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 


Christian couple on trial; member of prosecution team threatens to kill wife.

ISTANBUL, May 29 (Compass Direct News) – Radical Pakistani Muslims in a town outside of Lahore this month overran a courtroom in hopes of swaying a judge in a “blasphemy” case against a Christian couple, and a member of the prosecution later threatened to kill the wife.

Some 50 molvis (Muslim clergy) on May 14 burst into the courtroom in Mustafabad, where a bail hearing was taking place in the case against Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

“Nobody could stop them as they rushed into the court,” said CLAAS’s Tahir Gull, sole representative for the accused. “They said, ‘No non-Muslim has the right to keep a Quran in his house, they have done this so they are liable to be punished.’”

Masih and Bibi, both in their 30s, were originally accused under section 295-B of Pakistan’s penal code with defiling the Quran by touching it with unwashed hands on Dec. 8 of last year. Masih was taken to prison and remained there until Jan. 22, when a Muslim neighbor who had asked him to store some of his possessions, including his Quran, testified on his behalf and the case was dropped.

The complainant, Mohammad Nawaz, subsequently filed another accusation on Feb. 12, this time under 295-C, blasphemy against Muhammad, Islam’s prophet. This charge carries a death sentence, whereas defiling the Quran calls for life imprisonment.

Despite pressure from the crowd of clerics, Judge Shafqat Ali – also a molvi – granted the couple bail. Following the hearing, however, a member of the prosecution team approached Bibi outside the courtroom and threatened to kill her.

“Ruqiya was waiting outside the court,” said Gull, “and one man came and said, ‘Whatever the decision, we will kill you.’”

A prosecution lawyer read portions of the Quran while presenting his case, he added.

“He was not explaining the law in which the accused were charged,” said Gull. “He was trying to influence the court religiously.”

Charges of blasphemy are common in Pakistan and particularly incendiary, often leading to strong shows of religious zeal. It is not uncommon for sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistani penal code to be invoked in retaliation for personal grievances.

“It is very easy to grab any person for religious reasons,” said Parvez Choudhry, chairman of Legal Aid for the Destitute and Settlement, who specialize in blasphemy cases. “There are many personal cases involving property, or money, or business that motivate the complainant against the accused person. All the cases are falsely charged.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, destroying reputation and livelihood. The charge can possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Masih, who before his initial arrest had been a day laborer, is no longer able to find work due to the stigma of the blasphemy accusation.

“There is a need to repeal these sections [295-B and 295-C],” said Choudhry. “This is considered a draconian law.”

Section 295-C carries a death sentence for anyone found “by words or visible representation or by an imputation or insinuation, directly or indirectly, [to have] defiled the name of the Muhammad of Islam.”

Choudhry suggested that just correcting the vagueness of this definition would go a long way toward reducing its frequent misuse.

“The word ‘indirect’ should be repealed – this is wrong, unconstitutional,” he said. “They have no value in the Evidence Act of Pakistan. The Evidence Act states that there needs to be direct evidence for a conviction.”

The next court date has not yet been assigned, but Gull said he is confident about securing an acquittal.

“We have a good case on our side,” he told Compass. “I am very optimistic.”

Report from Compass Direct News


State authorities seal three churches, order 13 others to get ‘worship license.’

NEW DELHI, September 10 (Compass Direct News) – As tensions continued in the eastern state of Orissa, Hindu nationalist groups intensified attacks on churches and Christian institutions in the southern state of Karnataka.

Hindu extremists launched attacks on churches and leveled false charges of “forcible” conversions against Christian workers as the Karnataka government, ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), prepared to close down churches.

Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) told Compass that a mob of more than 200 people attacked the Mission Action Prayer Fellowship church in Bada village of Davangere district on Sunday (September 7), accusing the Christians of “forcible” conversions.

The attack took place during the worship service. Besides assaulting believers and the pastor, the mob burned the Bibles, musical instruments and furniture in front of the church. They also vandalized the church building.

Media accompanied the mob, and local TV channels telecast the attack, George added.

The Hindu daily reported that the incident occurred despite a government ban on the gathering of four or more people within a 200-meter radius of three other prayer halls in K.T.J. Nagar police station limits in Davangere town, “which have been under attack since mid-August.”

The police arrested 10 people for instigating the attack.

The daily also reported that extremists of a Hindu nationalist group, the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, carried out a procession the following day (September 9) demanding the immediate release of those arrested. The newspaper quoted the extremists as rationalizing their attack on the pretense of the alleged forcible conversions.

