Stop Religious Persecution In Eritrea Print
Wednesday, 19 October 2011 22:56

In April 2002 the Eritrean government ordered the doors of various protestant churches throughout the country closed. At least one other non-Christian sect also suffered the same fate.  Almost nine years earlier, in what proved to be an ominous move, the government criminalized the small Jehovah''s Witness community, revoking their citizenship rights.

Since the government of  Eritrea took the latest draconian measure <u>fifteen months ago to close churches, various officials have offered what have often been contradictory "explanations". Mr. Niazghi Kiflu, the official assigned to execute the order to close the churches had explicitly stated at the time that it was simply an "order from above". He had brusquely informed the representatives of the churches whom he had called to his office for the announcement of the government''s decision that the measure was temporary, pending a "registration process."  When the President of the State of Eritrea, Mr. Isayas Afeworki, was asked to explain the action of the government at a gathering of Eritreans during his visit to South Africa, he feigned ignorance.  His curt reply was, "I know nothing about this, and I will find out upon my return".  In response to the growing demand by the media and human rights organizations for the government to rescind this reckless measure, Mr. Girma Asmerom, Eritrea''s ambassador to the US, simply denied the fact.

What informs the Eritrean government''s ever-increasing negative views and actions toward religion in general? If one were to go as far back as 1975 and 1978, one would find traces of the ideological underpinnings for the government''s decision to close churches in a 140-page book entitled <em>General Political Education to the Fighters "Hafeshawi poletikawi temherti  n''tegadelti”). In it, the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front - now Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice, the ruling party that is responsible for the relentless religious persecution that is underway in Eritrea - had specifically named some of the churches that it has closed today as "tools of capitalism."   Using the Marxist phraseology that had wide currency during that particular period, it had argued that capitalism "keeps creating new “kenisha” [protestant] churches to buttress the status  quo and support absolute monarchy." 

It accused capitalism for exporting these supposedly "deceptive churches to Eritrea in order to hoodwink and dissuade the working class from the path of struggle."  The book then specifically names "Jehovah''s Witnesses, The Seventh Day Adventists, Faith Mission, Mekane Yesus [the Evangelical Lutheran Church] the Behai... etc." as "examples of religions created by imperialists." When we look at the sweeping nature of the persecution today, we of course have a clearer understanding of who else might have been included in the of that blunt document.  In any case, the book went on to denounce  these churches, along with those included in its "etcetra" as enemies of the Eritrean peoples'' struggle  and, therefore, deserving of eradication from Eritrea. (p. 132). 

But, considering the perverse and under-handed propaganda salvo that has accompanied the present vicious campaign of religious persecution, it would only be fair to ask what indeed the historic role of most of these churches has really been in the Eritrean society.  Some had legal recognition as far back as the Italian rule of Eritrea;  others since the days of the British Military Administration over five decades earlier.  The Ethiopian government under the monarchy had given the churches with a long-standing presence in the country full recognition.  Even with all the restrictions and severe persecutions which had characterized the relationship of the pro-Soviet dictatorship of Mengistu with these churches, it had not gone as far as the present Eritrean government has done.

Some of these churches have had an outstanding track record of running several schools and clinics across the width and breadth of the country since their establishment.  Their many schools and orphanages have raised generations of citizens that have distinguished themselves as exemplars of personal character, integrity and civic virtue. Many of these are today highly respected citizens in the professions and positions of leadership in Eritrea as well as in the Diaspora.  Thousands of the adherents of the churches that have been closed today joined the armed struggle for Eritrea''s independence and paid the ultimate sacrifice.  Throughout the 1980s, and until their NGO status had been inexplicably revoked in the mid-90s, many of these churches had stepped in to do an invaluable relief and development work. Leaders of the churches paid, often dearly, as the Ethiopian government often accused them of "caring for the children of the bandits" - as their orphanages took in children of men and women who had left to join the struggle for Eritrea''s independence, or were killed by the Ethiopian army.

