As Ethiopia nears a year and a half of civil war, a ministry led by mathematics professor Paul Isihara called the Timothy Project is working to respond to the humanitarian crisis. The organization’s current work in Tigray — a northern region of Ethiopia at the heart of the current conflict — includes helping fund Bible translation into the Tigrayan language, sponsoring the distribution of meals to orphaned or displaced children in Tigray, and funding a gospel-centered radio broadcast in the region.
“Right now, there’s a total blackout in Tigray with no phone access and no internet access, and humanitarian aid is largely cut off, so we don’t really know what’s going on,” Isihara said. “But God’s Spirit could be working in the most tragic of circumstances to multiply the gospel. That’s our hope. We’re getting ready to print a lot more Bibles. We are currently doing daily gospel shortwave broadcasts in addition to supporting dedicated believers who are distributing Bibles to displaced families in refugee camps and in prisons.”
The Ethiopian civil war began on Nov. 4, 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered his army to attack a regional group called the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF had governed Ethiopia for nearly thirty years, but Abiy’s 2018 election forced the group out of power. Tensions quickly rose, culminating in a “pre-emptive” strike by the TPLF against a federal army base. Abiy’s subsequent attack on the TPLF sparked a civil war that has killed thousands, devastated food supplies and destroyed infrastructure.
Abiy initially described the war as a “law-enforcement operation.” However, it has since resulted in human rights violations committed by both the Ethiopian government and the TPLF, including extrajudicial killing, mass rape and strategic starvation. Abiy’s declaration of a state of emergency on Nov. 5, 2021 in response to a rebel convergence on the capital allowed the government nearly unrestricted powers to suspend civil liberties and round up ethnic Tigrayans for questioning.
Humanitarian aid has been virtually blocked by the Ethiopian government and its ally, the neighboring state of Eritrea. Doctors are asking for global assistance to combat famine and the World Food Programme warns that 40 percent of people in Tigray are suffering from hunger. In November 2021, the U.N. Ethiopian Human Rights Commission issued an investigative report highlighting the atrocities committed against civilians in Tigray, including war crimes, extreme brutality, persecution and forcible displacement.
Through Isihara’s relationships with missionaries and friends in Tigray connected to the Timothy Project, he has heard personal stories of these human rights violations. Tesfai Abay, a Tigrayan friend of Isihara and a former roommate during Isihara’s early years as a Wheaton professor, is one person whose family has been horribly affected by the ongoing war.
“We do know that tragically, a lot of unarmed civilians have been killed,” said Isihara. “Tesfai told me that his 20-year-old nephew, who was approved and waiting for his visa to come to the United States, was executed by military forces entering his remote village.”
Isihara has been told that both sides are indiscriminate in their violence.
“The military forces came back through and killed younger children,” he said. “Even people in their 80s and 90s, who were basically invalids, were killed. Tragically, both sides are now being accused of terrible atrocities.”
Though the political and humanitarian situation in Tigray has greatly deteriorated over the past year and a half, the region used to be much more welcoming to missionary work. In past years, Isihara visited Tigray numerous times, including multiple occasions where Wheaton students joined him to support his work in building and maintaining a Tigrayan technological institute.
Isihara was first introduced to the region by Abay, and the two quickly began investing significant amounts of time and energy into helping Tigray. The Tigrayan Development Association, a nonprofit in Tigray committed to supporting healthcare and educational institutions in the region, informed Isihara and Abay of the region’s need for a technological institute.
Back in Wheaton, Isihara mobilized students and faculty to gather funds and resources to donate to what would become the Mek’ele Institute of Technology (MIT), located in the Tigrayan capital of Mek’ele. From 2002 to 2007, Isihara led summer trips of small groups of Wheaton students and faculty to Mek’ele to support the new university’s construction and maintenance. Wheaton College and the Timothy Project, which Isihara joined as board chair in 2007, worked together to fund and coordinate these missionary trips.
“Over the course of about five trips, Wheaton students brought computers, books and other resources for MIT,” said Isihara. Students and faculty also taught classroom workshops, hosted basketball clinics, and helped with computer labs and networking with MIT.
Nathaniel Stapleton ‘04, is now a math professor at the University of Kentucky. During his time as a Wheaton student, he became interested in Isihara’s work in Tigray after he helped Isihara box up a bunch of computers to ship to MIT.
“I think that experience made me aware of what he was up to,” said Stapleton. “When he invited me to come during the summer between undergrad and grad school, it seemed like a good thing to do.”
Stapleton traveled to MIT in the summer of 2004 alongside Isihara and a couple of other Wheaton students. He was quickly impressed by the Tigrayan students and found his time teaching them math lessons enjoyable.
“The students were very excited to have us there,” said Stapleton. “They were interested in learning some new math. I don’t remember the language barrier being difficult. They must have all spoken English pretty well. Because we shared common interests, it was quite easy to connect with them.”
