Ethiopia (ODM/MNN) — The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) is stirring trouble for evangelicals.
Three believers were falsely accused by the EOC last year, reports Open Doors USA, and they currently face up to nine years in prison. Conservative elements within the EOC blame these three for burning down one of their buildings last May.
Earlier this week, the evangelicals were supposed to have a “final chance” hearing where they could prove their innocence in the Federal Supreme Court. However, the appeal was postponed until Wednesday, July 8.
Under Ethiopia’s judicial system, the Federal Supreme Court has powers to overturn the “guilty” ruling and sentences given to the evangelicals by a State judge last fall. Pray that these believers can prove their innocence and regain their freedom in July’s hearing.
On May 16, 2014, an EOC building in the rural community of Gulema Iyesus, 170 miles north of Addis Ababa, burned to ashes. Local Christians have told Open Doors 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.
However, sources in Ethiopia, who remain anonymous for security reasons, suspect someone deliberately set fire to the church in an effort to bring trouble for the evangelicals.
About a month after the building burned down, officials arrested two Protestant evangelists, Tibebu Mekuria and Dawit Jemberu, on accusations of starting the fire. They also arrested a third Protestant, Belete Tilahun, on a charge of providing funds for the attack.
All three have denied the charges.
Open Doors’ sources suspect that the action against the Protestant believers is an effort by government officials to appease influential conservative elements within the EOC.
“The officials might not want to risk offending these conservative elements,” the source explained to Open Doors.
The evangelicals have faced months of court proceedings. 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 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.
The judge sentenced Tibebu and Dawit to nine years, and Belete to eight years in prison.
Church leaders repeatedly appealed to government officials to intervene in the matter, but officials said they did not want to “upset the local people.”
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, Open Doors reports.
“Mahibere Kidusan” is a conservative movement within the EOC 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 EOC is only one of the threats to Ethiopian evangelicals’ religious freedom; learn about the others here.
The silver lining
The Lord is still using these persecuted evangelicals for His glory: they’re sharing Christ in priso,n and a murderer recently came to faith.
“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,” reports an Open Doors source.
“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.’”
“We don’t know why we are here,” one of the three evangelicals 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.”
Please pray for justice for the believers and for strength for the evangelicals to endure this difficult time.