Ethiopian Christians flee after church burnings

Posted on March 20, 2011

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Evangelical churches and homes have been burnt down by mobs of Muslims in the southwestern Jimma region of Ethiopia. The attacks have left at least one person dead and 7,000 displaced. “This is a strategically planned attack by an extremist Islamic group.”

Luc van Kemenade, Asendabo

“It is a miracle that we are standing here talking,” says Wolde Giorgis, a primary school teacher and devote Christian, standing in front of the burnt remainders of what used to be the largest Pentecostal church of Asendabo, a town in the southwest of Ethiopia that is predominantly Muslim.

Wolde says to fear for his life. “I will leave this place as soon as possible, like so many Christians already did. I don’t know what will be next: first they burn our churches and houses. Are they going to kill us now?”

Evangelical churches and homes of Christians in Asendabo, about 300 kilometers southwest of capital Addis Ababa, and other towns in the Jimma region were torched earlier this month. Thousands of them have fled their hometowns to safer areas.

More than 46 churches belonging to the Pentecostal Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church and 23 belonging to other Christian groups have been burnt down, says Temesgen Wolde, coordinator of the Kale Hiwot department in Jimma City. His church shelters eighty refugee Christians in a tent.

The attacks began after Muslims accused the Kale Hiwot Church in Asendabo of flushing Qurans down the toilet and using its pages as toilet paper. “Within a short period of time a large group of Muslims attacked our Church screaming ‘Allahu Akhbar’,” Temesgen says.

What started as a seemingly local conflict spread to different places in the region within two days. Temesgen: “This puzzles me. Although I don’t have any evidence it looks like a strategic plan to hurt our church and followers.”

According to Teshome Degefu, mayor of Asendabo, the conflict is not religious but political. “An opposition group of Muslim extremists called Kawarja has incited the attacks,” he says. The mayor says the radicals have been preaching religious intolerance and stirring up Muslims during secretive gatherings outside of his town, resulting in an organized attack.

“I tried to stop the angry crowd, but they wouldn’t listen,” says Imam Hadjima Mehamed Adem. The head of the Tofik Mosque in Asendabo says he is sure that his followers were not among the attackers.

“They were youngsters from outside the village who have been brainwashed by Kawarja extremists,” he says. “It is difficult for them to distinguish an Imam from an extremist and they are receptive to their ideas.” Besides preaching in the mosque Imam Hadjima says he will talk individually with youngsters in rural areas. “We need to restore peace within our community.”

Wolde Giorgis says he does not believe that will happen: “I don’t care who started the violence. The fact is that thousands of local Muslims, my neighbors, have participated in it. That’s why I don’t see a future for me and other Christians in this town anymore.”

Restoring peace

In Asendabo and other towns affected by violence against churches local governments have organized ‘peace conferences’. The meeting in Asendabo held in an open field last Sunday, 13 March, was attended by hundreds of citizens.

According to mayor Teshome of Asendabo the main goal of the meetings is to catch the criminals who incited the violence and collect evidence against them. “We have arrested 23 extremists so far,” he says. “For safety reasons we have also taken in five Protestants, including the local church leader.”

Another topic discussed at the meetings is how to rebuild the destroyed churches and homes. “The Muslim community will be involved,” Teshome says. The religious leaders of both Christian and Muslim communities emphasize their dedication to live peacefully together: “We have been good neighbors for as long as I can remember,” Imam Hadjima says. “And we want to keep it that way.”

This article was published on the website of Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) on Sunday 20 March 2011

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