The leader of an evangelical Christian fellowship group in Ethiopia has been sentenced to seven months in prison after he reportedly got into a theological argument with members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
World Watch Monitor has reported that 24-year-old Temesgen Mitiku Mezemir was sentenced Feb. 2 by a judge in the city of Arba Minch after he was charged with "causing outrage to religious peace and feeling."
According to the outlet, Mezemir's troubles began when members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church asked him his view of the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant that is sacred to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.
Mezemir responded by telling the Orthodox Christians to compare the accounts of the Tabot with information about the Ark of the Covenant online. He pulled up a picture of the Tabot online to explain his reasoning, but they were offended by his actions.
The Orthodox community comprises just under half of the African country's population.
Mezemir was accused of downloading the picture merely to insult the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He was official charged with the crime of causing offense and had to appear in a local court Jan. 23.
According to World Watch Monitor, no witness against Mezemir was presented at the trial. Instead, the judge offered people in attendance in the courtroom an opportunity to give their opinion of Mezemir.
Following the case, five evangelicals were injured when supporters of Mezemir were attacked outside the court building.
After Mezemir appealed to the Justice Department to replace the judge and change the venue, a different judge was assigned to the case and another trial was scheduled for three days later.
At the Jan. 26 hearing, Mezemir defended himself by stating that he had not uploaded the picture of the sacred replica to insult the Orthodox Christians but to use it as a reference in answering their question. Mezemir reportedly showed the judge the picture he had uploaded.
Although there is no law in Ethiopia barring anyone from sharing such a picture, Mezemir was still found guilty.
An appeal has been launched by Mezemir's lawyers, World Watch Monitor relays.
The ruling against Mezemir comes as Ethiopia ranks as the 29th-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on the Open Doors USA 2018 World Watch List.
"Arrests and disappearances of believers are common in the country, and those who leave Islam or the EOC face harsh mistreatment, sometimes being denied access to community resources," Open Doors USA warns about Ethiopia in a fact sheet. "In some cases, Christians are cut off from society completely."
Local evangelicals told World Watch Monitor that there is concern that the ruling against Mezemir will set a dangerous precedent.
Such a precedent would mean that evangelicals across the country could face imprisonment simply because of baseless accusations brought forth by the Orthodox community.
A member of Mezemir's fellowship told World Watch Monitor about how their community had been persecuted as of late.
The source detailed that the accusations against Mezemir were preceded by weeks of violent incidents believed to have been perpetrated by members of the Orthodox community.
Such an attack on the evangelical community occurred Jan. 19 before the Orthodox celebration of Epiphany. Evangelicals were accused of stealing a holiday banner.
Along with physically attacking evangelical Christians, a group of 70 people broke into the evangelical fellowship's meeting place and left a wake of destruction and havoc, World Watch Monitor reports.
The mob also prevented evangelicals from filing a complaint with police by attacking them at the local police station in Arba Minch.
The source further told World Watch Monitor that it is believed that a radical wing within the EOC inspired the attacks against the evangelical community by spreading rumors that the evangelicals were trying to take over the local Orthodox church.
"They used machetes, hammers and rocks," a source was quoted as saying. "Our members sustained injuries on their heads, arms and feet. One of our members had machete wounds on his arm."