An evangelical leader in Ethiopia has been sent to jail for offending members of the Orthodox Church after he reportedly got into a heated theological discussion with them.
Temesgen Mitiku Mezemir, 24, the leader of an Evangelical fellowship group, has been sentenced by a judge in the city of Arba Mich to seven months in prison for "causing outrage to religious peace and feeling," World Watch Monitor reported.
The charges against Mezemir came after some members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church asked about his opinion about the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant sacred to Orthodox Christians.
Mezemir told the Orthodox Christians to compare the accounts of the Tabot with information about the Ark of the Covenant on the internet. The Orthodox Christians were reportedly offended when he pulled up a picture of the Tabot online.
The evangelical leader was accused of downloading the picture to insult the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
When Mezemir appeared in court on Jan. 23, no witnesses were presented, but the judge had invited court attendees to give their opinion of the evangelical leader.
After the hearing, Mezemir and other evangelicals were reportedly attacked outside the court, leaving five evangelicals injured.
The judge was removed after members of the evangelical church appealed to the Justice Department for his replacement.
During the second hearing on Jan. 26, Mezemir contended that he did not download a picture of the Tabot to insult the Orthodox Church, and he only intended to use it for reference.
Mezemir was sentenced to prison even though there is no law in Ethiopia prohibiting anyone from possessing or sharing such images.
Local evangelicals have expressed concerns that Mezemir's sentence would set a precedent whereby anyone could bring unfounded accusations against evangelicals with impunity.
Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church comprises just under half of the African country's population. Relations between the Orthodox church and evangelical churches have been uneasy and marked by mutual suspicion.
Ethiopia has been ranked in Open Doors USA's 2018 World Watch List as the 29th-worst country in the world when it comes persecution of Christians.
"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. In some cases, Christians are cut off from society completely," Open Doors stated in a fact sheet about the country.
Some members of Mezemir's fellowship group have told World Watch Monitor about several violent incidents that occurred in the weeks leading up to the court case.
The source recounted that evangelicals in Arba Minch were attacked shortly before the Orthodox celebration of Epiphany on Jan. 19. The evangelicals have been blamed for the disappearance of a festive banner, and Orthodox leaders have urged people to defend their religion, with some members interpreting it as a call to arms.
In another incident in early January, a group of 70 people, believed to belong to the Orthodox Church, broke into the evangelical group's meeting place, destroying its pulpit, chairs, and tables, and stealing musical instruments.
When the evangelical group reported the damage to the police, the assailants reportedly attacked them "right at the gate of the police station."
The attack outside the police station took place after a radical wing within the Orthodox Church reportedly spread a rumor that the evangelicals were trying to take over the local Orthodox Church.
"They used machetes, hammers and rocks. Our members sustained injuries on their heads, arms and feet. One of our members had machete wounds on his arm," the source said.