Twenty-Eight Ethiopian Christians Refuse to Convert

Just under two months after the martyrdom of twenty one Egyptian Coptic Christian workers in Libya at the hands of ISIS, the terror group has claimed the murder of twenty-eight Ethiopian Christians who refused to convert to Islam. In a half-hour video filmed in the Libyan provinces of Barqa and Fezzan, the militants indulge in a hate-filled rant against Christianity in what seems to be a perverse attempt to provide Islamic religious justification for the killing of minorities, before finally showing the martyrdom by shooting and beheading of two separate groups of Ethiopian Christians. One group, filmed being beheaded on a beach in Barqa province, is forced to wear orange jumpsuits in the same manner as the twenty one Egyptian Copts were. As the speakers in the video make clear, the Ethiopians were killed because they had refused the militants’ demands that they convert to Islam.

Although these latest victims of ISIS brutality are of Ethiopian nationality rather than Egyptian, their barbaric deaths are a result of the same widespread sickness of sectarianism in the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, Christians in Egypt and Ethiopia share a deep and lasting bond going back to the earliest days of Christianity nearly two thousand years ago. As with Egypt, nobody is sure exactly when Christianity came to Ethiopia, but it was well-established there by the time the Kingdom of Axum (which ruled much of modern-day Ethiopia) officially converted to Christianity in AD 330 – over fifty years before the Roman Empire, which ruled Egypt at the time. Following the schism of the fifth and sixth centuries between the Chalcedonian and Monophysite sects, the Christians of Ethiopia were members of the Church of Alexandria – which today we know as the ‘Coptic Church’. Ethiopia is the only sub-Saharan country in Africa in which Christianity predates European colonialism.

Although the Ethiopian Church uses a different language, Ge’ez, its connection with Egyptian Christianity has remained strong throughout the centuries. Following the seventh-century conquest of Egypt by the armies of the Muslim Caliphate, Ethiopia became the only Monophysite Christian land to remain free of foreign rule. Ethiopia has managed to maintain its political and religious independence to the current day in the face of attempts by Islamic and Catholic powers such as the Mamluks, the Portuguese and the Italians to subjugate it from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Moreover, as Egyptian Christians remained under the yoke of Islamic rule throughout the centuries, Ethiopian kings used their influence with Egyptian Sultans to help protect the Coptic community there.

Eventually, in 1959, the Coptic Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria granted Ethiopia its own patriarchate. Today the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church may administratively independent from the Egyptian Coptic Church, but it shares the same faith and communion. While the Medhat G. Latif Coptic Christian Relief Fund wishes to help end sectarian violence between all religious groups, we feel a special spiritual bond between Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians. Here in the United States, Ethiopians make up a considerable proportion of Coptic congregations, and Copts and Ethiopians throughout the world support and pray for one another. That believers from both the Coptic and the Tewahedo communities (as well as those from other religious backgrounds) have met the same fate of martyrdom at the hands of sectarian terrorists serves to underline the bond between Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians.

At the moment, there are few confirmed details about these latest victims, but it seems almost certain that they were abducted under the same conditions as the Egyptian Copts who were previously killed by ISIS in Libya. The twenty-eight Ethiopian victims were most likely migrant workers who had come to the country to earn money for their families back at home. Although Libya is in a state of turmoil, it offers significant opportunities for those who are willing to take the risks to work there, especially in the oil industry. As we have previously detailed, many Egyptian Christians are driven by economic necessity to take those risks and to seek employment in Libya. The same is true of Ethiopian and other Sub-Saharan workers who face the danger of persecution and victimisation by extremist groups as they go about their work in the country.

In addition to the profound human cost of such sectarian extremism, the recent ISIS video also underscores the traumatic cultural and social violence being inflicted on Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. In triumphalist scenes, ISIS militants are shown toppling crosses, defacing works of Christian iconography, and destroying the very fabric of Christian churches. The Christian cultural heritage of the region is not the only tradition under threat – witness the recent destruction of priceless ancient monuments in places such as Nimrud in Iraq. However, the militants’ attacks on Middle Eastern and African Christians have a still more poisonous consequence. In addition to committing murder and vandalism, they are helping create a lasting division between Christians and Muslims who not long ago used to live peacefully and happily alongside one another. The extremists’ threat is not only to the past and the present, but also to the future of the region.

In light of the severity of these recent attacks and their ramifications, the Medhat G. Latif Coptic Christian Relief Fund believes that it is imperative to act quickly to help the persecuted Christians of North Africa and to end the underlying problems that feed the sectarian violence. First and foremost, our organisation is attempting to reach out to the families of the Ethiopian victims to provide whatever moral and material support that we can. Secondly, we are doing our best to raise awareness here in the U.S. of the plight of the region’s Christians, of whatever denomination they happen to be. While we hope to be able to help provide as much food, healthcare and education to the victims of sectarianism as possible, the most important task is to resolve the instability and conflict that lies at the root of the violence. This is a long-term goal that can only be achieved by making sure that Americans and other Westerners are aware of the full scale of the problems facing Christian communities in Egypt and elsewhere and that they put pressure on politicians and officials in the U.S. government to address the sufferings of Coptic Christians and their fellow believers in the Middle East and North Africa. The hatred of sectarian groups like ISIS feeds on ignorance, but we can defeat it with education and information.