U.S. President Barak Obama is visiting Ethiopia on 27 and 28 July, providing an opportunity for America to prod its ally on its human-rights record, which gets low marks from world capitals.
With Ethiopia Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn sharing the stage, Obama alluded to the country’s record: “[W]hen people know that they’re included in the political process, that makes a country stronger and more successful and more innovative. So we discussed steps that Ethiopia can take to show progress on promoting good governance, protecting human rights, fundamental freedoms, and strengthening democracy,” Obama said during a joint news conference in Addis Ababa, the capital and the seat of the African Union, which the president is scheduled to address on 28 July.
Ethiopia ranks 22nd on the 2015 World Watch List, an annual list of the countries where life as a Christian is most difficult. The list is published by Open Doors International, a global charity that provides aid to Christians living under pressure.
Neither Obama nor Desalegn took the opportunity to address the case of three Christians convicted of arson.
On 26 May, 2014, an Ethiopian Orthodox Church building in the rural community of Gulema Iyesus, 275 kilometres north of Addis Ababa, burned to ashes. A month later officials arrested two Protestant evangelists in their 20s, Tibebu Mekuria and Dawit Jemberu, accusing them of starting the fire. They also arrested another Protestant Christian and small kiosk owner, Belete Tilahun, who was accused of funding the attack.
Although witnesses vouched that the men were not near the building at the time of the fire and the single prosecution witness gave inconsistent testimony, the judge found all three guilty on 28 October, 2014, with sentences of up to nine years in prison each.
In November the judge upheld the ruling, prompting the men’s lawyer to appeal to the Regional State Supreme Court in the Amhara state capital of Bahir Dar. The appeal was rejected in December. A final appeal, to the Federal Supreme Court in Addis Ababa, was to have been heard 2 June, but was postponed to 8 July and again to 23 October when the judge claimed he had inadequate time to look at the case.
Although the appeal has not yet been heard, a court in Debiremarkos, north of Addis Ababa, has ordered the three Christians to pay 1.2 million Ethiopian birr, or about UK £37,000, for the damages to Orthodox church building.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in Africa, dating back to the fourth century. Throughout the history of Ethiopia, the EOC was the only church to enjoy state religion status. At the start of Ethiopia’s Communist era in 1974, church and state were separated and the EOC lost its state-religion status.
However the church continues to enjoy this standing unofficially and retains a powerful voice in all state and religious affairs. Mahibere Kidusan, a conservative movement within the Church, has been posing a growing threat to non-traditional Protestants. The group allegedly wants to control government policies to restrict the activities of other religions.
Prime Minister Desalegn belongs to the Apostolic Church of Ethiopia, a “Oneness Pentecostal” denomination that is not part of mainstream Protestant Christianity. Because he does not belong to the unofficial “state” Ethiopian Orthodox Church, he has been accused of benefitting evangelicals, which in turn has led to increasing pressure on them.