(World Watch Monitor) Eritrea’s Orthodox patriarch, Abune Antonios, who was placed under house arrest by the government in 2007, has been expelled by pro-government bishops in his church on accusations of heresy, the BBC reported.
The attempt to excommunicate is widely seen as symptomatic of Eritrea’s government push for more political control over the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC).
The announcement came one day after Eritrea’s Christian gospel singer Helen Berhane, who was imprisoned for her faith, raised the issue of religious persecution and the plight of the 90-year-old church leader with US President Donald Trump during the 2nd Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and Belief last month in Washington.
Our Helen Berhane, the gospel singer #Eritrea, with #PresidentTrump raising the issue of religious persecution in the country and on the fate of Abune Antonios, a day before his excommunication by the regime #Yiakl #Kifaya pic.twitter.com/NJshycrJhM
— Mohamed Kheir Omer (@mkheirom) July 20, 2019
Patriarch Abune Antonios was removed by the Asmara government and placed under house arrest in 2007 after he refused to comply with the regime’s attempts to interfere with church affairs. The event led to a schism in the EOC with a pro-government group supporting a new government-approved replacement who was not recognised by the Papacy in Egypt who installed the patriarch and his predecessors, as reported by ICN.
Following international pressure Antonios made a first public appearance in 2017 as he participated in a mass which rights called a “marketing exercise” by the government.
He remained under house arrest but in April filmed a video that was broadcast in which he reportedly talked about his circumstances and criticised the fact the Church was being led by a layman. The patriarch, who is suffering from health problems, allegedly also said his fellow clergy did not care for his wellbeing. He is currently staying in servant’s quarters of the house owned by the pro-government Bishop Lukas, who himself has ambitions to become the next patriarch, said ICN.
Apparently referring to the video, the pro-government bishops said in a letter explaining their decision to expel the church’s legitimate leader, it was ‘recent activities’ by Abune Antonios that had raised questions about the sincerity of his repentance and that they were concerned about the growing risk of heresy in the church. They did, however, say they would continue to provide the patriarch with food and a place to stay.
In May, a monitoring group for the UN said “thousands” of Christians are facing detention as “religious freedom continue[s] to be denied in Eritrea” and questioned why the UN was not monitoring the situation more closely.
Eritrea is 7th on Open Doors International’s 2019 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian.
The official end of the war with Ethiopia has not stopped the exodus and people still flee from Eritrea. Boys and girls run away from an oppressive regime and from a very poor society that does not offer job opportunities. Abba Mussie Zerai, a priest of the eparchy of Asmara, wrote an open letter in which he criticizes the ruling class of his Country, asking to keep the attention alive: “The regime in Asmara – he says in the letter sent to Agenzia Fides is one of the world’s toughest political regime, a dictatorship that suppressed all forms of liberty, annulled the 1997 constitution, suppressed the magistracy, militarized the entire population. A dictatorship that, in a word, has created a State-prison. The numerous, detailed reports published by various international institutions and organizations and by the most prestigious NGOs and humanitarian associations have denounced this situation for twenty years. Also the two final reports of the investigations conducted by the UN Commission on Human Rights, clearly states that the regime has elected terror, making its own people slaves. Not surprisingly, in the 2016 report, we come to the conclusion that there are well-founded elements to refer the main leaders of the Government to the International Criminal Court”.
In recent years many Eritreans have fled. A substantial part stopped in Ethiopia, which currently houses 175 thousand, and in Sudan, which has welcomed 110 thousand. But many are heading north. Once they arrive in Italy they move to Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
Many Eritreans die during the journey. The accident that symbolizes this tragedy is the shipwreck that took place on October 3, 2013, when more than 300 people died. “As Eritrean – observes Abba Mussie – I ask to bring the bodies of the victims of the massacre Lampedusa back to Eritrea and of all the other young refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean and are buried in Italy. It is time to overcome controversies, in the name of a human principle of great significance: to give families a place to pray for their loved ones”.
In this context, the regime does not loosen its grip on the population: dozens of political prisoners are still detained in prisons, international commissions can not enter prisons and any form of freedom, starting with politics and religion, is not guaranteed. “Even recently – continues Abba Mussie – opponents have been arrested, Catholic and Islamic schools have been closed, eight medical centers and Catholic hospitals have been barred, while the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church Abune Antonios, stopped in 2004, is still under arrest after 14 years”. And, launching an appeal to the international community, the priest concludes: “One can pretend to close one’s eyes to reality in the name of geostrategic and economic interests. Or one can give voice and content with force to the values of freedom, democracy, justice, solidarity”. source: Fides
Eritrea ranked 6th on Open Doors 2018 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to follow Jesus.
