October 1, 2009
NAIROBI, Kenya (CDN) — An Ethiopian court on Sept. 21 threw out an appeal by two evangelists said to be falsely accused of offering money and gifts to people to convert to Christianity, thus upholding their six-month prison sentences.
Temesgen Alemayehu and Tigist Welde Amanuel of Wengel Lealem church in Addis Ababa went to Debiretabor, Amhara state, to plant a church in July. After a week in the area, according to area Christian sources, their proclamation of Christ led several people to confess their sins and receive Him as Savior.
On July 19, however, some passersby began to question the two evangelists, and Christian sources said a heated argument led to a group attack on the two evangelists, wounding Alemayehu. Amanuel sustained minor injuries, the sources said, but managed to escape to a nearby home; the mob followed her into the compound, demanding she be handed over to them.
The homeowners refused, saying they would not cooperate with criminals and would instead hand her over to police. "I would not allow any attack against the woman," the unidentified owner of the home said, according to one church leader.
Police arrived at the scene of the attack and protected Alemayehu from the violent band, made up of members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), and took him into custody. The attacking group accused Alemayehu and Amanuel of insulting their religion.
Christian sources said a group within the EOC called "Mahibere Kidusan" ("Fellowship of Saints") had incited members to attack the two evangelists as they were proclaiming Christ on the roadside. The increasingly powerful group's purpose is to counter all reform movements within the EOC and shield the denomination from outside threats.
In time the EOC attackers fabricated accusations of offering money or gifts to make converts, Christian sources said, but under police questioning Alemayehu and Amanuel said they had only shared their faith to interested people without making such offers. They also tried to explain to police that it was their constitutional right to do so.
Police, however, submitted the attackers' false statements to the district prosecutor, Christian sources said.
On July 22, Alemayehu and Amanuel appeared at district court in Debiretabor to hear charges against them. A charge sheet claimed that they were caught offering money and gifts to people to change their religion, and Christian sources said witnesses falsely testified to that effect.
The next day, the court delivered a guilty verdict. Alemayehu stated that his only sin was telling of his faith in Christ to interested persons, and that he had a constitutional right to do so. The judge sentenced him and Amanuel to six months of prison.
Police immediately transferred both Christians to Debiretabor prison.
"There is an open conspiracy between judges, police and prison officers," the church leader said. "Police speeded up the investigation and brought it to the district prosecutor's attention within a day. Witnesses were organized to falsely testify at court. The judges passed the sentence refusing the right to defense."
Debiretabor is the seat for south Gondar Zone administration in Amhara state. As in the rest of Amhara, Debiretabor's population is predominantly EOC with hostile attitudes towards evangelicals, Christian sources said. They added that churches already operating in Debiretabor and surrounding areas meet with continued EOC resistance.
In some cases, the sources said, EOC priests have urged attacks against Christians, and government authorities influenced by Mahibere Kidusan have infringed on Christians' rights. It was unknown if the judge and police officers in Alemayehu and Amanuel's case were under the influence of Mahibere Kidusan, but the local church leader said there were signs of bias in the case.
"Prison officials are handling both believers with harsh treatments, and after all these, no one is questioned for either the process or its result," the church leader said. "We are waiting for God's intervention on all this."
In the rejection of the appeal, the high court judge said that he found "no mistake of law interpretation" to change the verdict of the lower court, a Christian source said.
"That means now the two believers have to serve the six-month sentence unless they appeal and achieve something at the regional State Supreme Court," he said. "We heard that the two are thinking of appealing at the regional State Supreme Court in Bahirdar soon."
Amanuel is assigned to a cell where criminals including serial killers are serving their terms, a source said, and they have threatened her. Both she and Alemayehu continue to share their faith in Christ with other inmates, in spite of insults from the prisoners.
Church leaders in Debiretabor said they brought the case to the attention of the regional state vice president, and that he sent his representative to visit Alemayehu and Amanuel in prison. The representative discussed the situation with the district court and with police. Sources said the visits, however, only exacerbated conditions for the two Christians by upsetting prison officers.
Starting on Aug. 26, prison officials forbade visits to Amanuel and Alemayehu for at least 15 days. They also stopped food from being brought them, a common practice among all prisoners whose relatives are able to help them.
"I went on Aug. 20 to meet them in prison, but officers at the gate told me that they have an order to stop any visitor," the church leader in Debiretabor said. "I think our report to the regional authorities made some contribution to this decision."
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