July 29, 2015 by Janelle P

The Ethiopian justice system is failing three evangelical Christians falsely accused of arson. However, the three believers have been bringing fellow prisoners to Jesus while awaiting their final verdict.

Despite the fact that their appeals process has not been concluded, a court in Debiremarkos has ordered the three Christians to pay for damages to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) building which were caused by a fire they are accused of starting.

Tibebu Mekuria, Dawit Jemberu and Belete Tilahun have denied any involvement in the burning of the EOC building in the rural community of Gulema Iyesus on May 16, 2014. But about one month after the incident, officials arrested Tibebu and Dawit on accusations of starting the fire. They also arrested a small kiosk owner, Belete on accusations of providing funds for the attack.

The men have faced months of court proceedings. During the first hearing on Oct. 9, witnesses testified that the three were nowhere near the church at the time it burned down. Their defense also pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony of the prosecutor’s witness. The judge asked for more time to review evidence during an Oct. 20 hearing, but on Oct. 28 he found all three guilty. He based his verdict on the inconsistent testimony of the single prosecution witness and rejected the testimonies of the defense witnesses. He sentenced Tibebu and Dawit to nine years and Belete to eight years in prison.

The three men appealed the verdict.

On Nov. 13, the judge upheld the ruling, prompting their lawyer to appeal to the Regional State Supreme Court in the Amhara state capital of Bahirdar. On Dec. 22, their appeal was once more rejected, causing the lawyer to appeal to the Federal Supreme Court in Addis Ababa. The hearing was to take place on June 2, 2015, but was postponed to July 8 and then to Oct. 23, the judge claiming he had inadequate time to look at the case.

Despite the fact that the matter has not yet been concluded, another lawsuit against the men to claim compensation for the damages to the destroyed building was allowed by the court in Debiromarkos. Open Doors has learned that on July 3 the judge in the Debiremarkos court ruled that the three men must pay around $57,142 for the damages.

The prosecution can now file for immediate enforcement of this ruling. While Tibebu and Dawit are both single and have no property that can be confiscated to ensure payment, Belete, who is married and a father of three, risks losing the property he owns.

“I am worried that my family will be thrown out onto the streets,” he said. “They want to destroy my life and the property I have labored for all my life.”

But despite the undesirable turn of events, the men remain steadfast in their faith and are continuing to do evangelism inside the prison. They have been encouraged to see some inmates coming to faith in Jesus. In addition to the recent conversion of a hardened criminal, a staunchly traditional man has also accepted Christ and asked for a Bible. The three men gave him the only Bible they had with them.

“Maybe this is why God wants us here,” they commented.

Tibebu and Dawit seem resigned to their fate. Fully expecting to serve the next nine years in prison, they have asked for support in starting theological studies.

“They have been very encouraged to hear that people around the world know what is happening to them,” said a recent visitor. They have been praying that the Ethiopian government would ensure justice for them, praying that it would keep with its constitution which guarantees a fair trial for all its citizens and equal treatment under the law no matter their creed.”

Open Doors calls on Christians around the world to continue praying for Tibebu, Dawit and Belete.

Ethiopia is ranked #22 on the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians.

Compiled by Jerry Dykstra. For media inquiries, contact Christine Cape at 404-545-0085 or Christy Lynn Wilson at 770-401-9842.

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