Local Officials Destroy Evangelical Church in Muslim-Majority Area
Around 100 Evangelical Christians Left Without Place of Worship Following Baseless Church Destruction
12/05/2014 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that the Y Semay Birihan Church, or Heaven’s Light Church, was demolished by Shenkore administrative district officials who, just days before, forcibly removed the church’s exterior sign. The Heaven’s Light Church leadership has, for years, attempted to register land for a proper place of worship, but after repeated rejection, resorted to holding a weekly gathering of around 100 Christians in the home of an attending congregant. The church had been in operation for five years prior to its dismantling by local police on November 28.
Immediately following the demolition, three members of the congregation, Pastor Zemach Tadesse, 30, his wife Aster Tadesse, 30, and Pastor Yosefe Hailemariam (a member of the village council), 39, were detained for seven hours for attempting to photograph the violated church. They were released after community members outraged by the wrongful detentions called for their immediate release.
In Ethiopia, all land is publicly, rather than privately, owned. As such, churches are not able to legally purchase land to build a permanent place of worship. Rather, church leadership is forced to lease land for a limited period of time, after which they will have to either renegotiate the lease or vacate the premises and demolish any amendments or additions to the land. In Muslim-majority areas of Ethiopia, Christians’ applications to lease their individual land to the local church have been wrongfully denied on multiple occasions.
ICC has documented numerous ongoing land rights battles between churches and their local governments across Ethiopia. In many cases, churches have been operating peacefully for decades on land given to them by now-deceased former congregants. However, efforts by local majority Muslim populations to eliminate the public presence of the church have seen to the contestation of these churches’ legal right to the land they occupy have resulted in the forceful closure, destruction and demolition of several churches in recent years.
In much the same way, the Heaven’s Light Church in Harar operated on the private land of a member of the church for five years prior to its destruction. Following complaints by a local Muslim, officials visited the church in late November to remove the church’s sign, warning members that they would be back to destroy the church if they did not stop worshiping there. Ignoring their threat, congregants continued to meet until members of the police returned on November 28 and destroyed the church by tearing down roofing materials, removing the church’s siding and confiscating church property.
Pastor Zemach, senior pastor of the Heaven’s Light Church, told ICC that he and his membership are now meeting in small groups in individual homes after having been instructed by local officials not to gather under what remains of the church building.
Cameron Thomas, ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa, said, “Every member of the Heaven’s Light Church holds the right, as a human being under international law and as a citizen of Ethiopia, to freely practice their Christianity. Instead, corrupt officials willing to defend their religion rather than the laws they’ve sworn to uphold are violating Christians’ rights by forcibly closing, destroying and demolishing churches across Ethiopia. The Heaven’s Light Church needs to be extended permission for the congregation to gather peaceably, in full compliance with Ethiopian law. Shenkore administrative district officials’ willingness to remedy the situation and to restore Pastor Zemach’s church’s meeting space will speak volumes to that community’s willingness to meet Ethiopia’s constitutional commitment to the free practice of religion.”
For interviews, contact Cameron Thomas, Regional Manager for Africa:
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