Religious Persecution Hides Among Political and Ethnic Tensions in Southern Ethiopia

By Nathan Johnson
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11/14/2019 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)Pastor Peter, a Kenyan preacher living in Nairobi, has been taking trips to serve Christians in Ethiopia for seven years now. He evangelizes to ethnic groups in southern Ethiopia, in which the Gospel has not yet permeated their communities fully. International Christian Concern (ICC) approached him to gain a better understanding of what is happening in southern Ethiopia, specifically in the Oromo areas, which have suffered a lot of violence over the past year.

He said, “The reason why Christian persecution cases rarely get into the limelight is because of the ongoing ethnic conflict and political violence in Ethiopia. But we have very recent incidences where churches have been destroyed and Christians harassed, killed, or maimed. Muslims are the leading perpetrators of persecution in the south, especially in areas where they are the majority. We also have cases where non-traditional evangelical churches have gone through harassment at the hands of the government or from the mainstream Christian religion, the Orthodox Church.”

Though Ethiopia is a primarily Christian nation, they still have struggles with persecution. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been active in the country nearly since the days of Christ. The country has officially been a Christian nation since it proclaimed it as the state religion in AD 333. As a result, the Orthodox Church is heavily intertwined with Ethiopian identity. Those who move away from this are often seen as pariahs or not a part of the Church at all.

Also, in some parts of Ethiopia, there are primarily Muslim areas where Christianity is seen as a false religion. In these areas, both Orthodox and Protestant Christians are targeted for their faith.

Pastor Peter proceeded to share several recent cases of extreme persecution.

In February 2019, radical Muslims destroyed 10 churches at Alaba Kulito after it was rumored that Christians had destroyed a mosque in the predominantly Muslim southern region. “This was one of the worst attacks on churches ever,” said Pastor Peter. “Two Christians were also injured during the attack. The government security team was aware that the Muslims were planning to destroy churches and kill anyone who stood in their way, but no one came forth to stop the arson.”

Pastor Peter continued, “Also, in August last year, Muslims burned a total of 20 churches in Somali-dominated areas and killed 13 Orthodox church leaders. Several other churches were also looted.

Somalis living in Ethiopia and Kenya are heavily Islamic, and many hold to stricter forms of the religion as their home country does. This has led to increased tensions between this group and those who live near them, but hold different beliefs. This is not only true in southern Ethiopia, but also along the border between Kenya and Somalia.

He continued, “In January 2018, three converts to Christianity from a Muslim background in Awassa town had their limbs chopped off for becoming a disgrace to the Muslim faith. They were rescued by my friend who serves as a pastor with the Southern Ethiopia Evangelical Churches (SEEC) and brought to Nairobi for treatment and thereafter fixed with artificial limbs. I was called to meet with the victims at the hospital and asked if I could be visiting them daily to pray and encourage them. They were in a bad situation.”

Attacks like these often affect those who leave the Islamic faith in East Africa. Pastor Peter noted that these cases represent only a handful of the religiously motivated attacks facing Christians in Ethiopia.

He finished by sharing about a former Islamic teacher who escaped to Kenya after being physically assaulted and threatened with death. “I know many former Sheikhs who have been persecuted for leaving the Islamic faith and following Christ. They have gone through a lot of persecution in Ethiopia, including being beaten, mistreatment from their families, and death threats from local Sheikhs because of committing the sin of apostasy. One of them is Sheikh Hussein who ran to Kenya last year in fear of his life after putting his trust in Christ Jesus. His wife and children were taken away by the in-laws and his house [was] burnt down.

Pastor Peter has asked that believers around the world remember Christians in Ethiopia.  “We are asking for prayers during this time when hate against the Ethiopian Church is growing and many believers are being oppressed. We also hope that these recent cases and the ongoing mistreatment by the Muslim people and the Orthodox Church will catch the attention of Christian campaign groups in other nations.”  

Please pray for peace to return to southern Ethiopia. Pray for the hearts of those who are attacking believers, both those of Orthodox and Muslim backgrounds, to be changed. Pray for safety and security as the country is in a time of strife. Finally, please pray for wisdom on behalf of the leaders of the country as they seek a more prosperous and peaceful future.

ICC is on a mission to help persecuted Christians. Will you join us?