Addis Ababa – Ethiopia began three days of national mourning on Tuesday, with joint Christian and Muslim prayers for more than 20 Ethiopian Christians killed by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Libya.
The murders have horrified Ethiopians and sparked global condemnation, including from Pope Francis who expressed his “great distress and sadness”.
“They are animals, they are outside of all humanity,” said Tesfaye Wolde, who saw his only brother Balcha Belete executed on a video released by the jihadists.
“I saw him kneeling, a masked man pointing a gun to my brother and his friend, with a knife to their throats.”
Abune Mathias, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, called the killings “repugnant”.
“We have a duty to raise our voice to tell the world that the killing of the innocent like animals is completely unacceptable,” he said.
Joint prayers were held along with Muslim leaders, led by Sheikh Mohammed Jemal, head of Ethiopia’s Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, who said the killing of people like “chickens” had no place in Islam.
The ISIS video released on Sunday, showed militants in Libya holding captives who they described as “followers of the cross from the enemy Ethiopian Church”.
A masked fighter in black brandishing a pistol makes a statement threatening Christians if they do not convert to Islam. The video shows one group of about 12 men being beheaded on a beach and another group of at least 16 being shot in the head in a desert area.
“If IS were religious, they would never have killed human beings,” said Kedir Hussein, a Muslim who attended the joint prayers. “The death of these young people is like someone was killed in my family.”
Hundreds of Ethiopians marched through the capital Tuesday demanding justice for the victims.
Executed before attempting crossing
Almost two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christians, the majority of those Orthodox Copts – who say they have been in the Horn of Africa nation since the first century AD – as well as large numbers of Protestants.
Islam also has an ancient history in Ethiopia, brought to the country by some of the earliest followers of the Prophet Mohammed, who were sheltered there by the Christian king.
Tesfaye described how his brother Balcha, an electrician, as well as his friend Eyasu Yekuneamelak – also seen killed on the video – left Ethiopia two months ago seeking work and a better life, heading first for Sudan and then to Libya, in the hope to making the crossing to Italy.
But the pair, who left Ethiopia without telling their family, were captured by ISIS fighters before they could risk the dangerous sea voyage to Europe, where thousands have drowned in rickety boats.
“I am very sad, I lost my brother, my one and only brother, but there are many more Ethiopians who are losing their lives – they are being dropped into the ocean,” Tesfaye said.
“Only God knows how this thing can be stopped,” he told a small crowd who had come to offer their condolences, outside his brick house in the capital Addis Ababa.
“They wanted to change their lives, improve their condition – life is very difficult here,” said Mersha Mitku, a friend of both men.
He said he knows at least 25 others who took the same route to Libya. Six made it safely to Italy, but he has no news from the others.
Europe’s southern shores have been swamped with migrants fleeing war and hardship, hundreds of whom have died in a string of tragic shipwrecks.
An estimated 800 people drowned on Sunday off Libya in the Mediterranean’s worst migrant disaster.
More than 11 000 migrants have been rescued by Italian authorities since the middle of last week alone.
“Maybe this story will discourage some for some time, but not for long,” Mersha said