A recently erected church was burned in southern Ethiopia on Nov. 29 by a group of over 500 Muslim students allegedly supported by local police, four days after local Muslim authorities ordered demolition of the building, human rights watchdog International Christian Concern (ICC) reported Thursday.
The Saint Arsema Orthodox Church in the village of Qoto Baloso in Silte Province found itself entangled in conflict between the Muslim population, predominant in the region, and the minority Christians community.
On Nov. 25, police tore down the church’s roof, following a dispute started by a Muslim businessman who claimed he owned the piece of land, ICC's regional manager for Africa, Jonathan Racho, told The Christian Post Friday. The Christian community has been using the land for holding service for the past 60 years, and in a recent decision, the Supreme Court of the South Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS) (a counterpart of a state supreme court) ruled the community had a right to build its temple there.
However, a local court ruled that the building was erected without proper authorization, head of police in Silte Province told ICC.
Chief of Qebet district police, Hassan Shomolo, has a reputation for anti-Christian attitude, the agency said. So does Judge Daro Jamal, who reportedly issued the order for the police chief to deploy 30 officers on the night of Nov. 25 to demolish the church. The law enforcement only managed to damage the roof, as local Christians began protesting.
On Nov. 29, a group of more than 500 Muslim students poured gasoline on the building and burned it in broad daylight, Racho said. The police chief told ICC the incident is being investigated.
The students assaulting the church were yelling “Allahu Akbar!” and “Jihad!” witnesses said.
Statistically, Christians are a majority in Ethiopia. The country population consists of 43.5 percent of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and 18.6 percent of Protestants, with a significant minority of 33.9 percent Muslims, according to data from the U.S. Department of State.
However, the particular region where Saint Arsema Orthodox Church is located is dominated by the followers of Islam.
“All the government officials in the area are Muslims. The Islamic religion has become the state religion in our region,” a local member of the Christian community told ICC. “The non-Muslims in the area live and worship in fear. How could we say there is a rule of law when the police come into a church in the middle of the night and demolish it?”
Church burning is too common a form of persecution the Christian community has been receiving from the Muslim community in Ethiopia.
In June, an Ethiopian court sentenced 579 Muslim extremists to between three and 18 months in prison for violence against Christians that lasted an entire week beginning March 2, 2011, which included church burnings and personal assaults.
Racho told CP that the recent incident is proof of growing Islamization of Ethiopia, resulting from an influx of Wahhabi Muslims, a branch of Islam coming from Saudi Arabia, who have been violent not only against Christians, but even other Muslims.
“We urge the Ethiopian government to stop gross violations of the rights of Christian minorities in areas of the country dominated by Muslims,” Racho appealed on ICC’s website.