“Had the authorities been alert and not given room for forcible conversions, such incidents would not have happened,” one Hindu nationalist told the newspaper.

The state convener of the Hindu group, Jagadish Karanth, complained that missionaries from seven countries, including the United States, France and Germany, had been funding churches and pastors in Davangere to motivate people of other faiths to join their fold. He said he had documents to prove that a pastor had written to a Christian missionary saying he had converted 6,000 Hindus into Christians within just two years.


Bogus Worship License Requirement

George of the GCIC said the commissioner of Davangere City had issued notices to demolish three churches – Eternal Life Church, Divine Healing Ministry church and Jesus Prayer Hall – in the city, claiming that their buildings were illegal. The three churches have been sealed.

The order was issued because these churches were facing allegations of fraudulent conversions by the Hindu extremist Hindu Jagarana Vedike, according to The Indian Express newspaper, adding that the Davangere deputy commissioner labeled the churches “unauthorized.”

A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) told Compass that the Davangere deputy commissioner had also sent notices dated Aug. 30 to 13 other churches asking them to obtain a “license” for holding worship services.

“This is a violation of the religious freedom enshrined in the Indian Constitution,” said the CLA source. “There is neither any such requirement anywhere in the country, nor is there any provision for such license in any government authority.”

The CLA representative also said Hindu extremists were going from village to village in Davangere to identify Christian houses.

“The extremists demand that some identity cards be shown to prove their religious affiliation,” said the representative. “Such a data can be extremely dangerous. We fear the Hindu groups may be planning organized attacks.”

Besides the collection of data by extremist groups, district authorities are also surveying churches.

On Sept. 8, The Hindu quoted Deputy Commissioner K. Amar Narayan as saying that he had instructed the police to conduct an area-wide survey of churches and prayer halls to check how many of them were “authorized.”

Asked if the survey would also be conducted on places of worship of other religious faiths, Narayan said that it would be “exclusively” on churches because of the present controversy surrounding them. He said the survey would be completed in two or three days.


Bogus Conversion Charges

Christians have been at the receiving end of a spate of “communally tinged” incidents in recent weeks in Karnataka, mainly in Davangere district, The Indian Express newspaper said on Monday (September 8).

The newspaper quoted Davangere Superintendent of Police Sandeep Patil as saying that there had been allegations of forced conversions in the district for the last 12 months. Patil added that the police had identified 75 churches across villages in the district where security was enhanced.

Some police officers of the district told the newspaper that there was “nothing new” about allegations of “forced” conversions. “Maybe because the BJP is in power they are getting highlighted,” an assistant commissioner of police said.

The Indian Express also suggested that the recent spate of attacks was triggered by the state education ministry’s show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

All Christian schools in the country remained closed on Aug. 29 to show solidarity with victims of anti-Christian violence in Orissa that started after a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples were killed on August 23 in Kandhamal district. The VHP blamed local Christians for the assassination, though Maoists or extreme Marxists claimed responsibility for it. More than 56 people have been killed and hundreds of houses and churches burned in the violence.

The newspaper also pointed out that over the past two successive Sundays, police cases had been registered in Karnataka’s capital Bangalore against nearly 25 people, leading to the arrest of as many as 12, including a U.S. citizen, on charges of “promoting enmity between different religious groups” and “insulting religious feelings.”

Local police officers at Frazer Town and Ulsoor police stations, where cases had been registered, told the newspaper they had received complaints from members of Hindu groups alleging forcible conversions and use of inducements against the arrested persons.


Bogus ‘Communal Harmony’

The Hindu newspaper reported that Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, who completed 100 days in office yesterday (Sept. 9), said that “all efforts would be made to maintain communal harmony.”

What communal harmony is for the chief minister, however, was clear when he told The Hindu, “The rule of law will prevail. Nobody has the right to indulge in forcible conversions, and inducement to pave the way for conversions is banned. However, I will direct the district officials and district in-charge ministers to ensure that such activities are kept under check.”

Yeddyurappa also claimed that there has been no communal clash in the state “for long,” and “we will maintain this record.”

“I call upon the people to refrain from paying heed to rumors which are aimed at fomenting trouble and tarnishing the image of the government,” he added.

According to a 2001 Census, Christians form less than 2 percent of the total population of 52.8 million in Karnataka.  

Report from Compass Direct News