(World Watch Monitor) Rights groups have called for the mandate of the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Eritrea to be renewed in June.
The human rights situation in the East African country has been monitored by the UN Human Rights Council since 2012, when it appointed Ms Sheila B. Keetharuth as the Special Rapporteur. In March this year she, however, acknowledged that during her tenure the human rights violations in the country have “continued unabated”.
Father Thomas Reese, of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told a US human rights commission in April that Eritrea remained “one of the worst examples of state-sponsored repression of freedom of religion or belief in the world”.
“The State Department estimates that between 1,200 and 3,000 individuals are held on religious grounds,” he said. Among them are several Evangelical and Pentecostal pastors who have been detained for more than 10 years.
Evangelicals and Pentecostals in Eritrea have been at particular risk of detention since a 2002 law was passed prohibiting Churches other than the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and also Sunni Islam.
“The situation in the country is only getting worse”, Dr Berhane Asmelash told World Watch Monitor.
The Eritrean pastor who was imprisoned for his Christian activities and moved to the United Kingdom 18 years ago, said, “We’re seeing the abused becoming abusers. They know it is wrong but it was done to them too. The government, the president, has been successful in sowing division and creating mistrust. You can’t speak in Eritrea because it might make you end up in jail at any time”.
The rare protests that were seen in the streets of the capital Asmara in November, following the government’s plans to turn all schools public, were not a sign of a possible ‘Eritrean Spring’, according to him. It won’t be repeated again soon, he said, “because of what happened to the protesters: they were arrested, jailed, and tortured. They [the authorities] will make sure you won’t do it again. And it discourages anyone who has similar ideas”.
‘Who needs people?’
The pastor was visiting a refugee camp in Ethiopia three weeks ago. At the end of 2017 Ethiopia was host to 164,668 Eritrean refugees with most of them in transit to other destinations.
People are “streaming out of [Eritrea]”, he told World Watch Monitor. Just the week before about 5,000 people had crossed the border, he said.
World Watch Monitor reported last month that an estimated 10 per cent of Eritreans have fled the country since the turn of the millennium, finding refuge in neighbouring countries or crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety in Europe and beyond. They have become the ‘top group’ of African asylum seekers in 2017.
People leaving their country “is exactly what the government wants”, the Eritrean pastor said. “They say: ‘Who needs people? They only cause trouble’.”
He says that there are hardly any young people left in the country. “The regime makes it impossible for them to stay. They leave the country because they can’t find a job or have a normal family life because of the mandatory conscription. Or they are kidnapped, like the son of a friend of mine. He was sold to someone in Sudan and his father had to pay a ransom to get him back”.
It is a bleak picture the pastor paints of his home country, which has been dubbed the “North Korea of Africa”.
“The kind of people the government want in the country are like the woman I saw in a disturbing YouTube video”, he told World Watch Monitor.
“In an interview with the Eritrean state television she said she had been paralysed but that, after having washed herself in a dam that was built by the government, she had been healed. She praised the president for that. For her it was now first the president, then Jesus.”
A monitoring group for the UN, United Nations Watch, said “thousands” of Christians are also facing detention as “religious freedom continue[s] to be denied in Eritrea”. The group also asked why the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth, “failed to closely assess this situation”.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a religious freedom and human rights advocate, mentioned the arrest of dissidents and their family members and noted that the Commission of Inquiry had found that “Eritrea had committed crimes against humanity”.
The Special Rapporteur did highlight the detention this month of hundreds of perceived opponents, some as young as 13, following the death, in custody, of a 93-year-old school director who defied government orders, as Reuters reported.
Haji Musa Mohamednur was the director of a private Islamic school in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. The government orders that he disobeyed included a ban on the veil and stopping of religious teachings.
His arrest in October led to student protests on the streets of Asmara – a rare sight in the strictly governed East African nation.
Video: During peaceful protest, PFDJ shot at civilians as they marched against the dictatorship for their rights. Approximately 28 people were killed.
By Dan Wooding (Assist News) The Roman Colosseum will be illuminated by red lights later this month to draw attention to the persecution of Christians around the world, and especially in Syria and Iraq.
On Saturday, Feb. 24, at 6 p.m. the Colosseum will be spotlighted in red, to represent the blood of Christians who have been wounded or lost their lives due to religious persecution, according to Crux.
