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The Dismantling of the Eritrean Orthodox Church

ICC Note

The Eritrean government is one of the top persecutors of Christians in the world.The government is dismantling the Orthodox Church by sending the ministers of the church to military training camps.

April 23, 2008 Eritera (ICC)-The Eritrean officials are forcefully sending ministers of the Eritrean Orthodox Church to military training camps. As a consequence, Eritrean Orthodox churches throughout the country are losing their leaders.

At the end of 2006, the Eritrean government informed churches of its decision to rescind a long-standing exemption of clerics from compulsory military service. The Roman Catholic Church in Eritrea was the only church to express vehement and public opposition to this unprecedented action. In contrast, the top leaders of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, who have been hand-picked by the government, embraced the new policy with open arms.

Eritrean officials are now forcibly recruiting church ministers into military service on a wide scale. On March 24, 2008, Eritrean officials issued replacement identity cards to a limited number of the church’s priests and deacons, exempting them from military training. The vast majority of the church’s leaders, however, who did not receive updated identity cards, are now required to go to military training camps.

The largest Eritrean Orthodox Church in the country, St. Mary, in the capital city, Asmara , had 96 ministers, but only 10 of them were issued IDs that exempted them from military training. Similarly, in rural areas, where most Orthodox churches are located, the maximum number of priests and deacons allowed to serve in any church is 10. The rest are expected to report for military service if they are under the age of 50.

In addition to churches, the new campaign also forces many in Orthodox monasteries to be conscripted into the army.

In the past, The Eritrean government has usually directed its animosity for Christians against the “unregistered churches,” which are mainly evangelical. Over half a dozen denominations have been closed since May 2002. Many of their pastors and 2,000 – 3,000 of their adherents are still locked up in prisons, military barracks, and shockingly metal shipping containers. None of these prisoners have been charged with a crime or even seen the inside of a court room. Reports from prisoners who have been freed indicate that they are held under deplorable conditions.

However, in the last two years, the government has also turned its attention on the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the oldest and most established religious institution in Eritrea . Almost 45% of the Eritrean population belongs to the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Nearly four years ago, the government began a campaign against the leaders of the Orthodox Church, especially those who were attracting increasingly larger followings of young people.

The leaders of the church who have since been locked up in Eritrean jails include: Dr. Fistum Ghebrenegus, Dr. Tecleab Menghisteab, Rev. Gebremedhin Gebregiorgis, and Merigeta (“ Mentor ” in the Eritrean Orthodox Church) Ytbarek Berhe. Two years ago, His Holiness Patriarch Antonios, then head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, became the best known religious figure to criticize the government’s interference in church affairs. The government responded by replacing him with a hand-picked pontiff. Patriarch Antonios has been under strict house arrest since then.

According to some observers of the Eritrean government, the forced conscription of Eritrean Orthodox clergy represents a systematic dismantling of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, one of the most important pillars of Eritrean society.

ICC calls on Eritrean government officials to stop interfering with the affairs of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and to instead release all Christians who are imprisoned for their religious beliefs.