Nairobi, Kenya - Evangelical Christians in an area of Ethiopia unaccustomed to anti-Christian hostility have come under attack from Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) members threatened by their existence, Christian leaders said.
In Olenkomi, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, two church buildings were attacked by an EOC mob in Olenkomi town, Oromia Region, on Jan. 27 – leaving one evangelist unconscious and other Christians fearful of Orthodox hostility. Area Christians fear the assailants will not face justice due to the EOC’s powerful presence and impending elections.
A Mekane Yesus Church building was destroyed in the assault, while a Brethren Church structure suffered damages.
Attacks against evangelicals in the area are rare, but recently Christians have come under immense pressure as they face isolation and verbal threats, church leaders said. Located in the West Shoa Zone of Oromia Region, Olenkomi is a small town where most people there and in surrounding areas belong to the EOC. All officials in government are EOC members, and evangelical Christians encounter difficulties obtaining land for church buildings, church leaders said.
The attack followed an accidental fire from liturgical candles that burned an EOC building. EOC members blamed evangelicals, and in the ensuing assault evangelist Abera Ongeremu was so badly beaten the mob left him for dead. Another three Christians also sustained minor injuries.
Ongeremu was visiting from Neqemite, 260 kilometers (161 miles) away. After the mob stoned the Brethren Church, they next targeted Mekane Yesus Church, where Ongeremu was staying in guest quarters. A member of the mob took a Bible from his guest room and told him to burn it.
“How can I burn the book that showed me life?” the shocked Ongeremu asked.
He said that he told the mob that they could do anything they wanted, but he was not going to burn the Holy Bible. The attackers tied his hands and legs together and threw him back into the room, sprinkling diesel on the walls and roof and locking him in before setting it on fire, he said.
“I thought it was my last,” Ongeremu said. “I now understand nothing will happen to you without the will of God. That was not the day God allowed for me to die.”
Some of the assailants argued that Ongeremu should not die by burning, but by beating. Two of them dragged him out of the room and continuously beat him, covering his face in blood. He sustained wounds on his skull and right arm.
“After repeated beatings I lost consciousness,” he said. “I didn’t know how and when they left me. I only recall they argued about how to kill me.”
Federal police were summoned from Ambo – the nearest town some 50 kilometers (31 miles) away – to disperse the mob, but too late to avert the injuries and damages after their rugged journey of nearly three hours.
Prior to the attacks, according to church leaders, there was no substantial build-up of tension between the two groups, though EOC priests had expressed anger about the expansion of evangelical churches and had questioned why teachers from evangelical backgrounds were prevalent in the high school in Olenkomi.
Most of the teachers at Olenkomi Secondary High School are evangelical Christians, according to church leaders, who said this circumstance was solely coincidental. Although teachers of evangelical faith are prevalent in the school, they are forbidden by law to promote their faith in class.
The EOC members had been constructing a building for a church in Olenkomi, but because of funding shortfalls they revised the plan and built a temporary structure. Evangelical church leaders said EOC priests had seized the land without formal process, but sources said the EOC’s strong presence in the area kept evangelical church officials from protesting brazen construction efforts.
The EOC’s small structure was being used for liturgical purposes.
“The shelter-like house has faced fire disaster in various incidents,” said a church leader in Olenkomi. “The materials used to build it, and the curtains they hung on walls exposed the shelter to several fire incidents. The [candle and lantern] lights the priests used for liturgy were causing problems. We heard that a number of times the fire had lit curtains, and the priests stopped before it spread.”
Such a fire broke out on the day of the attack, this time out-pacing the frantic efforts of the priests. The fire consumed curtains inside the house and spread to roofs and walls. To douse it the priests went to a nearby government-owned water tank operated by an evangelical woman. She granted them water, and the structure did not burn entirely.
When they later returned to wash, however, they put their hands inside the tank and sullied the public water source. When the operator objected, the EOC members spoke derogatorily of her as a “Pente” and began to spread the rumor that she was responsible for the burnt structure, church leaders said.
EOC members quickly formed into groups of various sizes, sources said, and rolled into town chanting, “This is the day to destroy Pentecostals and their churches!” They first went to the Brethren Church, located by the side of a highway that stretches through Olenkomi to western Ethiopia.
“When we first heard stones falling on the roof, we thought the wind was tearing up iron sheets,” said one evangelist. “We also heard a loud noise from outside. It was around 12:30 p.m. I opened the main door to check what was happening. The whole compound was filled by men and women who carried stones and sticks. It was a very scary sight.”
They were stoning the church building, forcing the praying believers to escape through a back door. The assailants continued breaking doors and windows, thinking worshippers were trapped inside.
Local police arrived, the evangelist said, but they failed to disperse the violent mob.
“Despite firing into the air, the officers didn’t do anything serious to stop the mob,” he said. “They later said it is beyond their capacity and would call Federal Police from Ambo town. The anti-riot police arrived two and half hours later, practically after the mob effectively carried out all the destruction.”
Of the attack on Mekane Yesus Church, one church leader said the mob broke in and set fire on everything they found.
“They gathered benches, office chairs and tables, documents, musical instruments, public address system, choir uniforms and other materials and set them on fire,” he said. “They also lit fire to the church building, which reduced it to ashes.”
The mob was not finished. They proceeded to the high school, where they attacked Christian teachers as students rushed to defend them. Church leaders said the targeting of the school was evidence that the attack had been planned before with well-considered aims.
With Ethiopia scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on May 23, government officials don’t want to upset voters by punishing those behind the attacks, church leaders said. It is likely that officials would pressure church leaders from both camps to settle for the sake of stability, but Christians fear that in doing so their complaints will be overlooked.
Some suspects have been identified, but church leaders don’t expect they will be punished.
“It is like hitting a fire ball,” said a church leader from Brethren Church. “When you hit the fire, it would round back to you. It can even burn you. You may also distribute the fire to new places.”
In spite of the violence, evangelical Christians have engaged in “fervent witnessing ministry and prayer,” he said.
“It awakens us to think, pray and unite,” he said. “There is no good in persecution. But God turned it around for the good of us. The persecution was intended to destroy our commitment, but it rather built our faith.”
As election day draws closer, said the leader, EOC priests could easily motivate followers to attack.
“That would be bad times for believers,” he said. “Let’s pray for people in Olenkomi to know the will of God and repent from evil from which they assume to serve God.”