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Eritrea''s Vicious Religious Persecution Has Arrived in the U.S: Open Letter Print E-mail
Wednesday, 19 October 2011 23:06

Mr. Michael Cromatrie, Chair

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

800 N. Capitol Street, N.W., Suite 790

Washington, D.C. 20002

Dear  Mr. Cromartie,

As you recall, a delegation from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had visited Eritrea in October 2004. Eritrea, as a result of the recommendations of the USCIRF, has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the U.S. State Department since 2004 for its ruthless religious persecution. As the Commission continues to monitor Eritrea closely for its annual CPC deliberation process in order to develop appropriate policy recommendation to the United States government, the systematic and brutal religious persecution in the country has grown intolerable.

I write you this letter, not as a representative of any entity, but as an independent academic who follows events in Eritrea closely. My purpose for writing is to bring to your attention a new and disturbing development with respect to the well-publicized case of the government of Eritrea’s egregious violation of the rights of its people to freedom of worship. What makes this most recent development more alarming is the fact that the government of Eritrea has brought its tactics of intimidation and terror on the Diaspora communities here in the United States.

Allow me then to relate to you the general background to this new and pernicious menace. Since the Commission’s first visit to Eritrea in October 2004, religious persecution there has become much more widespread and savage. According to reliable sources, the number of people who are under the most severe detention because of their faith has reached somewhere between 2000-3000. Most of the leaders of the so-called “unregistered churches” have remained in prison for the past 3-5 years. None of these prisoners of conscience have been brought before a court of law. There is ample evidence of inhumane treatment and torture. Another telling proof of the regime’s irrational acts is the criminalizing of the act of owning or reading a Bible. This is particularly true within the armed forces.

The most alarming developments since 2004 has been the targeting of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), supposedly one of the four “recognized” faiths in the country. Since Eritrea’s independence in 1991, the ruling regime has made it its highest priority to take absolute control of the EOC. To this end, partly in order to blunt potential opposition to the move, the government imprisoned the church’s most visible and capable leaders. These, who four years later, still remain in prison without ever being charged with any crime, include the Rev. Dr. Fitsum Ghebrenegus, the Rev. Dr. Tecleab Menghisteab, the Rev. Ghebremedhin Ghebregiorgis and merigeta Ytbarek Berhe.

When Patriarch Antonios expressed his displeasure at the government’s endless and unwarranted interference in the life of the church, the regime orchestrated the pontiff’s removal from office in 2005. He has been placed under the most severe house arrest since the beginning of 2006. The 80 year-old Patriarch suffers from acute dabetes and the government has denied him medical care.

Furthermore, in May 2007, the autocratic regime of Mr. Afewerki orchestrated the elevation of a pliant and opportunist bishop, one Abba Dioscoros, to the seat of the patriarchate to carry water for the regime. It was following these disturbing developments that the EOC, Diocese of North America took an unwavering and principled stand that His Holiness Patriarch Antonios is and will remain the legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and that it recognizes none other.

It is for this reason that the government of Eritrea has decided to export its rule of terror to the Eritrean-American communities in the Diaspora - to shove Abba Dioscoros down their throat. This is how one astute observer has put the regime’s acts of terror in the Diaspora communities in the United States: “It appears that the appetite of Eritrea’s ruling regime to terrorize its citizens is not satiated by the subjugation of those unfortunate enough to live within Eritrea’s borders. It is not contented with denying them religious freedom; freedom of assembly or freedom of expression. It wants to extend the police state outside its borders—all the way to the United States.”

The Embassy of Eritrea in Washington DC, departing from all diplomatic conventions, has set itself up as headquarters for the government’s campaign of intimidation and terror. From there, it has deployed its auxiliaries and enforcers of the ruling party to harass the clergy of the Eritrean Orthodox Churches throughout North America. Its plan is to make sure that ALL the churches of the EOC in the United States toe the party line.

