By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
ADDIS ABABA (Worthy News) – At least nine abducted priests and other Christians remained missing in central Ethiopia on Thursday after a church deacon and others were killed by rebels in recent weeks, aid workers and others said.
Concerns about their whereabouts grew as intense clashes between Ethiopian government forces and Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) rebels in the country’s Oromia region killed dozens in the past week, residents added.
Christians said the fighting began their late last month after suspected OLA fighters “killed one deacon and kidnapped 11 other ministers” when they entered Midre Genet St. Lideta Mary Orthodox Church in Gebre Guracha town.
The attack on the church, located 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of the capital Addis Ababa, occurred while priests, deacons, and a church administrator gathered for an all-night prayer service, Christians said.
One deacon was killed in the violence before the others were kidnapped, several sources confirmed.
By November 4, one priest and the church administrator were reportedly released after a ransom was paid, but the whereabouts of the other nine captives was not known Thursday.
As violence spread, a priest from North Shewa Selale Diocese Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church told the Addis Standard publication that most churches in Oromia’s North Shewa Zone stopped services “due to insecurity.”
PARISH COUNCIL ATTACKED
He added that members of the parish council of the area’s Harbu Bose St. Michael church have also been abducted, and the diocese is working with security forces to free them. No more details were immediately available.
Another local priest confirmed that fighters were “taking hostages and asking for money,” adding this “has become more common in this area.”
The fighting in Oromia, the largest of Ethiopia’s federal states, escalated while peace efforts ended a more extensive, separate conflict between the government and Tigray rebels in northern Ethiopia.
The OLA asserts that it represents the security and self-determination of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Ethiopia has labeled it a terrorist organization, referring to recent violence.
A witness in the West Wollega area town of Bila said he saw bodies scattered on the ground following an alleged aerial attack on November 2 by what he described as a “small flying plane” or possible drone.
“It was a market day, and students were leaving school,” the witness said, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution. “I have lost count of the dead, but several dozen people were killed and injured,” he told The Associated Press (AP) news agency.
Some have blamed Ethiopian forces for the latest attacks. A priest in Bila reportedly said his church members buried 11 victims of what he described as a drone attack. He said hundreds of people were injured and sent to nearby hospitals.
The attack was followed by heavy fighting last Sunday between Ethiopian forces and the rebels in the town of Nekemte in the East Wollega area, a witness said, adding that government forces retook control of Nekemte in the afternoon.
The spokesman for the Oromo Liberation Army, Odaa Tarbii, said on social media that the rebel group’s fighters “rescued over 120 political prisoners” during an operation in Nekemte on Sunday. It claimed “several regime military installations” there were destroyed.
However, the government has accused the OLA of carrying out mass killings in recent months.
The OLA was once a military wing of an opposition party, the Oromo Liberation Front.
Its members returned to Ethiopia in 2018 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed invited exiled groups and political figures to come back.
However, the military wing detached from the party soon after and began deadly confrontations with government forces.
The conflict in Oromia is separate from the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Still, the OLA and Tigray forces announced an alliance late last year aimed at toppling the Ethiopian government.
A “permanent cessation of hostilities” in the Tigray conflict was signed last week, and the second round of peace talks is underway this week in neighboring Kenya.
But with clashes continuing, Christians have expressed concern about their future.
The political violence in the country “has also taken its toll on Christian communities, with many Christians killed and churches destroyed,” noted the advocacy group Open Doors.
The landlocked Horn of Africa nation of some 114 million people “has also been gravely affected by drought and plagues. All of these issues create uncertainty, making Christians a soft target,” Open Doors added in an assessment.
It also noted that converts to Christianity from Islam and those joining Protestant groups away from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church “can face harsh mistreatment” from their families and communities and militants.
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