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The Faith Community in Eritrea : Its Need for Mobilization for Change

AI News

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” FDR

The horrendous stripping of civil liberties in Eritrea by the ruling party and the total control of citizens’ daily lives by the police state reached an acutely dangerous threshold when the government of Eritrea openly made its anti-religious stance one of the corner-stones of its repressive policies in April 2002.

The Eritrean police state had already succeeded in co-opting the so-called “recognized” religions in the same manner that the Nazis had done in the Germany of the 1930’s. In 2002, the minority religions in Eritrea , even those that had been afforded a modicum of liberty during the Ethiopian occupation were illegitimated. Many of their leaders were picked up and thrown in the regime’s dungeons. Believers who were suspected of belonging to, worshiping in their homes, or conducting solemn occasions, such as weddings, are being hunted down and thrown in jail.
While the above actions of the Eritrean police state received a great deal of publicity and deserved condemnation, what went unnoticed was the crime the regime has been perpetrating against the historic Orthodox Church. Within the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the ruling party first took over the administrative apparatus, placing its own party members in key positions to serve as errand boys to the police state. The most senior party member in the church hierarchy today is Mr Yoftahe Dimetros. In case the connection is lost on anyone, Mr Yoftahe is none other than the son of Keshi Dimetros who delivered the Orhodox Church over on a silver platter to Ethiopia’ as an instrument of domination in the period following World War II.. Keshi Dimetros was the ultimate architect of the Ethiopia ’s rule in Eritea.
In the process of and after having wrested total control of the Orthodox Church, the government of Eritrea then went about arresting prominent members of the clergy whom it feared might speak up against such acts. These leaders are today languishing in the government’s notorious jails. Several other leaders and scholars of the church have either been sidelined or fired from their positions.
As the government of Mr. Isayas Afewerki and its agents initially tried to deny the wide practice of religious persecution, the people of Eritrea , particularly those in Diaspora, might at one time have been confused about the veracity of the growing accounts of anti-religious activities. With the international community, including the U.S. Government and every major human rights organization having now blacklisted the Eritrean government as one of the most repressive, one would be hard pressed not to acknowledge the facts.
The question now is, “What should people of faith in Eritrea and in Diaspora do to fight for their rights?” In all sincerity, in this article, I can only speak in so far as the Christian faith is concerned. For Christians, the apostle Paul tells us that “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments; and…in patience, kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left…” (2 Corinthians 6:3-10). The Christian doctrine leaves no doubt as to what weapons we must employ, referring to them as “not of this world’s”. We commend everything to God. We love even those who hate us. We pray for those who seek our demise. “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Corinthians 10: 3-4). This is what renders the Christian faith so radically different. As difficult as this may be to fathom, for Christians, the battle, first and foremost, is fought on our knees – in prayer.
There is, however, another dimension to the Christian struggle for freedom and justice. As exemplars of this, we can inter alias look to the heroic anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa , the civil rights movement in the United States , and the fearless stand the churches in the East European former satellite States of the Soviet Union took for justice. After he became pope, one of the first things John Paul II did was bring to an end his predecessors’ accommodationist attitudes towards communism. In Pontiff in Winter, author J. Cornwell writes that the Pope “would ask no favors; he would insist on freedom of religion, the full catalogue of human rights; there would be no accommodation” on this sacred principle. John Paul II, in his first encyclical to the world, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeeming of Man), published on March 4, 1979, made a thundering appeal for universal human rights. “These rights,” he wrote, “are rightly reckoned to include the right to religious freedom together with the right to freedom of conscience.”
In Eritrea , except for isolated incidents of heroes of the faith standing up to tyrants, there has never been a consistent tradition of the faith community or its leaders leading the charge in the struggle for justice. One exceptional effort is the pastoral letter, neza hager’zia egziabhier yefqra iyou (24 May 2001), published by three prominent Eritrean catholic bishops on the 10th anniversary of Eritrea ’s independence. Signed by Abune Zekarias Yohannes (bishop of Asmara ), Abune Lukas Milezi (bishop of Barentu), Abune Tesfamariam Bidiho (Bishop of Keren), this 40-page publication boldly asserted:

“We are forced to believe that all creation was made for the good of humankind. By the same logic, we believe that a country/nation was created for the good of man, not the other way around. Consequently, when we weigh everything, whether benefits or costs, we do so by the benefits or losses accrued to humankind. If we fail to understand this cardinal spiritual principle, there are times when human beings are utilized as mere tools where their honor and esteem are degraded. Instead of the economic, social and legal human constructs serving humankind, humankind becomes their slave.” [The author’s translation]

Even before the illegal arrest and detention of several prominent Eritreans by Mr. Isayas’ police state in September 2001, before the closing down of the independent press and the mass arrest of journalists, and the government’s most recent and eve escalating anti-religious actions, the Bishops had warned that Eritrea was descending dangerously into deep mire. They pointed to the erroneous view among many with respect to religion in Eritrea as being a divisive phenomenon, its potential to posing as political power rival, and a bastion of oppression against women.
Furthermore, the above mentioned Bishops emphatically and in an uncompromising language called for a rule of law through the immediate implementation of the now defunct constitution. They spoke of the acceptance and nurturing of political pluralism and of the protection of the rights of citizens to assemble. They advocated freedom of expression for which the Eritrean people have paid untold sacrifices. They presented a cogent argument as to the symbiotic relationship between the most fundamental rights of man and the progress and prosperity of any society.
So, how must people of faith respond to the untold oppression in their land, of which religious persecution is but one? As mentioned above, this is for us a spiritual warfare and, first a foremost, should be fought through prayer and fasting. Secondly, people of faith should speak out loudly and call for comprehensive, indivisible rights. Yes, they must advocate for the right of individuals to worship according to the dictates of their conscience. By the same token, we can not pretend that these are the only rights the Eritrean people are denied. There is this organic and inseparable link between all the other rights and religious freedom. We must, therefore, fight for all our rights. There can not be freedom of worship without freedom of assembly or freedom of expression. Thirdly, the unnecessary interference and meddling of the police state, any future state for that matter, in religion should be resisted boldly.
“The Lord bless and keep Eritrea ; the Lord make his face shine upon her and be gracious unto her; the Lord turn his face toward Eritrea and give her peace” Numbers 6:24-27) [alterations by the author].