After complaints about increasing persecution of Christians in a Muslim dominated area in southern Ethiopia surfaced via local media, a district court charged six members of the administrative committee of an Ethiopian Orthodox Church with inciting public disturbance, destroying public trust in government officials and spreading hatred. The court found all of the men guilty on August 7 and sentenced them to between five years and almost nine years in prison.
St Mary Orthodox Church is situated in Kilto, 100 miles south of the capital Addis Ababa in the Silte zone. The Muslim-dominated zone came into existence after the Silte people unanimously chose to form a separate zone with Worabe as its capital in a referendum held in 2001. A number of prominent Muslims politicians are from Silte, including the current Minister of Defense, the Minister of Communications and the current caucus leader for women’s affairs in the federal parliament.
Over the past decade, Worabe has experienced tremendous growth and is now home to at least four prominent mosques. Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) leaders have raised concerns about increasing persecution in recent years, including mistreatment against their church and their members by local Muslims and local government officials. These complaints have received considerable attention in local independent media outlets.
On March 11, six members of St Mary’s Orthodox Church’s Administrative Committee wrote a letter addressed to national leaders of the EOC and copied various government institutions, including the Office of the Prime Minister, in which they listed the persecution they have been facing. The letter cited instances of persecution including discrimination in job opportunities, unfair dismissal from jobs, unjustly negative feedback on job performance, burning of EOC church buildings, physical attacks and threats against their lives.
The authors said their situation had become unbearable and likened it to the circumstances in Libya where Islamic State (IS) members released a video in April showing the executions of EOC members and circulated it on the web. The matter of the IS executions is a highly sensitive subject in Ethiopia and has led to protests against the government for their perceived poor handling of the situation.
When the administrative committee letter was leaked to the media, local government officials summoned the authors to a meeting and demanded an apology. Citing local sources, privately owned media sources reported that the leaders’ explanation failed to “win the officials’ understanding.” The authors were told that going to the media was a mistake.
Though the EOC leaders wrote a letter of apology, the district prosecutor proceeded to charge all six committee members on July 6 with inciting a public disturbance, destroying public trust in government officials, and spreading hatred. On August 7, the Eastern Azeret Berbere district court found them guilty of all charges.
The judge sentenced administrative committee leader, Mr. Yemariam Worke Teshager, to 8 years and 8 months in prison. He sentenced each of the other five members of the administrative committee, Masresha Seife, Nigatua Lema, Mulugeta Aragaw, Habtamu Teka and Maru Lema, to five years and six months in prison.
The six men have since been transferred to a prison in Worabe. The leader of the regional EOC diocese has indicated that they will appeal the verdict, but also said, “Imprisonment is common in Christianity, and it is good to be persecuted.”
Ethiopia ranks 22 on Open Doors’ 2015 World Watch List. For many years, the EOC has been persecuting Christians who left their ranks to join (mostly) non-traditional Protestant churches, or Christians who joined the renewal movements within the EOC. In recent years, however, along with members of these non-traditional Protestant churches, the EOC has become increasingly vulnerable to pressure on all spheres from Muslim extremism in the Muslim majority eastern, western and south-central regions of the country.
Father, we lift before Your throne our fellow Christians in Ethiopia, praying Your comfort to surround these imprisoned EOC leaders. Strengthen them with courage that they might not become despondent, instead use this crisis to deepen their faith that the truth of Your presence might kindle a strength and peace beyond what they have known. We pray for their families that Your grace to them might enfold them in perfect peace. We pray wisdom for their legal advisors that justice may be accomplished and that they might be released. Father God, we pray against conflict to arise between faiths in the Silte zone as a result of this incident. In the Name of Jesus, who is raising up His bride, the church; that she might be presented to the Father in the last days in flawless beauty. Amen.