Melkamu Negeri is pastor of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church of Minneapolis, photographed in the church sanctuary on Thursday, December 24, 2015.
Melkamu Negeri is pastor of Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church of Minneapolis, photographed in the church sanctuary on Thursday, December 24, 2015. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
 
 

 

Abdurahman Kadir has a difficult time watching the video of his cousin Misra Haji-Nabo, a woman in her 20s, lying bloodied and fatally wounded in a street outside Ethiopia's capital city. The 35-second clip is being shared in chat rooms and news forums as the latest evidence of the country's military police responding to peaceful protest with violence.

"It's hard to look at the picture, the video, emotionally," said Kadir, 25, a youth program coordinator at the Oromo Community Center off University Avenue and Mackubin Street in St. Paul.

The mood is no less somber this Christmas at Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church in South Minneapolis, where the Rev. Melkamu Negeri's services draw hundreds of ethnic Oromo every Sunday. Once a month, he leads a special service in recognition of the civil unrest and deteriorating political situation around Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

"We fast and pray," Negeri said Wednesday while he prepared the church for a Christmas Eve choir celebration. "We can't forget."

Kadir, who is Muslim, and Negeri, an evangelical Christian, are appealing to local and world leaders to pay closer attention to government repression of the Oromo in Ethiopia. An estimated 40,000 Oromo call Minnesota home, most of them in the Twin Cities. The Oromo represent Ethiopia's largest ethnic group.

Negeri is part of an interfaith coalition that met Monday with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who shared with them a letter he wrote to U.S.

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Secretary of State John Kerry urging stronger condemnation of the Ethiopian government's new "land grab" policies.

The letter, which is co-signed by U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Tom Emmer, highlights the recent crackdown on peaceful street protests.

The same interfaith coalition met Tuesday with state Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis. Demonstrations at the state Capitol, including one on Christmas Eve, have drawn dozens of Oromo at a time.

Also at the meeting with Ellison was Oumer Wako, executive director of the Tawfiq Islamic Center in South Minneapolis. He said he sees concerned Oromo arrive by the dozens for Muslim prayers each Friday at worship locations in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Fridley, with the situation in Ethiopia foremost in their thoughts.

Ethiopia's ruling regime has shut the country's large Oromo population out of top jobs in government and industry, but if there is one thing that Christian and Muslim Oromo have learned to count on during times of adversity, Wako said, it's each other.

"You can find different religions in the same family," Wako said. "We have co-existed for a long time. Muslims and Christians have never had any problems in (central) Ethiopia. It's the government that's trying to incite divisions."

The hardships the Oromo face in Ethiopia aren't entirely new, but over the years, they've taken different forms. The recent unrest has centered on the government's plans to annex more than 30 small cities and towns into Addis Ababa, displacing Oromo peasant farmers and their families.

The goal, by most accounts, is to sell the rural properties to foreign investors for development. "They don't give enough compensation," Negeri said. "They just grab the land. The Oromo become beggars, or jobless. The government is selling this land for millions of dollars to outsiders in the name of investment."

Many university graduates who have returned home to work their parents' wheat and barley fields have taken their protests to the streets. Human Rights Watch maintains at least 75 people have been killed over the past year, many of them young people. The Ethiopian government has officially acknowledged five deaths.

"They can't utilize the education that they gain, because they're Oromo," said Nasir Hamza, an assistant Imam, or religious leader, at the Tawfiq Islamic Center.

Journalists other than reporters for state-run media have been detained and forbidden from traveling freely, leaving most news gathering to informal sources sharing clips and eyewitness accounts through social media.

The U.S. State Department issued a carefully worded statement on Dec. 18 saying the United States is "deeply concerned by the recent clashes in the Oromo region" and urging all sides to show restraint. "The government of Ethiopia has stated publicly that the disputed development plans will not be implemented without further public consultation," reads the statement. "We support the government of Ethiopia's stated commitment to those consultations."

Roughly 26 million or more of Ethiopia's 94 million residents are Oromo, a distinct ethnic group with their own language based in the Oromia region of central Ethiopia. Negeri, who came to Minnesota alongside hundreds of other Oromo in the mid-1990s, recalled that a repressive Communist regime once jailed spiritual leaders, Muslim and Christian alike, himself included.

"I have been imprisoned twice," Negeri said. In the late 1980s, he spent two weeks in jail and, later, three months incarcerated. Just as harrowing were the constant threats and reports of violence. The Rev. Gudina Tumsa, the general secretary of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, was abducted and killed in 1979.

A coup toppled the communist regime in 1991, inspiring hope that the new coalition government would be more democratic and politically transparent. Instead, that government has been almost entirely dominated by the Tigray, an ethnic population from the country's north, and real estate development and job creation have heavily favored the ruling party.

"Yes, the (country's) infrastructure has improved," Wako said. "But the living standards of the people, and human rights, went down. The roads are for those people who are rich."

Hassen Hussein, director of business development with African Economic Development Solutions in St. Paul, said he believes President Barack Obama's administration is shying away from direct condemnation of the Ethiopian government for strategic reasons.

Worried about the growth of radical Islam, Hussein said, the U.S. might need Ethiopia's help to contain fundamentalist forces in far-flung rural areas, such as the eastern border with Somalia.

In October 2014, Amnesty International documented the disparities and rampant discrimination in a report entitled, "Because I Am Oromo: Sweeping Repression in the Oromia Region of Ethiopia." The report states that 5,000 Oromo were jailed by the government from 2011 to 2014 on suspicion they were actively participating in or planning to take part in protests. Many were jailed without charges or trial.

Meanwhile, deaths are mounting. Tedasa Buie, 74, has lived in the Skyline Tower housing development on St. Paul's St. Anthony Avenue for more than a decade. On Dec. 11, a community member knocked on his door with somber news: his younger brother had been killed during a street protest outside the capital city.

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.