Simultaneously, in Syria and Iraq, prominent churches will be illuminated with red lights. In Aleppo, the St. Elijah Maronite Cathedral will be lit, and in Mosul, the Church of St. Paul, where this past Dec. 24, the first Mass was celebrated after the city’s liberation from ISIS.
The event, sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) — follows a similar initiative last year, which lit-up London’s Parliament building in red, as well as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris and the cathedral in Manila, Philippines. In 2016, the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome was lit.
Alessandro Monteduro, director of ACN, told journalists on Feb. 7 that the “illumination [of the Colosseum] will have two symbolic figures: Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian condemned to death for blasphemy and whose umpteenth judgment is expected to revoke the sentence; and Rebecca, a girl kidnapped by Boko Haram along with her two children when she was pregnant with a third.”
“One of the children was killed,” he said, “she lost the baby she was carrying, and then became pregnant after one of the many brutalities she was subjected to by her captors.”
Once she was freed and reunited with her husband, she decided she “could not hate those who caused her so much pain,” Monteduro said. [Read Voice of the Persecuted’s (VOP) report: Held Captive For 2 Years By Boko Haram: Rebecca’s Story and the relief sent to them through VOP’s aid mission, Project 133 Nigeria here.]
Aid to the Church in Need released a biennial report on anti-Christian persecution Oct. 12, 2017, detailing how Christianity is “the world’s most oppressed faith community,” and how anti-Christian persecution in the worst regions has reached “a new peak.”
The report reviewed 13 countries, and concluded that in all but one, the situation for Christians was worse in overall terms for the period 2015-2017 than during the prior two years.
“The one exception is Saudi Arabia, where the situation was already so bad it could scarcely get any worse,” the report said.
China, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria were ranked “extreme” in the scale of anti-Christian persecution. Egypt, India, and Iran were rated “high to extreme,” while Turkey was rated “moderate to high.”
The Middle East was a major focus for the report.
“Governments in the West and the U.N. failed to offer Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria the emergency help they needed as genocide got underway,” the report said. “If Christian organizations and other institutions had not filled the gap, the Christian presence could already have disappeared in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.”
The exodus of Christians from Iraq has been “very severe.” Christians in the country now may number as few as 150,000, a decline from 275,000 in mid-2015. By spring 2017 there were some signs of hope, with the defeat of the Islamic State group and the return of some Christians to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.
The departure of Christians from Syria has also threatened the survival of their communities in the country, including historic Christian centers like Aleppo, ACN said. Syrian Christians there suffer threats of forced conversion and extortion. One Chaldean bishop in the country estimates the Christian population to be at 500,000, down from 1.2 million before the war.
Many Christians in the region fear going to official refugee camps, due to concerns about rape and other violence, according to the report.
ACN also discussed the genocide committed in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State and other militants. While ISIS and other groups have lost their major strongholds, ACN said that many Christian groups are threatened with extinction and would likely not survive another attack.
A spokesperson for Aid to the Church in Need, said, “We invite everyone to attend, either in person or in spirit, on February 24, 2018 at around 6 p.m. in Largo Gaetana Agnesi, Rome.”
About the writer: Dan Wooding, 77, is an award-winning author, broadcaster and journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding, and is now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for nearly 55 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. Dan has written numerous books, and his most recent reporting trip for ANS was to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.
HELP SAVE THE PERSECUTED
VOP is on the ground helping persecuted Christian refugees from Nigeria and Pakistan. Together with your generous help, we can reach the goal to alleviate horrific suffering. In darkness and desperation, let us serve in love, with open arms and giving hands to provide light and hope. Every day, we thank God that He is working through you to care for His children and to further His Kingdom! As you greatly bless others, may God continue to bless you. Thank you so much for your support. We couldn’t do it without you!
(Agenzia Fides) – “In Eritrea, the regime has begun to persecute religious confessions and, in particular, the Catholic Church. The objective is clear: to try to prevent its influence on society: not by prohibiting worship, but social activities”. This is the alarm launched by Mussie Zerai, a priest of the eparchy of Asmara, for years a chaplain of the Eritreans in Europe and active in saving migrants in danger in the Mediterranean. Since 1995 – he explained to Fides – there has been a law in force in the country according to which the State wants to carry out all social activities. Therefore, the latter cannot be carried out by private or even by religious institutions. So far, the law has been applied in a bland manner and has not seriously affected the network of services offered by Christians and Muslims. In the last few months, however, there has been an acceleration.
