of Wengel Lealem church in Addis Ababa went to Debiretabor, Amhara state, to plant a church in July. After a week in the area, according to area Christian sources, their proclamation of Christ led several people to confess their sins and receive Him as Savior.

On July 19, however, some passersby began to question the two evangelists, and Christian sources said a heated argument led to a group attack on the two evangelists, wounding Alemayehu. Amanuel sustained minor injuries, the sources said, but managed to escape to a nearby home; the mob followed her into the compound, demanding she be handed over to them.

The homeowners refused, saying they would not cooperate with criminals and would instead hand her over to police. “I would not allow any attack against the woman,” the unidentified owner of the home said, according to one church leader.

Police arrived at the scene of the attack and protected Alemayehu from the violent band, made up of members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), and took him into custody. The attacking group accused Alemayehu and Amanuel of insulting their religion.

Christian sources said a group within the EOC called “Mahibere Kidusan” (“Fellowship of Saints”) had incited members to attack the two evangelists as they were proclaiming Christ on the roadside. The increasingly powerful group’s purpose is to counter all reform movements within the EOC and shield the denomination from outside threats.

In time the EOC attackers fabricated accusations of offering money or gifts to make converts, Christian sources said, but under police questioning Alemayehu and Amanuel said they had only shared their faith to interested people without making such offers. They also tried to explain to police that it was their constitutional right to do so.

Police, however, submitted the attackers’ false statements to the district prosecutor, Christian sources said.

False Testimony

On July 22, Alemayehu and Amanuel appeared at district court in Debiretabor to hear charges against them. A charge sheet claimed that they were caught offering money and gifts to people to change their religion, and Christian sources said witnesses falsely testified to that effect.

The next day, the court delivered a guilty verdict. Alemayehu stated that his only sin was telling of his faith in Christ to interested persons, and that he had a constitutional right to do so. The judge sentenced him and Amanuel to six months of prison.

Police immediately transferred both Christians to Debiretabor prison.

“There is an open conspiracy between judges, police and prison officers,” the church leader said. “Police speeded up the investigation and brought it to the district prosecutor’s attention within a day. Witnesses were organized to falsely testify at court. The judges passed the sentence refusing the right to defense.”

Debiretabor is the seat for south Gondar Zone administration in Amhara state. As in the rest of Amhara, Debiretabor’s population is predominantly EOC with hostile attitudes towards evangelicals, Christian sources said. They added that churches already operating in Debiretabor and surrounding areas meet with continued EOC resistance.

In some cases, the sources said, EOC priests have urged attacks against Christians, and government authorities influenced by Mahibere Kidusan have infringed on Christians’ rights. It was unknown if the judge and police officers in Alemayehu and Amanuel’s case were under the influence of Mahibere Kidusan, but the local church leader said there were signs of bias in the case.

“Prison officials are handling both believers with harsh treatments, and after all these, no one is questioned for either the process or its result,” the church leader said. “We are waiting for God’s intervention on all this.”

In the rejection of the appeal, the high court judge said that he found “no mistake of law interpretation” to change the verdict of the lower court, a Christian source said.

“That means now the two believers have to serve the six-month sentence unless they appeal and achieve something at the regional State Supreme Court,” he said. “We heard that the two are thinking of appealing at the regional State Supreme Court in Bahirdar soon.”

Amanuel is assigned to a cell where criminals including serial killers are serving their terms, a source said, and they have threatened her. Both she and Alemayehu continue to share their faith in Christ with other inmates, in spite of insults from the prisoners.

Church leaders in Debiretabor said they brought the case to the attention of the regional state vice president, and that he sent his representative to visit Alemayehu and Amanuel in prison. The representative discussed the situation with the district court and with police. Sources said the visits, however, only exacerbated conditions for the two Christians by upsetting prison officers.

Starting on Aug. 26, prison officials forbade visits to Amanuel and Alemayehu for at least 15 days. They also stopped food from being brought them, a common practice among all prisoners whose relatives are able to help them.

“I went on Aug. 20 to meet them in prison, but officers at the gate told me that they have an order to stop any visitor,” the church leader in Debiretabor said. “I think our report to the regional authorities made some contribution to this decision.”

Report from Compass Direct News