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Recently I received this email from a colleague in Ethiopia.

This is to inform you that 10 of our local church buildings were destroyed and some were burned to ashes by the radical Muslim movement groups in the  Oromiya Regional State, Siraro Woreda. Two of our ministers had minor wounds. Some other Christian groups’ churches were also burned to ashes and destroyed. Some Christians lost their properties in this mob. Though the government controlled it, still our church members are under great threat and in a trauma. Therefore, we kindly request you to pray for the comfort of and strength for our church members and Christians in this area. Also please pray for the peace in our country.

Note what I’ve just done—something the synodical Committee to Study Religious Persecution and Liberty, commenting on news reports published in The Banner between 2001 and 2014, describes as “brief and passing notes about a conflict in a far-flung region with no serious framing or context for the event.”

Ouch! I have to admit that I don’t know how to provide serious framing or context here. 

The writer of the e-mail is a colleague and a friend because of an emerging ecumenical partnership with the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church where he serves as deputy general secretary. 

As the synodical study committee’s report indicates, ecumenical relationships are one of two methods by which we seek to engage with the topic of religious persecution and liberty. In fact, our Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee will be informing synod this summer about this particular relationship, since significant efforts are underway involving this denomination, the Timothy Leadership Training Institute, and Christian Reformed World Missions.

But I’ve still not provided serious framing or context. There isn’t enough space on this page to tell you the history of Ethiopia—that it’s the second-oldest Christian nation in the world; that the Orthodox faith is practiced by millions there, yet the Protestant church is growing rapidly; and that the Muslim minority is growing as well. 

And there isn’t enough room in this issue to explain how societies like Ethiopia and Indonesia have addressed the joint presence of Islam and Christianity, largely by insisting upon careful distance between religious groups.  Yet, with parental pride, I want to share one story.

Last fall, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships held a conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The conference focused on the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, an initiative whereby college and university campuses provide community service in ways that bring those of various faiths together. 

My son, a sophomore at Trinity Christian College and a participant in this initiative, spoke on a panel about whether universities in other countries would benefit from such an approach.  He told the group that until religious groups in countries such as his native Ethiopia figure out how to talk together instead of building walls, their societies will face problems and catastrophes.  

The email I received five months later unfortunately proves his point. Despite separation between religious groups in Ethiopia, the flames of discord are jumping over the walls and burning down churches.

The Religious Persecution and Liberty study report doesn’t stop, however, at ecumenical relationships and the interfaith engagement they engender. Consider this observation from the report:

“Churches have the greatest influence when their advocacy is strategic, not tactical—that is, when they present a moral vision and communicate the breadth and depth of support for it rather than getting into the nitty-gritty of whom to lobby, where to litigate, or how to craft policy language. Church members as Christian citizens can and should be engaged at both the broadest and most specific levels.  But churches as institutions should shape the moral vision of their members and speak prophetically to the larger society while refraining from the technical and specific work of public policy.”

This observation deserves careful reflection and discussion, for our witness is critical and desperately needed in a world filled with strife and increasingly marked by persecution.

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