When you first arrive at the village where the Tedesse* twins live,
it might not match the image of Ethiopia you have in your mind’s eye. Decades-old media reports on famines or the recent war in the Tigray region
might lead you to believe that all of Ethiopia is dry, dusty and desperate.
But that’s not true.
The twins’ village lies in the southern half of Ethiopia, and lush trees provide a canopy on the worn road into town. There’s grassland and meadows, and the one-story buildings are built from mud, roofed in tin. The boys—Fasil* and Ezana*—live in one of these buildings, a two-room home traditional to this part of Ethiopia. They share a bond that seems common among twins, a special connection that sometimes makes it seems as if they’re speaking their own, private language.
Fasil is the taller and more serious twin, while Ezana is quick with a smile. Like many early elementary school kids all over the world, all they want to do is play football/soccer. They’re average kids, and their village is peaceful. It looks like a wonderful place to grow up.
But if you stay in the village long enough, you start to notice the looks that Fasil and Ezana (and their family) receive. You might even get those looks yourself. It’s a lingering look that suggests: You don’t belong here.
That’s because the village has long been an unwelcome place for followers of Jesus. And the twins’ family and community know this firsthand.
Where a Christian is no better than a corpse
This part of Ethiopia is majority Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox. Protestant Christians are a significant minority, and that’s the group the Tadesse family belongs to. While in some parts of Ethiopia, the relationship between the Orthodox Church and other Christians is friendly, in this village, any Christian outside of the Orthodox tradition can be persecuted. Additionally, extremists among the majority Muslim population persecute Christians as well, making the small Protestant community doubly vulnerable. The village is also home to some animist traditions, which can even mix in with the larger faith groups.
“From their point of view, an evangelical Christian is as good as a dead and rotting person.”
“There is huge oppression targeting evangelical Christians in the area,” says Pastor Yohannes*, the leader of the Tadesse family’s local church.. “When a person converts from another religion to Jesus Christ, there are intimidation and threats of killing. They write on a piece of paper, ‘If you don’t denounce this God, we will slaughter you in three or four days,’ and [they] leave the paper outside the converts’ doors.
“From their point of view, an evangelical Christian is as good as a dead and rotting person.”
Pastor Yohannes is tall and walks with self-assurance. He’s beloved by many people in his church, particularly among the teenagers—he’s a father figure to many of them. It’s easy to see that the persecution weighs on him personally. Persecution is not only a historical reality from the pages of Scripture but a living thing that leaves scars on the people he loves most.
This became horrifically clear recently. [Warning: the following contains some graphic descriptions of violence]
“We went out to spread the gospel, and to invite the non-believers to believe,” Yohannes says. “The community in the area came at us at once, some with weapons in their hands, asking ‘Where are these people from?’ and surrounded us.” The men in the group of Christians were beaten and fled for fear of their lives. Some of them spent three days in the forest before they were able to finally get home.
The women in the group of evangelists were dragged on the ground by their hair, and then the attackers urinated on the women. “It is a huge psychological scar for our sisters,” Yohannes says. “It’s hard to believe a person who is born from a women would do such a thing to a woman, but they did it in our area.”
Sometimes, persecution has even come to the doorstep of the church. “During our Sunday services, people who follow a different religion would throw stones at the church,” Yohannes says, remembering a specific attack on not only the building but also believers in the church.
“We have a prayer program on Fridays, and [these extremists] climbed the church wall and saw that we were praying. They started throwing stones; after the stones broke the windows, one stone landed in one sister’s head, and one landed [on] another [believer’s head].” Yohannes can still point out the structural damage from the stones.
Another incident took place during Christmas celebrations.
“As we gathered to celebrate the birth of Christ smoothly, [extremists] were deliberately sent […] they started throwing stones at the church’s roof,” Yohannes says.
You can imagine that this type of environment makes it challenging to try to raise children of faith. But Fasil and Ezana have managed to learn more about Jesus—because of the faithfulness of God, and the courage of their family and pastor.
Growing up in a place of pressure
The twins’ father, Ermias*, knows about the persecution in the community firsthand—he’s an evangelist, and has been attacked for sharing his faith both as a child growing up and now, as an adult. He’s a member of Yohannes’ congregation, so he experienced the way the village treated their church. “The youth in the church were chased by the community; they used to make us feel scared in our time of worship, Ermias says.