Although no one who holds a contrary view is ever tolerated, the prime targets have remained four distinguished clerics of the Church in North America who wield immense influence in their respective communities and beyond. These priests and the large parishes they lead have taken an unwavering stand with which the government of Eritrea is displeased. The names of these leaders are: the Rev. (Archpriest) Ghebre-mikael Yohannes of Atlanta, Georgia, the Rev. Tekeste Ghebre-Mikael of Seattle, Washington and two prominent priests in Washington DC, the Revs. Woldensae Berhane and Rev. Tesfom Gezae.

Let me give you a few examples of the audacious acts of harassment and terror being perpetrated by the Eritrean regime here in the United States. Reporting on the activities directed by the Eritrean embassy in an article entitled “Eritrean Embassy Incites Intolerance,” one stunned Eritrean source in one of the most widely read websites noted the following: “On September 30th and again on October 7, 2007, the Eritrean Embassy to the United States of America, had a statement, in Tigrigna [the main language spoken in Eritrea], read on Voice of Eritrea (VoE.). VoE has a time slot in the Decatur, Georgia-registered radio station broadcasting at 1420 KHZ, and is presumably providing a service to the “Eritrean community” in Atlanta. These broadcasts clearly state that the message came out of the Embassy of Eritrea in Washington.” It adds that “Through its embassy in DC, the Eritrean regime is giving directives to one group of Eritreans to deny the religious rights of another group of Eritreans some of who are no doubt Eritrean-Americans. It is encouraging one group of Eritreans to take control of the religious assets of an institution which, no doubt, is registered and, therefore, an American institution. It is threatening and presenting ultimatums to priests—who are either legal residents or citizens of the United States--who refuse to comply with its ultimatums and it is inciting others to be its proxy enforcers.

The broadcast named the aforementioned clerics, casting aspersions on their good names, fabricating lies about them, and calling on the local followers of the ruling party to take over these parishes, by force if necessary. There are documents from the embassy, which have become public, that were sent to the ruling party’s cells throughout the United States instructing them to join these parishes and then utilize their membership as a ticket for propagating the party line. These documents, emanating from the same den of iniquities, provide the operatives in the secret cells with talking points and outright lies that they could use in their campaign to discredit priests the government of Eritrea did not approve of.

It is instructive that this broadcast and the vicious attacks on the priests were timed to coincide with the election of the officers of the particular parish in Atlanta. It was designed to intimidate the people to electing candidates favored by the government.

On February 2 and again on February 9, 2008, a similar weekly radio program was broadcast by the Eritrean Embassy at WUST, 1120 kHz. This weekly program targets the large Diaspora community in the greater Washington DC area. On these particular days, the program from the embassy aired a venomous attack on the parish of the Medhane-Alem Eritrean Orthodox Church and its priests. Strangely enough, this radio broadcast also was designed to coincide with a periodic election for the officers of the church scheduled to take place on February 10, 2008. Although the election went on without a hitch, the action of the Eritrean Embassy defies all normative behavior of a diplomatic office.

Mr. Cromartie, as you deliberate upon a recommendation to the United States government, I urge your good office to condemn the inordinate and unacceptable behaviors of the Eritrean Embassy against citizens of the United States. Moreover, as the victims of the campaign of terror and intimidation consider their legal options and weigh their recourse with the Federal Communications Commission, I am confident that you will give due consideration to the growing body of incontrovertible evidences confirming the flagrant violations by a rogue regime of one of the fundamental rights of peoples to obey their conscience. The Eritrean regime should not be allowed to operate here in the United States in acts of lawless brigandage as it so callously does in its own land. It must be made to learn the important lesson that ours is a country of laws.

Habtu Ghebre-Ab, Ph.D.

Professor of History

University of Cincinnat

Cincinnati, Ohio

Office: 513-732-526

Fax: 513-558-5260

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cc: The Honorable Dr. Jendayi E.  Frazer,

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs,

U.S. Department of State,

Washington D.C.



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