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The simplistic portrayals of Ethiopia as ‘Orthodox Christian’ or ‘a Christian island surrounded by hostile Muslim neighbours’ are misleading. These descriptions ignore the reality that Ethiopia is the legacy of a Christian empire that incorporated many diverse peoples. The Tigray-dominated north and the Amhara-dominated central highlands comprise the Christian heartland. These two Semitic tribes together comprise 45 percent of the population and most of the elite. The periphery is highly diverse and includes many animist and Muslim peoples. Unity is fragile and divisive forces are strong.

Before the Communist Revolution of 1974, Ethiopia was an Amhara-dominated kingdom. After Mengistu’s Marxist regime fell in 1991, the new Tigray-led government federalised the state, controversially devolving power to nine autonomous, ethnic regions (just as Tito did in Yugoslavia and as has recently been done in Kenya). By enabling a degree of self-determination, ethnic federalism was supposed to prevent Amhara domination, end cultural conflict and diminish centrifulgal forces. In reality (as in Yugoslavia) it has had the opposite effect: it has weakened the state while magnifying ethnic differences and interests. The largest ethnic group, the Omoro (about equal Muslim / Christian), complain of Tigrayan domination and want to secede. In September 2009 the International Crisis Group lamented that the international community was neglecting ‘the increased ethnic awareness and tensions created by the regionalisation policy and their potentially explosive consequences’.

Ethiopia’s Constitution (adopted in December 1994) states: ‘The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Any law, customary practice or a decision of an organ of state or a public official which contravenes this Constitution shall be of no effect’ (Article 9.1). Complicating ethnic tensions is the trend of rising Islamic intolerance. According to the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, Saudi-funded entities are exacerbating tensions between traditional Sufis and new Wahhabis, as well as between Muslims and Christians. In recent years Christians living in Muslim-dominated areas have been subjected to escalating persecution and application of Sharia law. To maintain ‘harmony’ and to appease restive Muslims, the Federal Government made religious incitement and religious defamation criminal offences in 2008. While Article 27 of the Federal Constitution guarantees ‘Freedom of Religion, Belief and Opinion’ it also provides that religious freedom may be limited by law in the interests of public safety.

In August 2010 Tamirat Woldegorgis (early 30s and father of two), a Protestant Christian in Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale, Oromia region, was arrested after a Muslim co-worker accused him of inscribing ‘Jesus is Lord’ on a cloth. The accuser changed his statement several times before the local imam testified that Woldegorgis had written the offensive words on a Quran. Despite the absence of evidence, Woldegorgis was sentenced on 18 November 2010 to three years in prison for allegedly defiling a Quran. He was then transferred to Jijiga Prison in Ethiopia’s Somali Region Zone Five which is governed according to Sharia. Consequently his life is greatly imperilled. Two friends who recently brought him food were fined for supporting a criminal imprisoned for defaming Islam. Authorities have reportedly offered to release Woldegorgis if he will convert to Islam (Compass Direct News, 29 November 2010).

International Christian Concern (ICC) has reported several violent attacks on Christian leaders in recent months. Of great concern is the report that harassed and persecuted Christians in the southern city of Besheno, Oromia region, have recently had notices posted on their doors warning them to convert to Islam, leave the city or face death. According to ICC, three leading Christians from an evangelical Christian community of about 30 believers have been forced to flee and two have been forcibly converted to Islam.

Intolerant, repressive, fundamentalist Islam is spreading, exerting itself and testing the limits in Ethiopia’s autonomous ethnic regions. Are minority Christian groups in restive Muslim-dominated areas going to be protected according to the Federal Constitution, or will they be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, stripped of their constitutional rights and handed over to the dictators of Islam in exchange for promises of ‘harmony’ and national unity?

PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL:

* protect Tamirat Woldegorgis and deliver him safely back to his family; may the family all know the sustaining presence of the Lord, their provider.

* protect the Christians living in restive Oromia and Islamic Somali, particularly the persecuted and threatened Christians in Besheno.

* grant Christian leaders great wisdom to know how to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16 ESV).

* give the Federal Government much wisdom, strength and courage to tackle the issue of constitutional rights and the supremacy of the Federal Constitution over regional Islamic courts.

Please pray for Ethiopia, a state of immense geo-strategic value in the Horn of Africa.

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