Ermias has a kind and humble heart; he and his wife are completely dedicated to serving their church. They know the reality of persecution. But the situation in the village doesn’t only hurt the adults—it also impacted Fasil and Ezana. “Because of the persecution, we were in a difficult situation,” he says. “Even in the schools our children used to go to, there were pressures […] even if our children are among the smart children, they would refuse to give them their deserved grades—they would [lower our children’s] test scores.”
Ermias can’t afford to send his children to a private school where they won’t be targeted for their faith. “I wanted this for them, and though I thought about it a lot, I could not afford to send them there,” he says.
And typically, that’s where the story would end for Fasil and Ezana. But this time, thanks to Open Doors’ local partners, there would be a different outcome.
A school for all—in Jesus’ name
One of the things Open Doors supports in Ethiopia is called a “bridging” project. It’s an effort that creates a “bridge” between the Christian community and the surrounding neighborhood, village or town.
In Fasil’s and Ezana’s town, one of these projects is a school. It isn’t a Christian school per se, though it is owned by Yohannes’ church and used for church needs—Sunday school lessons are held there, for instance. But it provides a safe place for Christian children to get an education.
“I love going to school. get education from my teachers, and I really like learning.”
“The school is in the church’s compound; it’s a familiar place for the children, it’s a place we consider our own,” Ermias explains. “It has many benefits. Economically, it has helped a lot, and it has created a home environment where the children are educated with freedom.
“I am no longer worried about their safety, for the [school’s location] is my own [church’s property],” he continues. “They go there and learn and come back with freedom as they wish; they are used to the compound because it’s where they go to church.” Ermias is overjoyed that the boys have been able to excel and grow academically.
The boys love it, too. “I love going to school, I love playing with my friends,” Fasil says. “I get education from my teachers, and I really like learning.” Ezana echoes the same sentiments, saying he also likes to learn and play with his friends.
Aside from the education for children like Fasil and Ezana, the school has also turned into a way to show the village the light of Jesus. Though most of the staff aren’t Protestant Christians, the school has changed how the small group of believers is perceived. “It has created a platform for us to show Jesus is a Savior,” Ermias says. “Parents of the children and the staff [have a good impression of] us, and for the church. I hope they will one day join us in being God’s children—that makes me happy.”
Yohannes says the school is a way to address the constant persecution his church faced. The church would ask themselves: “Why is this happening to us? Why are we treated like this? What have we done to deserve this?”
“In all of this, we prayed without ceasing for their surrender to Christ, because even when Jesus was suffering, He prayed for [his persecutors], saying, ‘Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing,’” Yohannes says. “The [biggest] solution for these problems and for these persecutions is prayer. The other [solution] is doing good to those who harm us—doing good to the community that is persecuting us; that’s the only way we can change the community.
“Loving our enemies is biblical, and it’s the truth. We don’t have a choice, other than loving our enemies, because we can’t live [away from] the Word of God.”
This love has turned into something that’s altered many people’s perceptions about the Christians in the village. “After Open Doors built this school in our area, we had big changes,” Yohannes says. “The community started acknowledging our school, and the hatred toward us gradually started changing. On top of that, they liked the fact that we were offering free education for the poor who couldn’t afford to educate their children. It changed the hatred they had towards us; they started liking us.”
And by God’s grace, the school has even changed the hearts of the persecutors themselves. “The families who used to throw stones at the church have now started sending their children to this school. They feel a sense of belonging,” Yohannes says. “The hurt we felt before is evaporating from us; I am really happy that the people who once hated us are now getting in [the church] compound.”
Ongoing needs, uncertain futures
That’s not to say everything is completely fine in Fasil’s and Ezana’s village. They are still minorities among people who don’t like Protestants, and the school they attend is small and only goes through a few grades of elementary school.
The school is also in dire need of expansion. As community acceptance has risen, so has the number of students enrolled—the school started in 2019 with around 30 students, and now they have more than 100. They haven’t yet been able to find the land or funding to expand the school to the level needed. “If it wasn’t for our capacity issue, we would have added things to the playground to include [older kids],” Yohannes says.
The school’s size and grades restrictions mean kids like Fasil and Ezana may need to return to the public schools after just a couple of years. “If it is possible, and if God helps us, it would be much better for our children to continue their education in this school,” Ermias says. “My children are now going to graduate [from this school], [and] they would transfer into the other school with risks. I worry about the future. It would be really nice if my children continue studying in this school.”
It’s also true that this situation isn’t isolated to this village in Ethiopia. Open Doors partners have started bridge projects—which can be a school, a well, a medical clinic, or other community services—around the country, but the need is great. Many parents in other parts of Ethiopia echo Ermias’ thoughts about what would happen if his twins’ school didn’t exist: “We would be sending our children to school because they need to be educated,” he says, “but until they came home [each day], we would be worried about the risk.”
