Persecuted Christians and a dying church in Eritrea

If you ask people, “Where is Eritrea?” most would have no idea. As a tiny Eastern African country the size of Pennsylvania, with a population a little over 5 million people, it does not attract much attention. However, it should. The Christian population of Eritrea is being persecuted — their recognized leaders have been removed and the communities are living under strict government regulations that restrict their freedoms. Eritrea is a country situated in the ‘Horn of Africa’, bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti the southeast. The nation is dominated by two major religions, Christianity and Islam. Estimates indicate that 50% to 64% of the population is Christian.

Christians of Eritrea

The majority of the Christians belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, which is part of the Oriental Orthodox family. The remaining are Roman Catholics, Evangelical Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations. The government only recognizes the Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The rest of the religious groups need to register by providing detailed information to the government to gain the freedom of worship.  Interestingly, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, traces their origins to the evangelical works of Apostle St. Phillip. It was established as a church through the efforts of St. Frumentius in the kingdom of Axumite under King Ezana. Abune Antonios was installed as the third Patriarch of Eritrea in the year 2004. The Eritrean Orthodox Church belongs to the ancient Oriental Orthodox family along with the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Indian, and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches.

The Detained Patriarch

The Holy Synod unanimously elected Abune Antonios Patriarch on 5 March 2004 and he was enthroned as the third Patriarch of Eritrea on 24th April 2004 by the most holy hands of Pope Shenouda III, assisted by Eritrean and Coptic Orthodox Metropolitans and Bishops. Patriarch Antonios is well known for his hard work, leadership, and religious devotion. He has made tremendous contributions in reconstructing the all-around standards of the monasteries in Eritrea while serving as an Abbot. He has been much open to modern technology, medicine, and adored by thousands of people for his love, generosity, and theological scholarship always cherish education and him. As the Patriarch of Eretria, he was concerned and resisted the growing interference of government in religious affairs. His strong resistance to excommunicate three thousand members of the Medhane Alem, an Orthodox Sunday School movement as well as his demands that the government should release imprisoned Christians accused of treason are considered to be some reason for his rivalry with the Eritrean government. The Holy Synod sided with the government and during January 2005 a secret session was met and they removed all executive authority of the patriarch who was limited to just officiating church services. The Holy Synod sought the support of Pope Shenouda to excommunicate Abune Antonios, but the Pope refrained from such an act. A secret session of the Holy Synod in January 2006 at Asmara formally removed Patriarch from his office and on 20th January. Two priests accompanied by security persons of the Government the Patriarch’s residence and confiscated his personal pontifical insignia. Violating the church canons and constitution the government installed Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera as the anti-patriarch on 27th May 2007. Abune Antonios was forced to move out of his office and has been detained at an undisclosed location somewhere in the capital city of Asmara. It is reported that the Patriarch is being held in a darkened room. Abune Antonios was isolated and detained because of the Government master plan to tear out the uncompromising and courageous stand of the Patriarch against the unwanted involvement of government mechanisms in religious affairs. The government made this possible by arresting and defrocking large number of capable and leading clergy in the Orthodox Church as well as tactfully submitting Holy Synod members to the government plan. The Patriarch never acted a puppet of the government; rather he stood for peace and justice. Hence, he was detained and is believed to be still alive.  The Patriarch is an example of the true living Martyr of our Lord God, Jesus Christ. It shall be noted that none of the Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations have recognized the government installed Patriarch Abune Dioscoros. Abune Antonios is still recognized as the genuine and canonical patriarch of Eritrean Orthodox Church. The Eritrean government claims that Patriarch Abune Antonios has voluntarily retired to one of the interior isolated monasteries and is very active in prayers. Despite their claims, the Eritrean government has failed to produce any update on the conditions of the patriarch.  There are Eritrean Orthodox communities outside Eritrea especially in USA and UK who are served by two Bishops namely Abune Markarios (Bishop of the Eritrean Church in USA) who is also a member of the Coptic Holy Synod.  Abune Markos , Bishop of the Eritrean Church in the UK was condemned by Pope Shenouda for his pro-government attitude as well as supporting the government installed Patriarch. He is no more part of the canonical Eritrean Orthodox Church. In addition, there are Eritrean communities in different parts of the world especially in Jerusalem, the Holy Land. It shall be noted that the Eritrean Orthodox Community in Diaspora is divided into two groups; one supporting the canonical Patriarch Abune Antonios and the one supporting the Patriarch installed by the Eritrean government.

