NAIROBI, Kenya -- A young Christian convert in Ethiopia mourning the sudden death of her baby boy was shocked to learn his body had been dug up and placed at the doorstep of a church leader earlier this month.
Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) upset at the conversion of the teenage mother to evangelical faith were suspected of the wrongdoing. Converts in the surging evangelical movement in Ethiopia commonly have difficulty getting permission from EOC leaders to bury their dead, but in this case the crime occurred on their own church grounds after the EOC forbid them to bury the child elsewhere.
The incident happened in Luga, 170 kilometers (105 miles) south of Addis Ababa, after 17-year-old Tsehay Desta, who recently left her Orthodox upbringing in favor of evangelical faith, had traveled there from Asela to visit her mother a month ago. During her stay, her infant boy fell ill and suddenly died on May 9.
Forbidden to bury the baby anywhere else, the next day the Kale Hiwot Church in Luga arranged for burial on its grounds, but on May 11 suspected EOC members dug up the grave and dumped the body at the gate of the church leader. Area Christians said authorities in Endegagne district, who have not helped evangelicals bury their dead, have not questioned anyone about the incident.
Luga is a village close to Dinkula town, seat of Endegagne district in the state of SNNP (Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples), where evangelical Christians have suffered various attacks in Orthodox-dominated villages since 2007. Their churches targeted by mobs, Christians said they have cheated death a number of times.
The leader of the evangelical church in Luga, who requested anonymity, said he has been beaten and is still seeking justice over having lost his teaching job at a government school. Area youths who receive Christ have been driven from their families. In the face of such violence, Christians said, authorities have ignored appeals by church members; almost no one is questioned for the repeated attacks.
It was not long after Desta’s dramatic conversion more than a year ago – a Christian cousin exorcized evil spirits she said were tormenting her, and she received Christ – that her Orthodox husband objected to her newfound faith.
For a few months the couple lived with almost daily disagreements and fights. In the end, her husband yielded to pressure from his friends and EOC leaders and divorced her. She was pregnant and saw no option but to go to her cousin. She had given birth and lived with her cousin for two months when she decided to visit her mother in Luga.
“I came to Luga to visit my mother just a month ago,” she said. “My boy was fine, and he had not fallen ill since birth. He was healthy. I was shocked – I don’t know why he died so fast.”
Villagers in Luga soon realized that Desta had converted. Some of her mother’s neighbors visited them to prevail upon her to recant her new faith. In the week before the boy got sick and died, villagers sent elderly men who asked her mother to kick her daughter out.
“How can I chase my daughter out?” her mother asked the delegation. “I told them that I may not agree with her decision, but she is still my daughter.”
The village elders threatened to ostracize her from all social activities unless she banished her daughter, but she did not heed them. Area Christians said the elders got a rare opportunity to retaliate at the woman’s perceived disrepectfulness when her grandson died a few days later; they vowed not to cooperate in arranging a funeral.
Mourning and unable to give the 3-month-old infant a Christian burial, Desta and her mother were comforted when the evangelical church leader offered to help. He arranged for a funeral in line with his Protestant faith, and with Desta’s mother watching from a distance, the burial took place within the church compound – in spite of the fact that the Luga church does not officially have land designated for either a funeral or church services, as authorities had rejected its application.
The funeral was held on Sunday, May 10, late in the afternoon, with no sign of hostility from others. The next morning, however, the coffin containing the body had been disinterred and placed at the church leader’s doorstep.
Tortuous Search for Justice
Although such experiences are not unusual for area Christians, area sources said, the church leader feared that the incident could discourage potential converts and harm evangelistic work in the village. He decided to report the incident to the police.
With no hope of securing a new site for interring the body and no promise of protection from local authorities, church leaders set out with the corpse on a search for government help that took them more than 800 kilometers (497 miles).
Thus began a byzantine search for justice. The evangelical mother church in Hosanna sent a delegation to bring the coffin there; believing it was a waste of time to seek assistance from the district administrators in Dinkula, evangelical leaders sought to appeal to the zonal administration in Wolkite, some 165 kilometers (102 miles) from Luga. The quest took them, together with their national leaders from Addis Ababa, to Awasa, the regional state headquarters, to seek the intervention of officials there as a last resort before proceeding to federal authorities.
The case was said to anger the state’s house speaker, who immediately called the zonal administrator in Wolkite, ordering him to go to Luga immediately, resolve the crisis and report back. Government promises of burial land, however, came to nothing. And although authorities arrested three or four suspects, the Christians’ relief was short-lived; those detained were set free only hours later.
“Everything was for one single day,” said the Luga church leader. “A day later, the detective from the zonal administration returned, and all the suspected individuals were released.”
On May 16, the Luga evangelical church leaders reburied the body in its former grave – hoping there would be no further incidents.
The Luga church leader said that since May 15 unknown assailants have stoned his house daily.
“We are having very scary nights to this day,” he said. “I cannot walk out and look to see who is doing this. I am isolated and surrounded by people who are blaming me for all that has happened.”
Verbal threats are common, the church leader said, “but after this incident, things are changing. Even on my way home from the office, villagers are insulting and warning me for ‘betraying’ them at the regional state level.”
He added that he also has been accused of creating turmoil in the village by introducing “a new thing.”
A church leader in Addis Ababa said he suspected the state official who ordered a resolution to the disinterring of the infant corpse was only play-acting.
“Maybe such unprecedented response from the regional state was a show of hypocrisy to calm down church leaders,” he said.
He added that federal officials are trying to portray all religious clashes as “politically motivated conflicts.”
“It is a shock for everyone here to see clashes between EOC and Islam,” he said. “Government officials are holding various meetings mostly with EOC and Islamic leaders to convince them that all religious clashes are motivated by ‘politically failed individuals and organizations, as well as foreign agents.’”