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Authorities Arrest 80-Member Presbyterian Congregation

Government announces ‘election’ of new Orthodox patriarch.

5/4/07 Eritrea (Compass Direct News) – In still another police raid in the Eritrean capital, local authorities last weekend arrested 80 members of the Mehrete Yesus Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Asmara at the close of a Sunday worship service.

A U.S. couple as well as several teachers from India working in Eritrea were among those reportedly detained on Sunday (April 29). But local sources confirmed that after four days of incarceration, the two U.S. citizens were released yesterday and allowed to return to their home in Asmara .

“They have been told not to teach or preach, but they haven’t been asked to leave,” a source who requested anonymity stated. Church leaders identified as still under custody included the Rev. Zecharias Abraham, the Presbyterian church’s pastor, and a church elder named Mikias Mekonnen.

Some of the jailed worshippers were women. Initiated by former Sudan Interior Mission staff and affiliated with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the indigenous MehreteYesus Church has existed in Eritrea since the late 1940s.

According to a statement posted today by Release Eritrea , a London-based advocacy group, Abraham has served as head of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance since the May 2004 arrest of his predecessor, Full Gospel Church leader Haile Niazgi.

The latest raid against Eritrea ’s Protestant community came only five days after the government Ministry of Information posted a notice on its website,, announcing that the Eritrean Orthodox Church had elected a new patriarch.

Renegade Bishop Named Patriarch

Declaring Bishop Dioskoros of Mendefera to be the fourth patriarch of the nation’s Orthodox Tewahdo community, the statement claimed he had been “unanimously approved” by the church’s Holy Synod on April 19, with his formal installation set for Pentecost Sunday on May 27.

But according to an April 23 posting on the opposition website, “When the bishops in attendance expressed a desire to bring the matter to a deliberation, they were told that the announcement was not open for further discussion.”

Signed by “priests, monks, deacons and the faithful of the Eritrean Orthodox Church,” the Asmarino statement warned: “The Eritrean people should be aware that the rights and beliefs of the two-million strong [Orthodox] church have been flagrantly violated once again; and the hijacking of the church by the government that has been underway for quite some time is now completed.”

In direct violation of the church’s canon laws, the Asmara government stripped ordained Eritrean Patriarch Abune Antonios of his ecclesiastical authority in August 2005, after he protested the imprisonment of three priests from the Medhane Alem Orthodox Church.

The government replaced him with Yoftahe Dimetros, a layman appointed as interim administrator of the church.

Antonios was officially removed from office in January 2006, when he was placed under formal house arrest. Four months ago, his patriarchal vestments and insignia were taken away from him by force.

According to an Action Letter appeal from Amnesty International, “…The authorities have also forbidden Abune Antonios from having any contact with Orthodox followers and from attending or leading worship services. He has not been permitted to receive communion for the past year.”

The ecclesiastical canons of Coptic Orthodoxy forbid the consecration of a new patriarch while the previous one is still alive, unless found guilty by official church councils of committing flagrant sin or heresy.

Antonios is still recognized as the legitimate head of the Eritrean church by Egypt ’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenoudah III, who presided at Patriarch Antonios’ ordination in April 2004.

Now 79, the Eritrean patriarch is being held incommunicado and reportedly suffering from diabetes without access to adequate medical treatment.

2,000 Jailed Without Charges

Patriarch Antonios is the most prominent of at least 2,000 Eritrean Christians now under arrest without trial or legal charges solely for their religious beliefs.

The prisoners include dozens of pastors and priests incarcerated in jails, police stations and military camps in 14 different cities and towns, some of them for more than three years.

In the last nine months alone, Compass has confirmed the deaths of three Christians from severe mistreatment while under arrest.

Eritrean security forces began a harsh crackdown against the country’s evangelical Protestant community five years ago, outlawing all churches not under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran denominations.

Since May 2002, anyone caught worshipping outside the government-approved religious institutions, either in church buildings or in private homes, has been subjected to arrest, torture and extreme pressure to deny their faith.

Even weddings and other social activities held within Christian communities have been raided and the participants hauled off to jail.

Under the totalitarian regime of President Isaias Afwerki, religious repression has escalated even further in the past two years. Targeted groups have included the Orthodox church’s flourishing renewal movement, a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslim leaders who oppose the government-appointed mufti.

At least 40 percent of Eritrea ’s citizens consider themselves Coptic Orthodox by birth, with at least half of the population of ethnic Muslim background.