Full -Blown Assault on Religion in Eritrea Print
Wednesday, 19 October 2011 22:54

When the Eritrean government launched its full-throttle assault on Religion in April 2002, many who had not been paying much attention to its long-held intentions all religions, were, in the Eritrean tradition, willing to cut it yet another slack.  The Eritrean government was used to that.  All it had to do to try to discredit in the eyes of a trusting citizenry those it marked for its vicious attacks, was tag them as people “working for the enemy”. It had always done so to its political nemesis.  Not surprisingly, as it launched its renewed anti-religious attacks three years ago, the government alternated between issuing statements of utter denials of the fact, or engaged in leveling similar accusations against evangelical churches and other sects.

So much has been written since on the subject.  One of the oft-repeated and mistaken refrain has been that the government was after minority Christian denominations and sects only. The term often used has been “Pentecostals” or “charisma tics”.  It is the position of this writer that the government of Mr. Isayas Afeworki is and has always been hostile to religion - all religions! Period! 

Several months ago, in an article  entitled: “Stop Religious Persecution in Eritrea”, this writer attempted to trace the roots and ideological underpinnings for the government’s historical hostility towards religion in general. The Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front’s (the forerunner to PFDJ, the ruling party) own documents from the mid-1970s – foremost among them, the tone and substance of its National Democratic Program of 1978 – portended the religious persecution the world is witnessing in Eritrea today. Although only a few of the Christian denominations and sects were slated for “destruction” in the said documents, the antireligious tone of the ruling party, which dates back to their formative years, is quite evident.

As early as 1994, the Eritrean government began locking horns with the Catholic Church when the latter spoke out for justice.  Long before the nascent free press in Eritrea was muzzled four years ago, the government of Mr. Isayas had shut down the main organ  of the Roman Catholic Church in Eritrea. melekete  selam, the main publication of the Eritrean Evangelical Lutheran Church, the only protestant church that is supposedly “recognized” met the same fate.  So did finote berhan of the Orthodox Church and many other Christian publications. The reason is pure and simple: a mixture of unmitigated paranoia on the part of the ruling party, its leftist ideology that is passé every where else, or the fact that the government brooks no criticism.

As it pertains to the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the government’s actions against it have been as cynical as they have been vicious.  Taking advantage of the historic and inherent weaknesses of the Church, the government co-opted the Eritrean Orthodox Church by denying it even a semblance of independence of thought and actions from the very outset.  Under the guise of “helping the Church along until it is able to stand on its own two feet”, the ruling party took an active part in all the decisions of the church that should not involve the government.  Its infringement in the affair of the church include: the hiring and firing of its personnel, control the purse string of the Church so as to render it indebted to the ruling party; appointing the Church’s highest administrative officials; and harass and imprison anyone who stood in the way.  Consequently, in spite of the heroic efforts of His Holiness, some bishops, many priests and countless laypeople of the church, the ruling party is intent upon using the church as one among many important tools for controlling the Eritrean people. What is even more astounding is the fact that this is a lesson the Eritrean government took straight out of Emperor Haile Selassie’s textbook on church-state relations. Who can forget the attempt by the Ethiopians to use the church to further their own agenda in Eritrea?

As if the victimization of many a faithful servant of the church during the past decade or so was not enough, now the government has embarked on more brazen acts, even by its own standards, against people who have distinguished themselves in service to the country and the church. The imprisonment of the following is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Rev. Dr. Fitsum Ghebrenegus served as a deacon in the Orthodox Church since his childhood.  He is a highly regarded and the sole psychiatrist in the entire country. He also happens to be an ordained priest. Before his recent arrest in which, like countless others, he remains incommunicado, he was a regular fixture on EritTV as a person who held positions on so many government appointed commissions, including the once visible Commission for Demobilization of Soldiers.  Until his day of arrest, the Rev. Dr. Fitsum was the most senior physician at St. Mary Psychiatric Hospital in Asmara.

The Rev. Dr. Tecleab Menghisteab is also a highly respected physician.  He, too, grew up in the church, serving as a deacon for a number of years before he was ordained as a priest.  Dr. Tecleab is particularly known for his insightful, 500-page long commentary on the New Testament, published in 1999 – the first ever in the Tigrinya language.  In 2002 he published his seminal work entitled “kali’e wengel” – a  veritable defense of the church’s teaching.

The Rev. Gebremedhin Gebregiorgis, a priest trained in the theological school of Egypt, is one of Eritrea’s finest biblical expositors.  Upon his return to Eritrea nearly three years ago, he served as head of the Sunday Schools department in the Patriarchate. Moreover, for the two years before his detention, The Rev. Ghebremedhin headed a nationally acclaimed program working with HIV patients and an award-winning educational campaign for the prevention of AIDS in Eritrea.  The government had publicly acknowledged his stellar achievements in this critical area.

Besides the above leading figures in the Eritrean Orthodox Church, report from Asmara tells of many others who have received letters of warning.  These people are not politicians; nor are they involved in anything outside of their rights to worship God and serve their people faithfully and sacrificially.

All three are family men, with wives and children. Not only is it the Eritrean people who are denied the invaluable services of these brave men, but their wives and children are also cheated out of their birth right.  Now, as if to rub salt on the people’s fresh wound, the government has closed down Mekane Hiwet Medhane Alem Orthodox Church in the last ten days, the very church in which these men grew up, learned, and served all their lives. <strong>Pray tell, what external enemy of the Eritrean people has committed  such a grievous act against the Eritrean people?

The regime that is leading Eritrea nowhere but to an unimaginable disaster has to be called to account.  All those who are imprisoned because of their faith must immediately be released. The churches that have illegally been closed should be opened. The hundreds of people of faith who are languishing in the dungeons of the ruling party must be freed. The Eritrean people deserve better than the indignity and brutalization they have suffered under the PFDJ government.


Abba Haileyesus  Oqbai

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