The final two years of the missionary trips, students and faculty also conducted research projects with MIT students. “It was greatly successful because we did get a couple papers published, which brought attention to MIT,” said Isihara. “Every little bit helps.”
Unfortunately, the civil war has not spared Isihara’s work in the Tigray region. “Talking with Tigrayans here, people told me about MIT because they knew I was involved with the school,” said Isihara. “I understand that MIT was looted and damaged in the early phase of the war, when government, Amhara, and Eritrean forces were all coming into Mek’ele. To think of tanks and bombs in the very places that were a nice place to go for jogs was so unbelievable.”
The Timothy Project also helps fundraise for other ministries and organizations delivering aid to the Tigray region. Through the Project’s fundraising initiatives, Isihara met Tesfu Beraki, an Eritrean living in America who leads a Christian television and radio broadcasting ministry operating in the Tigray region.
“A friend of mine introduced me to the Timothy Project and I fell in love with these dedicated men of Christ,” said Beraki. “I quickly became a regular attendee of their Sunday prayer meetings and got to know Dr. Isihara and his team.”
Beraki is a volunteer at MaEzer Semay, a 24/7 television broadcast to northeast Africa that is dedicated to bringing the gospel to the Ethiopian and Eritrean peoples in their own language, Tigrinya.
“All we do is try to spread the good news in their own language, without changing any doctrine,” said Beraki. “We are multi-denominational — everyone is welcome as long as they are clearly promoting Christ our Savior.”
According to Beraki, approximately 20 percent of Eritreans and Tigrayans tune in to the ministry’s nightly television broadcast and the vast majority of the region’s people are aware of the organization. During the civil war, MaEzer Semay also began a shortwave radio broadcast which greatly expanded the ministry’s reach from urban to rural areas.
“Most of the Tigrayan people and Eritrean people who speak the same language live in rural areas,” said Beraki. “The television that we broadcast only covers the places where they have television and where they have access to electricity. We were looking into different ways to cover those rural areas because the whole point is spreading the Gospel to those people who speak Tigrayan in Tigray and Eritrea. We decided that shortwave radio is the way to do it.”
The Timothy Project has committed to covering the $2,000 monthly expenses needed to operate the ministry, helping pave the way for an increased audience for the gospel in Tigray and Eritrea. The impact is especially remarkable considering the persecution that many Christians face in the region.
Eritrea has banned most expressions of Christianity while Ethiopian Christians face persecution from extremist Islam groups. Open Doors, a nondenominational organization that advocates for the persecuted church, lists Eritrea and Ethiopia as the sixth and 38th most dangerous countries for Christians, respectively. Reports of lootings and bombings at sacred Christian and Muslim sites in Tigray were reported in late 2020, and Abune Mathias, head of the Ethiopean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, condemned the violence in Tigray as a genocide in May 2021. The U.S. has denounced the human rights violations occuring within the region, although it has not termed the conflict a genocide.
The Timothy Project has shifted its focus to other ministries due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil war, including raising awareness about the conflict in and around Wheaton. On June 25, 2021, Isihara helped lead a march in Chicago to peacefully protest the war. About 100 Tigrayans, Christian missionaries with ties to the region, and human rights activists joined him in a show of solidarity for the Ethiopians in Tigray.
During the event, Dennis Wadley, a missionary to Tigray, offered a personal account of his ground-breaking meeting with the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This was followed by a number of speeches from native Tigrayans.
“We started at the state building and walked with signs saying, ‘Stop the genocide,’” said Isihara.
Hailey Bouwman, a senior International Relations and Psychology major, spent the fall 2021 semester researching and writing about Tigray for her African Politics class with professor Kathryn Alexander. While researching, Bouwman realized that many Americans are not educated about the situation.
“I would encourage people to read things, look into things,” she said. “I don’t think the U.S. media has touched on the issue a lot because there’s a lot of fatigue in American politics over African conflict.”
Bouwman said she was worried about the future of the conflict.
“One of the concerns I have is that Prime Minister Abiy will use the civil war as a reason to ethnically target other Tigrayans, citing them as a security threat,” she said. “It’s valid to feel concern about the safety of your country, but not by targeting people based on their ethnicity. We have a responsibility to protect, but also to prevent. We might be a little past that, but if there are indications that they are seeking to target Tigrayans apart from the TPLF, then we should care about that.”
Beraki, however, remains confident that the gospel is continuing to spread throughout the Tigray region and greater Ethiopia. He expressed hope for a Christ-centered reconciliation between all parties involved in the conflict.
“It is only Christ’s way that can solve the war in that area, and only through Christ’s teaching that we can make peace in Tigray,” Beraki said. “That is the only message we follow. Certainly, there are some Christians who support the government and some who don’t, but Christ died for both. Christ died for the perpetrator and the victim. The blood is shed for all of them.”