'Foreign' churches are increasingly under siege in Marxist Ethiopia

Churchgoers in Ethiopia's Walaga Province are often confused about what time they should go to their weekly prayer meetings. The time is frequently changed - sometimes more than once within a week.

This is because the country's sole political organization, the Commission for Organizing the Working People of Ethiopia (COPWE), often purposely schedules its own meetings to be held at the same time as church services.

The situation, which reportedly happens with increasing frequency, reflects a campaign by the Marxist government of Ethiopia against minority ''foreign'' churches.

In Walaga Province, the Protestant Makane Yesus Church, founded by Swiss missionaries in the last century, reshedules its services when COPWE meetings are held at a time church meetings were also scheduled.

The consequence of missing a COPWE meeting can be serious in a country where political and ideological indoctrination is part of the daily routine. Informed sources report that Ethiopians who choose to attend Sunday prayers rather than COPWE meetings sometimes are imprisoned. They are freed if they sign a statement promising to avoid the church in the future, sources say.

Ethiopian officials stress that their Marxist creed does not induce them to wage an unlimited war against religion. They say COPWE's January 1983 congress gave its blessing to major denominations: Islam (45 percent of the population), and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church (together 40 percent of the population).

The reason the government has allowed major religions to carry on may be political. ''It would be suicidal for the regime to touch the country's major religious groupings,'' a Western diplomat says.

But the party congress, dominated by the military, has called for the elimination of the often minuscule ''foreign churches.''

''The Mekane Yesus Church was not explicity mentioned, but government action leaves no doubt where we belong,'' says a member of the church, which counts half a million members. Representatives of Mekane Yesus emphatically argue that the government campaign is antireligious rather than political in nature.

Yet even the faithful admit that Mekane Yesus is linked with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), whose aim is to establish an independent people's republic of Oromia.

Established in October 1974, the OLF, which claims to speak on behalf of Ethiopia's largest ethnic grouping, has launched guerrilla operations against government targets.

Many OLF members received their education in Mekane Yesus schools. Former OLF leader Bare Tumsa is a brother of Gudina Tumsa, the head of the Mekane Yesus Church. Gudina Tumsa vanished after being kidnapped in June 1980.

Observers in the Ethiopian capital say OLF's limited activities are not a serious threat to the regime. But sources close to Mekane Yesus believe the province's COPWE governor, Ngusi Fanta, is ''afraid of the OLF.''

Mr. Fanta reportedly is waging a campaign against Mekane Yesus. This sort of conflict is said to be experienced by Pentecostalists, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other minority religions, too.

Some foreign and Ethiopian sources link the government crackdown on smaller churches to the revival Christianity is experiencing in Ethiopia as well.

Travel restrictions in Ethiopia frequently prevent independent observers from acquiring a firsthand knowledge of developments in the provinces. But here are some of the difficulties reportedly encountered by minority churches:

* Some 284 of the 350 Mekane Yesus churches reportedly have been closed by the authorities.

* The government often confiscates church property - a common practice in post-revolutionary Ethiopia.

In mid-May the housing department in Walaga's provincial capital, Nekemta, gave the Mekane Yesus Church four days' notice to evacuate a number of buildings used as living quarters and as a clinic. The buildings were said to be needed by COPWE. And work on a Blue Nile development project was hampered last month after Norwegian missionaries involved in the project were forced to surrender their building.

* The president and the secretary-general of the Mekane Yesus Synod and six other ranking church officials were arrested on Sept. 12, 1982, on charges of drafting and distributing antigovernment leaflets. The charges were dropped once the security forces apprehended the true culprits. Nine months later, however, the church officials still have not been released.

* Pentecostalists in Shewa Province have been told by the authorities that religious activity in the region is restricted to Muslims, Catholics, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Pentecostalists are said to have been arrested for their refusal to do military service.

Spokesmen for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church privately accuse the government of antireligious policies despite the regime's official leniency toward their community.

The orthodox church resents the fact that its elected pope was replaced by a government appointee.

''We used to have religious men as our leaders. Now we have government-appointed materialists,'' a well-informed source said.

Sources in the capital say the church was forbidden to organize parish councils in Welega last year.

Ethiopian officials fear that a sharp confrontation with the church could endanger the pro-Soviet regime's tentative efforts to attract aid from Western countries. The Foreign Ministry has summoned Western ambassadors in the past to emphasize that the closure of minority churches is not an antireligious act.

But the Ethiopian faithful, deeply suspicious of the government's intentions, are not that easily convinced.

A well-placed source said: ''It's piecemeal strangulation. They simply do not want to create havoc.''

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