Originally published by World Watch Monitor.
In Ethiopia, three teenage Christian girls have been arrested following the distribution of a Christian book in the town of Babile, about 550km east of the capital, Addis Ababa.
Babile is close to the historic walled city of Harar, also known as the City of Saints, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Islamic cultural significance.
The three girls — Eden, 15, Gifti, 14, and Mihiret, 14, first appeared in court on 28 September — with an 18-year-old woman known to her friends as Deborah. Police asked for 14 days to further investigate the case, but the judge awarded six days. On October 3, the girls appeared in court again; the judge awarded officials a further three days to take the girls to a nearby town for medical examinations to determine their exact ages (they don’t have official dates of birth, and the age at which Ethiopia deems someone should be tried in an adult court is 18).
The judge postponed the hearing to yesterday (October 10) without giving a reason; the case was then transferred to a higher court in Harar and their lawyers applied for bail.
When the girls came to court in Harar, the prosecutor reportedly asked for more time to finalise his charges, so the judge adjourned until Friday October 14.
The case follows the distribution of a Christian book (in Ethiopia’s main Amharic language) by a local author, Let’s speak the truth in love: Answers to questions by Ahmed Deedat, that sets out to answer questions posed by the late South African Islamic scholar (and former head of the Islamic Propagation Centre International) about the Christian faith. Local Christians decided to distribute it following cross-cultural evangelism training.
Local Muslims said the book was an insult to Islam and on 19 September a group attacked the Protestant Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) in Babile, damaging its doors and windows. MKC is a member of the Mennonite World Conference.
Town officials quickly arranged a meeting between religious leaders the next day, at which leaders of both the MKC and also the Full Gospel Church (FGC) apparently apologised for the distribution of the book, from which they distanced themselves. Following the meeting, officials arrested a man called Bekele, as well as Deborah, Eden and Eden’s mother.
At a wider public meeting the same day, town officials criticised “some elements” who wanted to “incite religious clashes” and warned that they would take further measures against such “instigators”.
A local Christian who challenged this – by pointing out that Islamic books are in circulation in Babile, but that no similar action is taken – has since been required to report to the police regularly. He has been pressured to apologise for his statements, which he has refused to do.
That night the FGC also suffered an attack, resulting in similar damage to that of the MKC.
Threats against church leaders continued; the next day 21 September, a group of about 20 Muslim youths reportedly visited the house of the MKC leader and warned him to leave the area or risk losing his life and property.
Officials released Eden’s mother on 21 September and Bekele on 22 September, but arrested Gifti and Mihiret on 23 September.
There is concern over the wellbeing of the girls; Eden suffered a beating on her first night in prison. But according to WWM’s source, who was able to visit the girls in prison and speak to Eden and Deborah, their faith is unshaken. “This [suffering] is an honour for us. We should expect persecution. We are not afraid. We are singing and praying here in prison,” Eden said. Deborah commented, “It is an honour to be jailed for God’s Kingdom”.
Ethiopia says it guarantees freedom of religion* and in the cities there is mostly peaceful co-existence between people of different faiths. However, Evangelical Christians, (including those who formerly adhered to Islam or to the Orthodox Church) face discrimination, threats and sometimes attacks.
Ethiopia is 18th of 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian, according to the World Watch List 2016 compiled by Open Doors, which works worldwide with Christians under pressure for their faith.