The “Kings” of Deder: Persecution and the Cost of Following Christ in Muslim-Dominated Pocket in Ethiopia

The story of Fikere Mengistu – threatened, extorted, and jailed for Jesus

By Troy Augustine

05/05/2015 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Fikere Mengistu trudged up and down dusty hills through deep darkness, step by step, mile by mile, forsaking a night’s sleep as he made his way home to Deder, Ethiopia. His mind was filled with fear, uncertain of what persecution might be waiting for him in the village he had previously fled because of threats, intimidation, and extortion due to his Christian faith.

Exhausted, but unwavering, he walked with purpose to finish the 30 mile hike to his home. Coupled with fear, he felt hopeful as he had heard that friends had arrived at his village ahead of him. Brothers in Christ waited for him in Deder, bringing fellowship and a readiness to take up his case with the local authorities.

Living under Daily Persecution

Fikere’s family has lived in Deder for more than 100 years. He comes from a long line of idol worshippers, but when it was Fikere’s turn to take the lead of his family’s religious traditions, he refused because he had come to know the Lord Jesus through the loving and faithful witness of his wife, Hargewoin.

Choosing to follow Christ meant forsaking the faith of his ancestors, but also embracing the status of a religious minority in his Muslim-dominated region of Ethiopia.

As Muslim persecution of Christians has intensified over the years, Fikere Mengistu’s rightful legal claim on his land and property has come under fire and, as a result, his constitutionally protected freedom to practice Christianity has been infringed upon. Fikere used to host prayer meetings in his 95-year-old mother’s house for the community’s Christian minority, including his two widowed sisters, their children, and 38 local believers.

However, after graciously sharing his property so that local Muslims could also worship in one of his fields, those same Muslims tried to claim the property for themselves. An angry crowd occupied his land for four weeks chanting “Allahu Akhbar,” simply to disturb Fikere’s peace and aiming to steal his plot. The mob even waited until nightfall when they destroyed his aging mother’s house.

The Local Justice Minister in Deder hid documents proving Fikere’s legal right to the property ruling in favor of his accusers.

“Having all the legal documents in the office of the local Justice Minister, I was still denied justice,” Fikere said. “They hid my documents, they harassed my family… I had gone to every justice-related office. I even went to the higher office – Chief Oromia – and got nothing except imprisonment and I lost money! I was obliged to sell my four oxen and I was not able to support my family. I faced many unspeakable problems and pain.”

Resolved to seek justice, Fikere appealed the case to the Harar Zone-Level higher court where he won the case with the help of legal assistance provided by International Christian Concern (ICC). As a result of his case, a judge had rebuked the Local Justice Minister in Deder for ruling in favor of an unclear document of ownership.

Even after all of this injustice, a local police officer forced his way into Fikere’s home in the middle of the night to try to coerce him into sign a letter that he had ceded his property willfully to the Muslims. When he refused, the officer threatened to shoot Fikere and extorted another bribe from him.

These were the events that had led to Fikere fleeing his home and family.

Jailed for Being Christians

Waiting for Fikere once he arrived in Deder after his long journey home were ICC’s Ethiopian staffer and other pastors.  They came as brothers in Christ hoping to bring encouragement and financial support to the beleaguered friend.  They arrived ready to reimburse the cost of his stolen oxen and to accompany Fikere to the police station to complain about the persecution he had faced.

But Fikere’s hope and optimism quickly vanished when two armed men burst into his house to arrest him while he and his friends were praying for the Fikere’s sick wife, a mother of five.

Without warrant or charge, the Muslim police officers imprisoned Fikere as his wife feared that he would be killed on the way to the police station. When Fikere’s friends confronted authorities about his case, they were accused of being terrorists and were jailed also with him. The local Vice Mayor Mr. Million, himself, ordered their imprisonment.

We were thrown in jail under the mercy of ‘the king’s’ will,” Kibret jokingly told ICC.

The men faced relentless interrogation while the only “crime” they confessed was that they were Christians. Officials fraudulently demanded documentation that would prove  where the men had traveled from and questioned their Ethiopian citizenship.

“We never thought that a letter was needed in order to visit a sick lady to pray for her,” ICC’s Ethiopian staffer said.

That’s because the demands were fabricated and officials looked for any excuse to keep the men in prison.

When two police officers and the district prosecutors came to intimidate the prisoners, they defended the name of Christ, even amidst the threats and opposition:

“If you are not obedient to God who gave you authority to lead this people according to the law, you should know that He will surely punish you. If you hate us due to our faith, we are willing to die for His Name’s sake!”

The men were taken to court and, although the judge saw no constitutional basis for their imprisonment, they remained in jail for three more days amounting to a total of five days of incarceration.

Justice Triumphs in the End

On April 28, 2014, Fikere Mengistu finally received justice. The court in Deder as well as the higher court in Harar heard arguments relating to Fikere’s legal claim to his land in Deder. Both courts ruled in Fikere’s favor, upholding his legal possession of the property despite the pressure they had received from the local Muslim community.

The small minority of Christian brothers and sisters thank God for seeing them through persecution and upholding justice in the end for Fikere and his family. The Mengistu family and other brothers and sisters in the area can now return to worshipping Jesus openly in Deder.

For interviews Please Contact Troy Augustine, Regional Manager for Africa: rm-africa@persecution.org

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