Public officials have decreed the closure of five Catholic clinics in various cities. The minor seminary (which served both the diocese and the religious congregations) was closed in Asmara. Also several schools of the Orthodox Church and Muslim organizations had to close their doors. The closure of an Islamic institute, at the end of last October unleashed the harsh protests of the students.
“Beyond the economic damage to individual religious confessions – continues abba Mussie – those who pay a high price is the population who no longer has serious and efficient structures to turn to. In Xorona, for example, they closed the only dispensary in operation that was run by Catholics. In Dekemhare and Mendefera, the authorities have banned the activity of Catholic medical centres by stating that they were a duplication of state ones. In reality, public facilities do not work: they do not have medicines, they cannot operate because they do not have suitable equipment and often not even electricity”.
But what is the reaction of the population? “To rebel is not easy”, explains the priest. “The Muslim uprising was stopped with weapons. And there were many dead and wounded. Last month, seven thousand young call-ups joined and, together, called for a meeting with President Isayas Afeworki to denounce the harassment of their officers. The president received them and listened to them. At the end of the talks the boys were taken to a concentration camp near Nakfa and, as a punishment, were left outdoors, under the scorching sun, with very little food and water. Many fell ill. After the parents’ protests, the regime said that it will send them to the barracks to finish the naja. But under what conditions?”.
(World Watch Monitor) Eritrea’s security forces shot at protesters, using live ammunition, in the capital Asmara on Tuesday (31 October) during a protest against the government’s plans to turn all schools public. This would mean forbidding students from wearing religious items such as Christian crosses or Muslim headscarves.
A local source told World Watch Monitor students had been told the move was “to prevent interreligious strife”.
According to the Eritrean news site Asmarino Independent the Eritrean government has had longstanding plans to transform all schools into ‘community’, or public, schools. In September it notified the schools, saying the changes would take place with immediate effect.
The website reports that one of the schools which received the notification was the Catholic Medhanie Alem Secondary School in Asmara. In the letter, dated 18 September, the regional Minister of Education is said to have ordered the school leadership “to close the school and to report to the [regional administration] the list of all the students”.
The Minister cited a 1995 government declaration, stating that all social activities, such as private schools, clinics and orphanages, should be government-controlled. The role and responsibility of the churches was solely to look after the spiritual needs of its members, it said.
When the Catholic Church refused, the government reportedly closed the school and incarcerated a nun, Sr Tinsaw, and a priest, Abba Haile Paulos.
It has been 15 years since the government introduced a law prohibiting Christian practice outside of the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations, as well as Sunni Islam.
But even the sanctioned Catholic Church says the government has tried to isolate the community “by not permitting its seminarians, priests and religious workers to go abroad for further education”, the Asmarino Independent reports, saying it is because the Church objects to its clergy being forced to become conscripts in the indefinite and compulsory military service imposed in Eritrea.
Following the government’s announcement, Al Diaa Islamic School, a well-known private school in Asmara, asked for time to consult the wider school community. The Honorary President Haji Musa Mohamed Nur spoke passionately during a meeting on 15 October which, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, was attended by thousands of people who expressed their rejection of the proposed expropriation. He was arrested a few days later and along with several others taken into custody.
Some 100 students from the school then apparently took to the streets to protest and request the release of Haji Musa and the others. CSW reports how they encountered armed security officials who allegedly assaulted them as the crowd of protesters grew. When they in turn responded by throwing stones, security officials started shooting, using live ammunition. Online footage shows people being chased through the streets and the sounds of gunfire can be heard. The US Embassy in Eritrea “received reports of gunfire in several locations in Asmara due to protests” and advised its citizens to avoid the city centre.
Although calm was restored by the end of Tuesday, armed undercover security officials still patrolled the streets, according to the Asmarino. It says some students and women who were detained have been released, but some of them say they were mistreated by police in order to obtain information. Meanwhile the school was reopened “quietly”.
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of CSW said: “The targeting of educational establishments belonging to two of the faith communities which are permitted to function in the country is indicative of an enduring unwillingness to respect and protect both the right to education and the right of freedom of religion or belief”.
As there are no independent news sources in Eritrea, news of the protest only reached international news media a day after the event. Protests are an extremely rare occurrence in Eritrea, one of the most repressive countries in the world.
Dubbed the “North Korea of Africa”, the Eritrean regime is authoritarian and intolerant towards any form of unregistered organisation, dissent, or free expression. There is no safe place in the country – as is confirmed by the large number of Eritrean refugees in Europe and elsewhere.