A ‘platform for showing Christ’
Despite the challenges, this Christmas will still look much different than past years. Instead of hiding from the rocks being thrown at their church, Pastor Yohannes, Ermias, Fasil, Ezana and other Christians in the town look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus in peace.
Ermias and his family reach out to their neighbors during Christmas, telling them about the hope offered by Jesus’ birth. “As a family this is what we show for the people who come to our house, we show them the birth of Christ with some form of [drama],” he explains. “Some of our neighbors were extremists, so we would only send out holiday bread and [soft drinks] to their home because they wouldn’t come to our house for the holidays; but now it’s like our home is theirs. The holiday season is one of our platforms for showing Christ. We think of the new life we got, and this is our big testimony in the season.”
"[These children are the hope for the church to continue, and for that to happen they need to understand Christ’s light.”
Fasil and Ezana are young, but they already know the most important thing about Christmas: “They might not understand the deep meaning of Christ, but we tell them that it’s about Christ’s birth and show them as well,” Ermias says. “Since they are children, they only focus on the games and the food we prepare, but we don’t stop telling them. They talk about the birth of Christ in our local language.”
Ermias knows the importance of the next generation of believers in Ethiopia. “Whenever I am on stage [speaking as an evangelist] during the [holiday] season, I focus on children and making children understand about Christmas, and making the children understand what it’s about,” he says. “Because they are the next generation for the gospel; they are the ones who are going to continue the works of God. They are the hope for the church to continue, and for that to happen they need to understand Christ’s light.”
It's clear that the real meaning of Christmas is already sinking in with the twins. They know the basic facts about Jesus’ birth—they say His mother’s name is Mary and His father’s is Joseph—and their Christmas wishes show a wisdom that must make their parents and pastor proud.
“I would be glad if everyone would celebrate Christmas with us,” Fasil says.
Ezana has an even simpler Christmas wish: “I would be happy if everyone goes to school with me.”
A public witness of love
For now, the twins are safely at school; Ermias and his wife don’t have to worry about them. And thanks to Open Doors partners and the school bridge project, the fruits of the Spirit are on full display in both the twins’ lives and in the broader community. “I want to thank [Open Doors supporters],” Yohannes says. “[This school is] helping children recover from their psychological abuse. Many people have recovered from psychological trauma, many have recovered from persecution, and many who are still persecuted are receiving help from [Open Doors partners]. The organization stood by them as they passed through many troubles and [helped] them forget their sufferings.”
Yohannes is also excited about the witness the school continually offers to the community. “Because the truth of Christ is revealed in this place, people who used to lead their life by witchcraft have come to Christ,” Yohannes says. “And because of the fruits of the believers in the town, the community has started looking at us; [as] the Word of God says, ‘They will know you are my disciples by your fruits.’”
Even though the persecution may continue among some extremists and in the broader area of Ethiopia where they live, Yohannes also says his community will continue to live as salt and light. “We pray for those who hate us,” he says. “And though they discriminate [against us], we will be the first people to be there in their time of need, even if they hate us. We love them … This love is mandatory for us; this is what Christ has showed us, and He is our foundation. It’s a must for the church to show what we have seen.”
The twins clearly are learning about this radical way of faith. Instead of discrimination, they’re finding education. And instead of danger, they’re immersed in the wild depths of God’s love.
“God’s love is so wonderful,” they sing.
“God’s love is so wonderful
God’s love is so wonderful
O, wonderful love of the Lord:
So high, you can’t get over it,
So low, you can’t get under it,
So wide, you can’t get around it,
O, wonderful love of the Lord.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity
How you can pray
Pastor Yohannes says:
- Please pray for the continuity of my children’s spiritual life. I come from a family where even my great-grandparents are believers in the gospel. It has continued with me, and I want this to continue in my children as well; everything else is an addition, I want them to grow up with the gospel.
- Pray they will grow in knowledge, as Jesus grew with wisdom and knowledge.
- My children want to do much in the area they were born in, so I want you to pray for them to reach to the places they want to reach.
- Please pray for my family. My heart’s cry is for my family to come to Christ.
- Pray for the town to surrender to God.
- Pray for the students in the school to understand God’s truth. Pray for them to grow in the face of God, that they can change [their generation] and the world.
- Pray for strength and perseverance for me, so that I can share the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.