In a rare win for Ethiopia's Christian community, three believers falsely convicted and imprisoned for burning down an Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) building have been cleared of all charges by a Supreme Court judge.
Tibebu Mekuria, Dawit Jemberu, and Belete Tilahun were freed from prison in January, but were just this weekend released from a separate court order made in July 2016 to pay for damages to the church.
Sources in Ethiopia report that the court yesterday, May 2, dropped the compensation charges, cancelling the government's hold on Tilahun's property and bank account. "All three are extremely relieved over this outcome", persecution watchdog World Watch Monitor was told.
WWM reports that the three Christians had been falsely convicted and imprisoned for burning down the church building - even though witnesses said the men were not near the building at the time of the fire. Despite the inconsistent testimony given by a single prosecution witness, a judge found all three guilty on 28 October, 2014, with sentences of up to nine years in prison each.
Until their acquittal, the three men were held in Debiremarkos prison, which WWM notes is notorious as a prison where opponents of the former Communist Ethiopian government were tortured and killed.
During the delays, Tilahun's father died of an unknown cause in May 2016. At the time, locals told WWM his son's imprisonment was too "traumatic" for the elderly man to handle.
"The father was deeply saddened to see his son sentenced back in 2015," they said. "He was depressed after attending hearing after hearing. When the judge at the higher court upheld the ruling by the lower court, he was heard saying, 'May the God of truth vindicate your name', with deep frustration. A devoted EOC follower, he was not convinced about the accusations against his son. For Belete it's always been very concerning to see his father tirelessly attending all the hearings at such an old age."
Of the population of 99.4 million in Ethiopia, about 20 percent belong to Christian evangelical groups and 40 percent to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), while about 34 percent of the total population is Muslim, according to Operation World.
While Ethiopia says it guarantees freedom of religion, evangelical Christians frequently face discrimination and harassment; in fact, the country is ranked 18th of 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian, according to the 2016 World Watch List compiled by Open Doors, which works worldwide with Christians under pressure for their faith.
"Ethiopia has many tribes...[who are] not necessarily favorable to Christianity, and in some places like Afar and the Somali regions, tribes are interconnected with Islam," notes the report. "The ruling party in the country has blocked all the channels for freedom of expression and assembly, and has also tried to control all religious institutions in a bid to curb dissent."
In September, 34-year-old Christian mother Habiba Ibrahim was hospitalized after her husband Ibrahim Dido beat her up for leaving Islam. She had only been a Christian since Aug. 2 when her husband found out about her new faith, the Morning Star News reports.