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Eritrea Imposes New Controls on Orthodox Church

Compass Direct

December 14– The government of Eritrea wrested financial and personnel control away from the Eritrean Orthodox Church last week, the day after security police jailed nine staff of a Christian aid agency.

In an ultimatum delivered to the church’s Asmara headquarters on December 5, the state demanded that all offerings and tithes collected through the Orthodox Church be deposited directly into a government account.

According to the unilateral order, effective immediately the monthly salaries of all Orthodox priests are to be paid out from this government-controlled fund of church income.

In a related policy, the government also announced new limits for the number of priests to be allowed to serve in each parish throughout the country.

The order specified that any “extra” priests beyond this quota who are now serving in any given parish would be required to report to the Wi’a Military Training Center, to perform their required military service.

The leadership of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has reportedly accepted the government demands, forwarding formal notice of the new regulations to every Orthodox parish in the country.

Ignoring church canons, the regime of President Isaias Afwerki removed the church’s ordained Patriarch Abune Antonios from office in August 2005 and placed him under house arrest. After installing a lay administrator, the government then put forward Abune Dioscoros as Antonios’ unofficial successor.

The Catholic Church of Eritrea reportedly continues to reject government demands to curtail their staff of priests or send them to military service.

Samaritan’s Purse Staff Arrested

At the same time, Asmara sources have confirmed that 10 days ago security officials arrested nine truck drivers working for Samaritan’s Purse, an international aid agency ordered to leave the country last month.

Eritrean authorities intercepted the men on December 4 as they were driving toward the Eritrean-Sudanese border, where Samaritan’s Purse had projects assisting the nomadic Beja tribe.

A U.S.-based evangelical Christian organization, Samaritan’s Purse is the 11th international aid group expelled from Eritrea this year. Officials in Asmara insist that these expulsions are simply protecting the country from the aid dependency rife across Africa .

The detained drivers, most of them known to be evangelical Christians, remain under arrest in Police Station No. 6 in Asmara .

Gospel Singer Released

Local evangelical Christians report that Gospel singer Helen Berhane, released in late October after more than two years in jail for refusing to recant her faith, is recuperating at her home in Asmara .

No reason was given for Berhane’s release, although she was transferred into emergency hospital care for several days earlier in October, shortly after undergoing a new round of beatings.

“She is extremely strong spiritually, and in high spirits,” one Christian who visited her last month declared. Still in a wheelchair, Berhane was severely injured in her right leg by beatings and bruisings inflicted by her captors.

A member of the Kidrane Mehrete Fellowship, Berhane was arrested on May 13, 2004, shortly after releasing a Christian music album that proved popular among Eritrean youth. Jailed at the Mai Serwa Military Camp, she was never charged or put on trial.

“She spent most of her detention in inhuman and degrading conditions inside a metal shipping container which was used as a prison cell,” Amnesty International wrote in a November 3 statement reporting her release. “The authorities reportedly tortured her many times to make her recant her faith.”

Although Berhane reportedly knew that the world had heard about her plight and that Christians were praying for her, local Christians told Compass that they assumed she had been ordered not to talk about her imprisonment after her release.

“Of course we’ve had no contact with her, because that’s extremely risky for somebody who’s just released from prison,” Horn of Africa researcher Dr. Martin Hill of Amnesty International told the British Broadcasting Corporation on November 4.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse the previous day, Eritrean Foreign Minister Ali Abdu denied any knowledge of Berhane’s case.

Instead, he criticized Amnesty International for its massive campaign on her behalf, saying, “Who is accountable for them, and who has given them the right to be the global police of this world?” Abdu said. “I am not saying it is a lie . . . but we do not even give them recognition,” the minister said.

Designated by the U.S. State Department as one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world, the Eritrean government flatly denies the allegations.

In ongoing crackdowns since May 2002, Eritrea has banned all independent religious groups not under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths. Serious restrictions against these four recognized religions have also escalated in the past 18 months.

More than 2,000 Eritrean citizens are known to be jailed solely for their religious beliefs, some for several years. Most are routinely subjected to torture and severe pressure to either recant or remain in prison.