A Familiar Crime in the name of the Eritrean Orthodox Church Print
Wednesday, 19 October 2011 23:37

The Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), both as an integral part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church before it attained its autocephalous (self-governing) status a decade and a half ago and since, is undoubtedly the oldest and most venerable institution in Eritrea. Besides its deep well of spiritual wealth that one can trace back to the apostolic age, the church is also noted for being the repository of learning and a major pillar of the society for nearly two millennia. Moreover, the EOC is responsible for the transmission of this rich spirituality, learning and culture down to our own age. As one looks for answers to the question of where this truly ancient institution deviated to get to its present sad state of affairs, one is faced with its historic failures in the most critical challenges it had faced in the first half of the twentieth century.  The parallel between the wicked failures of some of the church’s leadership then and their contemptible betrayal and unbelievably cruel acts today is unseemly eerie. It is only then that a clear pattern of what Nelson Mandela refers to as “the tragedy of failed leadership” within the church emerges.

Let us look at two glaring examples of the tragedy of the failure in leadership in the Orthodox Church in Eritrea in times past - the pre-independence era. This, regrettably, leads one to dig into unpleasant events that shed important light on the tragic depth into which the church has descended today.

Criticizing the men at the helm, however, should take away nothing from the Orthodox faith, its adherents’ piety or the faithful ministry of the countless parish priests across the width and breadth of the country.  This criticism of the failed “leadership” notwithstanding, it is only fair to still hold on to an abiding belief that, as everywhere else in the world, the Orthodox Church in Eritrea still has so much to offer.

The 1940’s was a decade in which a confluence of historical circumstances brought the Eritrean people to vigorously organize into political parties to debate and decide on their future status.  For this reason, the decade can be termed as the “golden age” of democracy in Eritrea. At no time before or since that period have the Eritrean people experienced such an exhilarating and open debate over their future – even if often accompanied by violence and intrigues fostered by external forces. During this period, two opposing groups emerged for political battle: the forces of independence (The Independence Bloc) and those who advocated unity with Ethiopia (The Unionists). The role some of the of the Orthodox leaders in Eritrea chose for themselves during this critical period some sixty years ago is noteworthy, as it sheds important light to the similarly destructive role its leaders are playing today.

As chronicled in “Aynfelale” - a seminal historical work on the history of Eritrea of the 1940s by Mr. Alemseged Tesfai, - one of the powerful Unionist organizations of the period in Asmara issued a decree.  The purpose was to intimidate and harass the highland population of Eritrea, most of whom are followers of the Orthodox Church, into opposing independence and supporting union with Ethiopia. The decree read as follows:

We  should have no association whatsoever with anyone in the Independence Bloc.

If there is any betrothal involving anyone with a family that has any association with the Independence Bloc, the betrothal should immediately be called off.

If anyone in the Independence Bloc is having a wedding, we should see to it that we do not attend the festivities or lend any of the traditionally obligatory support.

If anyone in the Independence Bloc or his family member dies, we should keep away from attending their funeral. If there is no one to bury them, however, no more than four people to carry the casket and three people to dig the grave should accompany the dead to the cemetery. This should be done only to avoid the outbreak of communicable diseases. NO PRAYER FOR THE DEAD SHOULD BE OFFERED BY ANY CLERGY; nor should any of the customary assistance (debes) be offered to the loved ones of the deceased.

Any clergy whose sympathy lies with the Independence Bloc must be removed from his parish. No believer should take confession, accept the sacrament of baptism or receive any blessings from such a clergy.

In “Aynfelale”, from which the above  statement was quoted: Mr. Tesfai concludes that: “It is inconceivable to think that a decision of this magnitude on such serious spiritual matters could have been taken or that the possibility of such an action could carry the requisite weight without the assent of the [Orthodox Church’s “hierarchy”]. Nor can we in any way underestimate the immense distress such stance might have brought to bear on the faithful.”

As the above quotation reveals, some of the leaders of the Orthodox Church in Eritrea, cut off as they were from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church since the period of Italian colonialism, availed themselves in the service of the forces that stood against Eritrea’s independence and served as an important tool in the Unionists’ arsenal in the 1940s. When, to this end, Unionist leaders issued the aforementioned decree and many other similar documents, no doubt with the full consent and blessing of certain leaders of the church, there were stinging responses from partisans of the Independence Bloc.

In the second edition of “Hanti Ertra”(One Ertrea), the pro-independence weekly, a writer spoke in a prophetic voice against the church’s profligate actions and denounced the Orthodox officials for their un-Christian political role. In an article entitled an “Un-erasable  Injustice” (zeyHkeK  bedel), the author denounced the deplorable acts of the leaders of the  church. In doing so, the author cited two specific injustices (bedelat) perpetrated by the church  hierarchy in the fifteen years between 1935 and 1950.

