by Geoff Stamp
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (Compass) -- A leading member of Ethiopia's Protestant church says that freedom to practice religion is only "constitutional." Yet despite ongoing persecution, Protestant churches are experiencing significant growth.
"During the former regime of communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the persecution came from the Marxist government authorities. Now we may have freedom on paper, but I can say that persecution has doubled and it is coming from the Orthodox Church and the Muslims," the church leader told Compass.
Even in the capital, Addis Ababa, there have been several recent incidents of people throwing stones at churches and Protestant worshippers. Farther from the capital, the threats of violence and incidents of persecution, especially stone throwing, increase.
In some areas, it has become common for people coming and going to the evangelical churches to be pelted with stones. The Full Gospel Church in Axum recently filed a complaint with the police asking them for protection against stone throwing by members of the Orthodox Church.
Over the last three years, there have been reports of churches being ordered to stop singing or praying together. Mission work in some areas has provoked violent reactions, and some church leaders have been whipped and beaten. Whenever a rural church wants to bury one of its members, there seems to be more trouble.
At the end of August, Muslim extremists threw a bomb into the compound of the Full Gospel Church in Jijiga. No one was hurt. But in other incidents, worshippers have been injured and some have been killed. Less than two years ago, the chairman of a church in the Awasa region was killed by a bomb blast.
In the last 10 years, the authorities have granted land and building permission to the Orthodox Church and to the Muslims. When the evangelical churches apply for permission to build, their applications are ignored.
Even though evangelical and Pentecostal churches now constitute more than 17 percent of the population, the government seems reluctant to recognize the rapid growth of these churches. Some believe it is to avoid angering the traditional Orthodox Church, which is quickly losing members to the more charismatic churches.
The evangelical and Pentecostal churches have set up an umbrella organization to represent them at the highest levels. The Evangelical Church Fellowship of Ethiopia (ECFE) is not a new organization. It was formed in 1992, but it is finding that recognition comes slowly. One official said that the authorities still try to deal directly with member churches, ignoring the ECFE, even though it now represents more than 10 million Christians.
Most church leaders who spoke to Compass did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal. Some spoke fearfully of a monitoring committee that scans foreign publications looking for anti-Orthodox material and seeking out and punishing the sources of such material.
"In a climate like this, you cannot say that we are free to worship and to spread our faith," said one Pentecostal church leader. "Yet, wherever the Spirit of God is moving, there will be signs and growth, and despite its opposition, the Orthodox Church itself will soon be touched by this revival. Seeds of renewal have been planted in the Orthodox Church and they will come to fruition sooner or later."
Copyright 2001, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.