For weeks a group of about 300 men the locals described as "Muslim fundamentalists" trained in a remote area near the town of Jima, 250 miles southwest of Addis Ababa. According to eyewitnesses, the group includes a number of Somalis. Government forces, alarmed by their activities, arrested several of the leaders. But the remainder organized and, armed with machetes and knives, attacked Christian churches and villages. Within a matter of two days, they had burned over 350 homes belonging to Christians, killed 31 Christians, and took dozens as hostages, according to local church leaders. Muslim attackers burned one Catholic church, one Orthodox church, and and three evangelical churches. The latter are part of the 75-year old Kale Heywet Church (EKHC), which began under the missionary influence of what was then known as Sudan Interior Mission and now includes over 5 million Ethiopian believers. Attackers quickly converted five local EKHC churches into mosques.
"There are almost 400 churches in that area, also many Muslims living there. But they have been living together for a long time. Now the Muslims are attacking," said an EKHC officer who asked not to be named because of fear of ongoing attacks. He told WORLD that while many residents had noticed an increasing level of radical Islamic activity in the area, most were "very surprised" by the armed attacks. Local church leaders estimate that nearly 3,000 Christians have been displaced. Last week they hastily organized themselves into five camps for protection and to share food and other supplies. Some are hiding out by day, he said, and returning to their homes to sleep at night.
The humanitarian relief group Samaritan's Purse has provided $50,000 in emergency food aid to the displaced. The group's vice president of programs, Ken Isaacs, called the attacks "another example of Christian persecution in the world today" and said, "It is important to help the victims of these attacks because they desperately need it and because so few people in the world are even aware of this situation."
Tension between Somalia and Ethiopia has increased dramatically since an Islamic militant group in June took over the capital, Mogadishu, and areas to the south. Islamic militant leader Sharif Sheik Ahmed accuses Ethiopia of sending troops to support the crumbling interim government. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says his government has sent military advisors only. Ahmed's call for jihad came hours after government fighters, allegedly accompanied by Ethiopian soldiers, took over the Islamist outpost of Buur Hakaba, only 20 miles from Ahmed's base of operations at Baidoa.
"Starting from today, we have declared jihad against Ethiopia," Ahmed declared at a news conference Oct. 9, wearing combat fatigues and clutching an AK-47 assault rifle. "Heavily armed Ethiopian troops have invaded Somalia. They have captured Buur Hakaba," he said. And then, in an obvious reference to the 1993 Black Hawk Down debacle, in which 18 U.S. soldiers and two U.S. helicopters were lost in Mogadishu, he said: "History shows that Somalis always win when they are attacked from outside."
U.S. counterterrorism experts long have held that Somalia bears watching more as a terrorist haven and transit route than a breeding ground to export international jihadism. If Somali Islamists are spreading holy war to Ethiopia, however, the experts now have new reason to take more seriously the rise of Islamic radicalism in the Horn of Africa.