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Compass – The only Anglican priest in the East African nation of Eritrea received abrupt orders in early October to leave the country. After pastoring St. George’s Episcopal Church in Asmara for the past five years, the Rev. Nelson Fernandez received a telephone call from a government immigration official on October 4, informing him that he must leave Eritrea before October 15.

“They did not tell me the reason,” Fernandez told Compass by telephone yesterday from his home in Kollam, in India ’s Kerala state, where he arrived last week. “The only reason hinted to me indirectly was that the government has some restrictions regarding the number of years an expatriate could live there.”

An Indian citizen, Fernandez had renewed his visa annually. In September, authorities had downgraded his residency visa to three months. A week before his expulsion order, Fernandez learned that his promised three-month residence visa had been slashed to one month. That surprise came in a notice from the Department of Religious Affairs handed to him at the immigration office on September 28.

Then, on October 3, an official called to inform him that “higher security” had reduced his visa to only 15 more days.

Only a day later, when his final deadline was cut down to 10 days, Fernandez said, “It was indeed like a dignified deportation.” He said it was painful to have government ultimatums delivered over the telephone, leaving him no time for an orderly departure or for turning over responsibilities to his church warden and council.

“I just had to leave everything incomplete,” he said.

“This was shocking news for us and for him,” the Rt. Rev. Dr. Mouneer Anis, bishop of the Diocese of Egypt, declared in a written statement after he learned of Fernandez’s pending ouster.

St. George’s expatriate congregation had consisted of 18 members when the newly appointed Fernandez and his wife Sudha arrived in Asmara in September 2000, after a ceasefire between Eritrea and Ethiopia put U.N. peacekeepers on the buffer zone. The couple had lived in Eritrea previously for three years, when Fernandez was under a government contract teaching English at the Segeneity Senior Secondary School outside Asmara .

Since 2000 the church has grown steadily, expanding to both morning and evening Sunday services and drawing in foreign businessmen, teachers, personnel of non-governmental organizations and diplomats based in the capital.

The priest said he believed the main reason for his expulsion was the church’s mushrooming Sunday evening congregation. This year an average of 250 predominantly young Eritreans have been attending these open worship services.

“Since January, we’ve had to put in additional benches on Sunday nights,” Fernandez said, “and even then the congregation was out the door, overflowing the building.”

Sources in Asmara have confirmed that since Fernandez’ forced departure, the Department of Religious Affairs has instructed the Rev. Asfaha Mehari, president of the Evangelical [Lutheran] Church of Eritrea (ECE), to take over the pulpit at St. George’s .

“No foreign citizen, and especially no American, is to be allowed to conduct services there,” the source reported.

Under a 1994 agreement between St. George’s and the ECE, which conducts a number of its own worship services and other activities on the premises, the church compound and parsonage remain the property of the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt. But in terms of legal and governmental relations, the congregation is under the umbrella of the ECE.

Since May 2002, the Eritrean government has outlawed all Christian meetings for worship except those of the officially registered Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches. Police authorities have raided meetings in order to arrest hundreds of Protestant believers from the banned denominations. At least 17 of their pastors are still in jail.

But in recent months, government crackdowns have broadened to include individuals and groups within the legally recognized churches that are accused of “corrupting” Eritrean youth.

Even Patriarch Abune Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been effectively sidelined, deposed from all ecclesiastical authority except as a ceremonial figurehead. He has been under house arrest since early August.