Harkening first to the events of 1935 when the Italian fascists were engaged in the massive and brutal invasion of Ethiopia, the author of the article began by recalling the shameful collaboration of officials of the Orthodox Church in Eritrea with officials of the Italian fascists. Here is how the author put it: “In her [the church’s] first act of  injustice (bedel, having collaborated with and becoming a tool of a foreign government to attack Ethiopia,… they [the church leaders] participated in the spilling of the blood of the innocent faithful who had taken her holy sacraments (Korebtn segedtn). At that time, the church, severed as it were from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church due to the Italian occupation, used its spiritual authority and influence over the people by excommunicating any Eritrean… who refused to bear arms and fight under the fascist flag as Italy was invading a peaceful nation. In so doing, the church coerced her own communicants to the dictates of its Italian masters, and broke the spiritual and physical independence of her people.”

The author of the article then goes on to construct a shameful pattern of behaviors of the leaders of the Orthodox Church in Eritrea in the political climate of the 1940s, now prostituting themselves to yet another power – Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia - and standing squarely against those Eritreans who put their lives on the line for Eritrea’s independence.

“And at this very moment [1950], as the people of Eritrea – irrespective of religion - Christians and Muslims alike -  attest, the same church [authorities] has once again denied her holy and divine mysteries to all her peaceful and faithful adherents who are fighting for the independence of Eritrea. It has, just as in 1935, denied them a Christian burial, condemning them instead to be buried without the cross as if they were donkeys or mules.”

The author concludes by criticizing the church hierarchy of  their failures:

“Even in a situation where one was found to have abandoned the religion of his forebears - the faith and traditions of the Orthodox Church – the church’s mandated responsibility would have been to bring the lost back to the fold through prayers, intercessions, justice and humble services. Contrary to such lofty and sacred [biblical] principle, however, the church has regrettably resorted to denying her holy sacraments to otherwise faithful and peaceful Eritrean believers simply because they demanded  independence for Eritrea and fought for the freedom of their people – a political view that is at variance with the political group to which the church authorities have attached themselves. It is only for this [political] reason that the church has denounced and put out her own children as heretics and denied them the holy mysteries of Jesus Christ who gave His life for them. By such actions, the leaders of the [Orthodox] Church have terrorized and dealt with her faithful unjustly.”

Mr. Tesfai informs us that such searing an indictment of the sad role of the authorities of the Orthodox Church in Eritrea could only have come from the pen of Ato Woldeab Woldemariam, a figure widely recognized as the midwife of Eritrean nationalism and, along with Ato Ibrahim Sultan, the father of the nation. The unionists seem to have come to the same conclusion as to the identity of the author of the aforementioned article as well. According to Mr. Tesfai, this was borne out by the fact that a third attempt was made on the life of Ato Woldeab Wodemariam on February 4, 1950 – the exact same date that the above article appeared in “Hanti Ertra”

“Un-erasable” Injustices:

Now, what is forcing us to rehash this painful past? Why bring a dark chapter from the history of the leadership of the church into such a sharp focus now? The short answer is because the hierarchy of the Eritrean Orthodox Church is presently committing another similar UN-ERASABLE INJUSTICE (zehHkekK bedel) against adherents of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.  It is because the church hierarchy that is supposed to serve God and the church are, for a third time in six decades, on the wrong side of history by farming the church out in the service of the ruling regime in Eritrea. They have learned absolutely no lesson from the past. The church, which, as a matter of her calling, should serve – in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. – as the conscience of the state, has once again taken on the role of a servant of the state.

Today, the Eritrean Orthodox Church is savagely being assaulted. As one recent article described her deplorable situation, the church is “being systematically dismantled” by a government that is hostile to religion and is bent on destroying any vestiges of religious faith from the country.

The ruling regime in Eritrea has mastered the evil lessons of fascist Italy of the 1930s in Eritrea and the ploys of Emperor Haileselassie in the 1940s  to completely nationalize (take over) the Eritrean Orthodox Church in order to manipulate and use it for the regime’s own sinister political end.

Under such circumstances, the likes of Abba Dioscoros and his clique of bishops in Eritrea have become enthusiastic collaborators and tools of the PFDJ, the sole godless ruling party in Eritrea. Because of the church’s new role as political enforcers of the regime in priestly garbs, the EOC hierarchy, now under a short government leash, has turned the church into just one of the regime’s “mass political organizations.” In doing so, they have sold their church down the river for a mess of pottage.

How have Yoftahe Dimtros, the government appointed lay person who holds the odious title of   “General Administrator” of the EOC, Abba Dioscoros, the government-installed false “patriarch” and their clique of bishops become partners in the present “zeyHkeK  bedel” Un-eraseable Crime]? The most deplorable action of the church hierarchy begins with their collusion in the unseating and imprisonment of H.H. Abune Antonios, the legitimate patriarch of the EOC, and so many prominent priests of the Eritrean Orthodox Church for so long without ever being charged with any crime. When priests express contrary views, such as opposing the deposing of Patriarch Antonios, this is not considered a matter solely affecting the church and solved according to church rules. The government and Yoftahe’s clique of bishops consider any expression of dissent within the EOC to be a treasonous act, and the church hierarchy uses the power of the state to harass and terrorize otherwise exemplary clergy. We have seen this tactic used over and over again.

