Three evangelical Ethiopian Christians each face up to nine years in prison for a crime they did not commit. On Tuesday, June 2 they have their final opportunity to prove their innocence during an appeal hearing in the Federal Supreme Court in Addis Ababa.
Sources in Ethiopia, who remain anonymous for security reasons, told Open Doors they cannot help but fear tomorrow’s outcome, suspecting that the action against the Protestant believers is an effort by government officials in the area to appease influential conservative elements within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC).
“The officials might not want to risk offending these conservative elements,” the source explained to Open Doors.
On May 16, 2014 an EOC building in the rural community of Gulema Iyesus , 170 miles north of Addis Ababa, burned to ashes. About one month later officials arrested two Protestant evangelists, Tibebu Mekuria and Dawit Jemberu on accusations of starting the fire. They also arrested another Protestant Christian, Belete Tilahun, on a charge of providing funds for the attack. All three have denied the charges.
Local Christians have told Open Doors that although the wood and mud structure could have easily burned down accidentally if, for instance, a priest did not properly snuff out one of the candles they commonly use as part of the church liturgy, they suspect someone deliberately set fire to the church in an effort to bring trouble for the evangelicals.
The men have faced months of court proceedings. The evangelical church leaders repeatedly appealed to government officials to intervene in the matter, but officials said they did not want to “upset the local people”.
During the first hearing on Oct. 9, 2014, witnesses for the defense vouched that they were nowhere near the church at the time that it burned down. Their defense also pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony of the prosecutor’s witness.
The judge asked for more time to go through evidence during an Oct. 20 hearing, but then on Oct. 28 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 EOC is one of the oldest churches in Africa, dating back to the fourth century. Throughout the history of Ethiopia, the EOC was the only church to enjoy state religion status. At the start of the Communist era in 1974, church and state were separated and the EOC lost its state religion status. However the church continues to enjoy unofficial state religion status and retains a powerful voice in all state and religious affairs.
Mahibere Kidusan is a conservative movement within the EOC church that has been posing a growing threat to non-traditional Protestants. The group allegedly wants to control government policies to restrict the activities of other religions.
The three Protestant Christians are continuing their ministry inside the prison and recently saw a hardened criminal commit his life to Christ. The man is serving a life sentence for murder and robbery.
“In the prison most of the time he isolated himself and no one was courageous enough to approach him. But the three believers decided to reach out to him, which greatly surprised him. He agreed to hear them out and eventually decided to follow Christ. The so-called ‘iron-faced murderer’ has now become a man of ‘sharing and love,’” reports an Open Doors source.
“We don’t know why we are here,” one of the three Protestants told the Open Doors source. “But, it is true that God has His own purpose and plan to let us be here. We thank you for your prayers and concern. Please ask partners and supporters to continue praying for us.”
Ethiopia is ranked 22nd on the Open Doors 2015 World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians (https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/).
Compiled by Jerry Dykstra. For media inquiries, contact Christine Cape at 404-545-0085 or Christy Lynn Wilson at 770-401-9842.