Although there are no reliable statistics on religious affiliation in the country, sources estimate that the country is half Christian and half Sunni Muslim.
Eritrea is 10th on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian.
Arrests of Christians have escalated in the past year. A new wave of arrests that began in May saw the number of Evangelical Christian prisoners rise to more than 200. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are at particular risk, although the Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch, Abune Antonios, has been under house arrest since 2007 after he refused to comply with government attempts to interfere with church affairs.
In July the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” in Eritrea. This followed a report by a UN commission that the country’s “crimes against humanity” should be investigated by the International Criminal Court.
As the world focuses on potential military advances against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it risks overlooking another vast region where militant Islam is a growing threat to the Church – in the continent where the Church is growing fastest: Africa.
Amongst other factors, the chaos in Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi – characterised by easy access to weapons of all sorts combined with the increasing presence of jihadists – has had a spill-over effect into Africa’s vast Sahel region. This spans the African continent from Senegal in the west to western Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia in the east. (The ‘Sahel’ describes the ecological and geographic region between the Sahara Desert and the humid and fertile savannah belt north of Africa’s tropical rainforest).
The most dramatic example of this Islamist militancy is in northern Mali, where Islamist militants and foreign fighters made common cause with Tuareg rebels to take over a large portion of the country in 2012. For most of the year, until the French military were forced to intervene, armed Islamist groups ruled the region, banning the practice of other religions and desecrating and looting churches and other places of worship.
In addition to the main group involved then, the jihadist Ansar Dine, other militant groups active in the Sahel region include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and Islamic State (IS).
A new report from Open Doors International, a charity providing support to the global Church under pressure, shows that the rise of Islamist militancy in the region is undermining freedom of religion. According to the report, puritanical and militant versions of Islam (particularly Salafism/Wahhabism) are increasingly taking root – in a manner that reflects recent developments in the rest of the world – as a result of Islamist missionaries and NGOs from the Middle East, funded by (until recently) oil-rich Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Sahel, which encompasses parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, has been predominantly Muslim for centuries. Due to a mix of environmental, demographic, economic and political factors, all the states that exist in this region are very fragile.
Troops from Mali and Niger, supported by their French counterparts, conduct regular joint operations to hunt for militants in the western part of the region.
The report indicates that the Islamist groups in the region are very hostile to Christianity and show this through violent acts. Northern Mali has witnessed violent attacks against Christians and churches – notably in 2012, during jihadist occupation. There have also been a series of abductions by jihadist groups, which kidnap Christian workers not only to finance operations through demanding ransoms, but also to deter Christians from working in the region. The Swiss missionary, Beatrice Stockly, kidnapped in Timbuktu in January, is still being held hostage by AQIM.
In neighbouring Niger, Islamists burned down more than 70 churches, as well as Christian homes, schools and orphanages, in a series of arson attacks in January 2015.
Islamist groups in the Sahel, like others elsewhere, don’t tolerate other Muslims who adhere to a version of Islam different from their own. Violence and terror is their preferred modus operandi. The report suggests that any further increase in their numbers and influence would add to the difficulties Christians are facing.
Even if these groups do not succeed in imposing Sharia and establishing Islamic “caliphates” at a national level, they will still contribute to the overall radicalisation of the population and the spread of an extremist and intolerant version of Islam, says the report. It says this has created an environment in which any Christian outreach ministry – not to mention the very existence of the Church itself – faces violent resistance.
The radical militancy of jihadist groups in the Sahel is also spilling over further south and giving rise to terrorist attacks in predominantly Christian parts of West Africa, notes the report. The attack on the Grand-Bassam resort in Ivory Coast (March 2016) has highlighted the vulnerability of these countries.
In the long-term, unless these groups are defeated, it is very likely that they will intensify their campaign of terrorism and violence in southern Nigeria and other West African countries which have thus far been relatively spared from terrorist activism, warns the report.
It concludes that the situation for Christians in the Sahel is precarious. It says the region is becoming a new major hotspot for Islamist groups, many of which have allied themselves to international terror franchises like IS and al-Qaeda. It is very important that the countries in the region strengthen their cooperation against these militant groups, says the report, adding that countries outside the region capable of providing assistance should also help.
In addition to robust and decisive military action, the report says it is also important not to adopt a purely one-dimensional approach. The socio-economic and political realities in the region, of which the militant groups take advantage, also need to be transformed, it says. It is only when these underlying realities are changed that Christians and non-Christians will be able to enjoy security and freedom in the region.