Persecution of Christians

Reports from several human rights organizations like In Chains for Christ, Persecution tells us that Christians and Christian churches are severely persecuted in Eritrea. Reports state that Christians who are trying to flee the persecutions are facing threat, torture, beating sexual assault and imprisonment. Many of the Christians are fleeing the land to neighboring countries. It is estimated that there are more between 2000 and 3000 Christians in Eritrean prisons. According to reports, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are attacked in large numbers. Human traffickers kill many people seeking refuges in Egypt and many others are being held captive in Sinai desert.  The refugees are heavily tortured both physically and mentally. Many people held in prison face death due to torture and lack of medical aid. The official sources of the Eritrean government deny any sort of assaults on Christians.

Despite one of the officially recognized and largest Christian communities of Eretria, the government machinery haunt the Orthodox Church. As per the ICFC report, Orthodox Churches in Eritrea are shut down at an alarming rate. Since 2005, more 1500 Orthodox priest and deacons have been forced to serve in the military. During past four years, the Orthodox Church is reduced to a mere arm of the department of the religious affairs. The historical and ancient artifacts of the Orthodox Church have been removed from churches and monasteries and have been confiscated by the government. Even though many churches are available in city areas, a large number of Orthodox Churches in rural Eritrea has closed their doors, especially due to the shortage of clergy. It is the purposeful plan of the government to create a shortage of Orthodox priests and deacons by forcing them to serve in the military as soldiers. The government is presently forcing all Orthodox deacons and priests below the age of fifty years to interminably serve in the military, thus depriving the church completely without clergy. It is estimated that more 1500 Orthodox Churches will be shut down in near future. Some examples for the closed churches are St. George Orthodox Church in Aligider, Gelila Mariam Orthodox Church in Shambuka, Medhane Alem Demas Orthodox Church near Ginda’E, St. Michael MeHrad Lam near Qnafna, and Orthodox Church in Adi-Itay in the area of Mendefera and St. Gabriel Egela Orthodox Church near Teseney.

Metropolitan Abba Seraphim: The Sole Fighter

Abba Seraphim Metropolitan of Glastonbury, Primate of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate has been toiling for past several years to gain the much-needed international attention and help for the prosecuted Christians of Eritrea as well as to restore Abune Antonios back to his throne. The Metropolitan leads a prayer vigil for prosecuted Christians of Eritrean every year especially at the Eritrean embassy in the UK.

Plea for Help

There has been a continuous plea for help from the suffering Christian communities in Eritrea. Many countries in the west, especially the USA have been pressing the Eritrean government to protect human rights and restore religious freedom. United Nations Human Rights Commission called for peace and restoration of religious freedom many times. However, any kind of international pressure seems to be ignored. Some of the organizations working for the persecuted Christians of Eritrea and other countries are as follows: Church in Chains, Release Eritrea, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, In Chains for Christ, Human Rights Concern Eritrea, Persecution, Release International.

Developments

In 2014 OCP Media Network (www.theorthodoxchurch.info) released a clandestinely taken snap of Abune Antonios from a cell phone, which showed His Holiness looking tranquil and at peace, although still under house arrest. Requests for him be moved to a monastery have been ignored. In 2015 December, the government appointed Patriarch Abune Dioskoros passed away. The government appointed Patriarch Abune passed away in 2017. The government authorities and the government-controlled church in Eretria pretended some negotiations with detained canonical Patriarch Abune Antonios. There was some agreement made between the Church and the detained Patriarch. In October 2017, the government bluffed the international community by arranging a reconciliation meeting and Liturgical celebrations. Patriarch Abune Antonios took part in the celebration. No statement was made directly by Abune Antonios. An official letter was read at the event, but the original content of the letter was different from what was agreed between the Patriarch and the authorities. Photos of Patriarch Abune Antonios attending Divine Liturgy were posted in social media stating that problems between His Holiness Abune Antonios and the Holy Synod of the Eritrean church have ended. However, after Sunday Liturgy, the Patriarch was arrested and moved to some unknown location in the capital city of Asmara. The detention of Patriarch Abune Antonios continues to puzzle the Christian world. Eritrea remains a dark chapter. I pray for a great miracle in Eritrea and request each one of you to pray for the suffering Christians. Let us stand united to speak and act for our brothers and sisters in Eretria. May the Almighty have mercy on his children in Eritrea.

George Alexander

Facilities Manager & J.A in Geostrategy of Religions at OSI Occidental Studies Institute and President of Pan-Orthodox Christian Platform, India.