The authorities in Ethiopia’s northern region of Amhara had told the Ethiopian Fellowship of Evangelical Students it no longer could operate in the town of Debark. They were ordered to move 80 km southwest, to Gonder city.

The Evangelical fellowship didn’t budge. Instead, it lodged a complaint. Nothing happened.

That was in May. Earlier this month, the police arrived, this time to make arrests.

They showed up at a 3 Nov. gathering of students, church leaders and a lecturer, and arrested an undisclosed number of people attending the event, according to sources whom World Watch Monitor is not identifying, for security purposes.

The sources said police pressured students in the group to sign an agreement never to gather in Debark, then released them. Seven church leaders were detained for three days, released after they had signed a similar agreement.

Debark, town with a population estimated at about 25,000, is religiously contested territory. The dominant Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers the Debark region to be holy, and pressure on Protestant Christians in the area has been growing for years. Arsonists destroyed a church in 2008, and most Protestants have moved to Gonder, a much larger city of more than 150,000 people.

On paper, the Ethiopian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which would seem to forbid the police to order the evangelical fellowship to stop meeting. In practice, however, Ethiopia’s politics are charged by pronounced ethnic and religious divisions.