By BosNewsLife Africa Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA (BosNewsLife)– Some 100 evangelical Christians in eastern Ethiopia were without a central place for worship Friday, December 5, after local authorities destroyed their church building, a church official and rights activists said.
The Y Semay Birihan Church, or Heaven’s Light Church, was demolished last week by Shenkore district police in the heavily Islamic city of Harar, said Pastor Zemach Tadesse, the 30-year-old senior pastor of the church.
Just days before the perceived attack, officials forcibly removed the church’s exterior sign and warned believers not to worship there citing complaints by a local Muslim, according to Christians familiar with the case.
After Christians refused to halt worship services, police reportedly arrived November 28 to destroy the church building. Security forces were allegedly seen removing roofing materials and the church’s siding while confiscating church properties. Police officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Additionally Pastor Zemach Tadesse, his wife Aster Tadesse, 30, and 39-year-old pastor and village council member Yosefe Hailemariam were reportedly detained seven hours for trying to photograph the destroyed church.
They were freed after community members “outraged by the wrongful detentions” called “for their immediate release,” said International Christian Concern (ICC), a rights group assisting the evangelicals with advocacy.
Christians, who had been gathering in the church building for five years, are now meeting in smaller groups in homes of individual believers as they were instructed by local officials “not to gather under what remains of the church building,” Pastor Tadesse said.
These are no isolated incidents, explained ICC, adding that it had documented “numerous ongoing land rights battles between churches and their local governments across Ethiopia.”
In many cases, ICC said, “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 churches resulted in the forceful closure, destruction and demolition of several church buildings in recent years, according to ICC investigators.
In Ethiopia, all land is publicly, rather than privately, owned. Churches are 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,Christians said.
“In Muslim-majority areas of Ethiopia, Christians’ applications to lease their individual land to the local church have been wrongfully denied on multiple occasions,” complained ICC in a statement to BosNewsLife.
ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa, Cameron Thomas, accused Ethiopia of violating the rights of devoted Christians. “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 official 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.”
Thomas urged authorities to extend permission for the congregation “to gather peaceably, in full compliance with Ethiopian law” and to allow “the free practice of religion.”
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