Although these churches prayed and worked diligently for the cause of peace, when the country called on them in 1998-2000 to defend its sovereignty, the young people of these churches bore arms willingly and without flinching.  They, like everyone else, bled and died in defense of their country.  Members of the congregations throughout Europe and North America that are affiliated with the persecuted churches have also discharged their duty as Eritrean citizens by mobilizing support among their many friends and contributing unstintingly over so many years.  The only exception to this may have been the Jehovah''s witnesses, who cite the teaching of their faith for remaining aloof from the nation''s political life.

Today, adherents of the persecuted churches in Eritrea are not accorded the rights given even to common criminals in most parts of the world. They are denied the right to exercise their religion, of all places, in the very privacy of their own homes as security agents continue to systematically hound, harass, beat up, and imprison them.  There is a concerted effort within the armed forces to root out anyone who shows any evidence of religious inclinations. This is being carried out with ruthless deliberation, reminiscent of the Salem witch-hunt.  Hundreds are held incommunicado in various prisons and military camps across the country with no legal recourse. The government has not charged any of the churches or the hundreds of people it has incarcerated for merely belonging to these churches with any known crime.  Sadly, there appears to be no end in sight for the government''s well-orchestrated campaign of religious persecution.

Any society that aspires to achieving democracy and justice among its people must accept the following minimum and irreducible principles when it comes to religion and freedom of worship:

The transcendent purpose of a government is never to sit in judgement of which religion(s) can be considered "correct" and "allowable", and which to be proscribed. It is rather to dispense justice and protect those that are least able to protect themselves from the possible tyranny of the majority.

The freedom to exercise one''s faith unmolested is the most fundamental and indefeasible rights of all people.  No "sufficient reason" can be offered for any attempt to abridge this sacred right by any authority.  No temporal power has the imprimatur to grant it, nor to take it away. It is as natural a right as the right to breathe.  Moreover, what government or authority has ever succeeded in stamping out ideas or religion? Isn''t history replete with all the colossal failures by civil authorities to deny their citizens the dictates of their conscience? In more modern times, we can cite as examples the Bolsheviks and the Chinese communists, to name but a few, that had declared religion enemy #1 and had left no stone unturned to eradicate all vestiges of religious faiths from their lands.  One need not think to go into which in actual fact has receded into the fog of history and which has survived and continues to flourish.

A secular government, which the Eritrean government claims to be, with a definite and explicit religious preference can only be termed as a classic contradiction in terms, irrational, and the height of absurdity.

Eritrea has always prided itself, and rightfully so, for being a mosaic of religious and ethnic diversity.  Today, nothing poses more danger to such a society, or any society for that matter, than attempts at imposing religious uniformity and/or conformity.

The persecution of churches by the government of Eritrea has now been underway, with increasing ferocity, going on two years. Those of us who have followed the situation closely remained patient and quiet, hoping against hope that reason might soon prevail.  This, however, has not been the case.  To the contrary, what we are witnessing is a deteriorating situation with each passing day.

At this historical juncture, as Eritreans who take the work of alleviating the suffering of our people as part of our divine calling, we would have liked nothing more than to exert every ounce of our energy in the effort to save fellow Eritreans from the looming threat of famine. But when a government shuts all venues for such a noble endeavor, declares open season on people of faith, and when one''s very existence as a community of believers has been rendered void, the struggle for the right to exist takes precedence. And, therefore, we are left with the only choice at our disposal:

struggle  peacefully until the right of every Eritrean citizen to worship unhampered is  fully restored. I, therefore, call on the government of Eritrea:

To spare the country any more pain than it has already sustained, and lift the dark cloud of religious persecution from our land.

Release all those that have been in detention for no other reason, except worship in manners that the government does not "approve" of.

Bring to life the rights of all citizens enumerated in the constitution that was ratified in 1997. This is a covenant for which the people of Eritrea have paid immense sacrifice - a covenant that has since been rendered dead as a child stifled at birth.

I call upon all Eritreans of conscience who uphold the principle of the rights of all citizens to worship without unnecessary government interference to join hands with their persecuted compatriots in demanding justice.

I call on friends of Eritrea, governments, and non-governmental organizations for whom the lofty ideal of freedom of worship constitutes one of the most sacrosanct principles to bring to bear the maximum possible pressure on the government of Eritrea to immediately reverse its extreme and dangerous anti-religion stance immediately.