Fasil and Ezana are seven-year-old twins in Ethiopia who have already faced persecution for being from a Christian family. Here's their story, and how you can help futures burn brighter for the next generation of the church.
During a Christmas service, you expect to sing songs together. You expect to remember the birth of Jesus joyfully with fellow believers. You don’t expect your church to come under attack during the celebration.
That’s what happened to the church young Fasil and Ezana Tadesse* attend in southern Ethiopia. These twin boys are very normal seven-year-olds in many ways – they love playing football together, can be quite shy with new people and, like many twins, have a special connection and bond. They also live in a community where Christians are a persecuted minority.
“There is huge oppression targeting Christians in the area,” says Pastor Yohannes*, the leader of the Tadesse family’s local church. “When a person converts from another religion to follow Jesus Christ, there is 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 leave the paper outside the converts’ doors.”
"There is huge oppression targeting Christians in the area." Pastor Yohannes
Persecution against Christians comes from different groups in different parts of Ethiopia. In this village, Christians mostly face persecution and pressure from the Muslim-majority population – even on Christmas Day.
“As we gathered to celebrate the birth of Christ, extremists were sent,” remembers Pastor Yohannes. “They started throwing stones at the church’s roof.” These persecutors came to disrupt the service on one of the most special days of the Christian calendar. Thankfully, on that occasion, nobody was hurt. But that hasn’t always been the case.
“We have prayer meetings on Fridays, and these extremists climbed the church wall and saw that we were praying,” says Pastor Yohannes. “They started throwing stones.” Two members of the congregation were hit in the head.
Most distressing of all are the violent attacks that have happened recently.
“We went out to spread the gospel, and to invite the non-believers to believe,” Pastor Yohannes says. “People from the community came at us at once, some with weapons in their hands, and surrounded us.” The men were beaten. The women were dragged to the ground by their hair, then urinated on by the attackers.
"People from the community came at us with weapons in their hands." Pastor Yohannes
“It is a huge psychological scar for our sisters,” Yohannes says. “It’s hard to believe a person who is born from a woman would do such a thing to a woman, but they did.” After this horrifying assault, some of the Christians were so afraid that they hid in the forest for three days before they were able to finally get home.
It’s a hard place for Fasil and Ezana to grow up. Children like them should be protected, provided for and given an education to give them hope for the future – but that hasn’t always been their experience. Even at school, they are vulnerable to being persecuted for their faith.
Ermias*, the twins’ father, is an evangelist in the community and has experienced this persecution first-hand throughout his life. He knows his children are vulnerable too. “Because of the persecution, we’re in a difficult situation,” he says. “Even in the schools, there are pressures. They would refuse to give them their deserved grades – they would lower our children’s test scores.”
He was worried about their safety too: “We would be sending our children to school because they need to be educated – but until they came home each day, we would be worried about the risk.”
Ermias considered sending Fasil and Ezana to private school, where there is a lot less persecution for Christians, but it wasn’t a realistic option for their family. “I wanted this for them, and though I thought about it a lot, I could not afford to send them there,” he says.
But because of Open Doors supporters, that wasn’t the end of the story for Fasil and Ezana.
One of Jesus’ most radical teachings is to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44). In the twins’ village, the Christian community wanted to reach out to groups who had persecuted them and find points of connection. That’s where ‘bridging’ projects, run by Open Doors partners, stepped in. These projects create a ‘bridge’ between the Christian community and the surrounding neighbourhood.
In Fasil and Ezana’s town, one of these projects is a school. The building is owned by Pastor Yohannes’s church and used for church activities like Sunday school, but as a school it is open to children of all faith backgrounds. It provides safe, fair education to all children from the community – the schooling is secular, rather than faith-based, but believers see the provision as a way to show God’s love. “It has created a platform for us to show Jesus is a Saviour,” Ermias says. “Parents of the children and the staff have a good impression of us, and of the church.”
"Even if they hate us, we love them." Pastor Yohannes
“Loving our enemies is biblical, and it’s the truth,” says Pastor Yohannes. “We will be the first people to be there in their time of need: even if they hate us, we love them. Doing good to the community that is persecuting us – that’s the only way we can change the community.”
You can see how relieved Ermias is when you hear him speak about Fasil and Ezana now. “I am no longer worried about their safety,” he says. “They go there and learn and come back with freedom as they wish. The school is in the church’s compound; it’s a familiar place for the children – it has created a home environment where the children are educated with freedom.” 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.”
Perceptions of Christians like Ermias and his family are already being altered by this school. “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.”
"I hope they will one day join us in being God’s children." Ermias
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 people who used to give us side eyes as we were walking by now greet us on the streets. The hurt we felt before is evaporating from us. I am really happy that the people who once hated us are now coming to the church compound.”
Ermias has hopes that this acceptance will go further – that the school will be a way to evangelise to the community. “I hope they will one day join us in being God’s children — that makes me happy,” he says.
Christmas this year is looking much more hopeful than previous years. There are still dangers in their community – but Pastor Yohannes’s church looks forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus in peace. Fasil and Ezana’s family are going to use the opportunity to share their faith.
“As a family, we show visitors some form of drama about the birth of Christ,” says Ermias. Previously they sent festive food and drinks to their neighbours who wouldn’t come to their house. “But now it’s like our home is theirs,” says Ermias. “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.”
Fasil and Ezana are young, but they already know the most important thing about Christmas: “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 continues, thinking about all the Christian classmates alongside Fasil and Ezana too: “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.”
"I would be glad if everyone would celebrate Christmas with us." Fasil
It’s clearly starting to work already: Fasil says, “I would be glad if everyone would celebrate Christmas with us.” The boys love singing a song together with a chorus repeating “God’s love is so wonderful”. The school is really changing their young lives.
“I want to thank [Open Doors supporters],” Pastor Yohannes says. “This school is helping children recover from their psychological abuse. Many have recovered from persecution, and many who are still persecuted are receiving help from the organisation [Open Doors partners]. They stood by them as they passed through many troubles and helped them forget their sufferings.
“Children are a gift from God in regard to the church, so pray for them to grow in the grace of God so they can change their generation and change the world.”
This school is helping bridge the gap between different groups in this community – but it’s not the end of the project. The school is in dire need of expansion. As community acceptance has grown, so has the number of students enrolled in the school – from 30 students in 2019 to more than 100 now. It also only covers a few years of primary education, currently.
“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. “Fasil and Ezana are now going to graduate from this school, and would transfer into the other government-funded school, with increased risks. I worry about the future. It would be really nice if my children could continue studying in this school.”
Across Ethiopia, and in other countries around the world where Open Doors partners are running bridge projects, there are opportunities to create brighter futures for courageous children like Fasil and Ezana. You can bring these young children safety, education and hope – helping ensure they can excel today and be a strong generation of risk-taking Christ-followers in the future. Your Christmas gifts and prayers today can help the church continue to shine brightly in the darkest places.
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.