Since the dethronement of H.H. Abune Antonios in January 2006, the rape and destruction of the EOC by the cannibalistic ruling regime in Eritrea and its collaborators within the church has gone on unchecked.

Besides the continued imprisonment of the leading lights of the EOC, scores of others in Asmara and its surroundings have been purged from their parish ministry because of their alleged refusal to jump on their band wagon. According to reliable sources, as recently as a few weeks ago, several archpriests in the sub-regions of Areza, Adi Quala, Guch’A and Mai-Mine were rounded up and held in detention. They were accused of sympathizing with Abune Antnios. Monks in several monasteries across Eritrea have met the same fate.

The same group of church officials and bishops that have collaborated in having their peers incarcerated; the same clique that has usurped power for their own benefit and care less about the church and its apostolic mandate; the same group that cheered the government on when it outlawed other denominations and put to jail nearly 3300 members of the EOC as well as leaders of other denominations in jail for their faith; the same clique that has betrayed Patriarch Antnios and offered him as a sacrificial lamb to their political bosses; this same clique is today in the service of the brutal and autocratic regime of Mr. Isaias to destroy the church from within. Today, these same leaders are repeating what Ato Woldeab Woldemariam condemned nearly 60 years ago as “zehHkeK bedelat”

Here again, it is instructive to note that the main player in the drama of the 1940s was none other than the notorious <em>Qeshi</em> Dimetros, the very father of Yoftahe Dimetros. The adage that the apple never  falls far from the tree rings ever true here.

In the last few months, using the same script from 1935 and 1950, Yoftahe and his clique of bishops have been circulating pamphlets to be read in Eritrean Orthodox churches in North America by priests who have been terrorized by the supposed “long-reach” of the state’s arm. The gist and purpose of this crude pamphlet is to subject priests who have boldly upheld the sanctity and defense of their beloved church, and who refused to avail themselves as tools of any political machinations to intimidation and terror. These series of scurrilous attacks the church authorities have unleashed as proxies of the state are designed to malign and cast aspersions on the good names and character of many priests in North America.

The purpose of the pamphlet goes beyond that. Using the same old tactics of the Unionists of the 1940s, the church hierarchy now threatens Orthodox Eritreans in North America to “listen and obey” only to government sanctioned priests, thereby attempting to strike fear in the hearts of followers of the Orthodox church.

Let us look at one example of the new role of the authorities of the EOC. As everyone is well aware, the main source of revenue for the ruling regimes in Eritrea has been the so called 2% “tax” required of every Eritrean national who lives abroad. Since payment of this extortionate “tax” is a must if anyone needs any consular service affecting themselves and family members, many have little choice but to grudgingly pay up. Anyone who might own any property in Eritrea, is trying to bring loved ones to visit for any reason or request any minor consular services, such a persons would have to provide proof of payment of this “tax”.  One of the documents required for such payment is one’s W-2 form for proof of income.

The Eritrean Orthodox Church, now under complete control of the government, is made to play the role of a collection agency for the regime in the enforcement of this strange scheme of extortion.  For instance, if someone wants to go back to Eritrea and bring back a bride, as many do, one of the requirements by church officials is that the bridegroom (and occasionally, a bride) shows proof of payment of the 2% “tax” to the government. If someone dies abroad and the remains is to be taken to Eritrea for burial, church officials refuse to conduct the burial service “ftHat” unless the deceased and the relatives of the deceased show proof of payment of the 2% “tax”. This is straight out of the Unonists’ manual of the 1940s against the followers of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

A Call to  Adherents of the Eritrean Orthodox Church:

The most important question now is this:  What must the response of any self-respecting Eritrean who calls himself Orthodox be? Should one allow one’s religion to be hijacked by the likes of Yoftahe Dimetros and his clique of bishops and offer it to her enemies for some cynical political end – just as the fascists of the 1930s and the Unionists of the 1940s successfully did?

The faithful of the Orthodox Church must unequivocally call on the government of Etritrea to keep its hands off the church. The Yoftahe-Dimetros clique should not be allowed to prostitute the church to the service of a godless state.

The government should be ashamed for forcing the church hierarchy to deny the faithful of her holy sacraments as a means of control. The church should never be used as a collection agency for the regime. The sacraments of the church are not and should never be for sale. There is absolutely no scriptural basis for the Yoftahe-Dioscoros group to deny the faithful of the holy sacraments simply because one, for whatever reason, has refused to pay an illegitimate and confiscatory tax to an illegitimate government. Nor is there anything in the teachings of the church Fathers or the traditions of the church to support such a strange and un-Christian role for the church. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars’s, and  to God what is God’s” (Matt. 22:21).

Habtu Ghebre-Ab, Ph.D