About the persecution of Eritrean Orthodox Christians
By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers
HRWF (12.02.2022) – Eritrea is ruled by a totalitarian one-party dictatorship of Maoist inspiration.
Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after 30 years of continuous armed struggle by the Eritrean Liberation Front. Since then, national presidential or legislative elections have never taken place.
As of July 2018, the US government estimated the total population of Eritrea to be six million but there are no reliable figures available on religious affiliation. Some government, religious, and international sources estimate the population to be 49% Christian and 49% Sunni Muslim. In 2016, the Pew Foundation estimated the population to be 63% Christian and 37% Muslim. The Christian population is predominantly Eritrean Orthodox.
The only recognised religions in Eritrea are the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Evangelical Church and Sunni Islam.
In Eritrea, Orthodox Christians cannot be considered Coptic because the Coptic Pope granted autocephalous status to their church in 1994. However, the Eritrean Orthodox Church was historically under the authority of the Patriarch of Alexandria and still is. Since the current government in Eritrea took power, this Church has experienced severe restrictions despite being one of the four recognised religions. After years of objecting to state interference in religious affairs, Patriarch Abune Antonios was deposed by the government in January 2006 and placed under house arrest. Another patriarch, who was selected and imposed by the regime, has governed the church since that time.
Three high-ranking Orthodox Christians detained in a maximum-security centre since 2004
Gebremedhin Gebregioris, a theologian expert and the head of the Sunday Schools department in the Eritrean Orthodox Patriarchate
Futsum Gebrenegus, a senior doctor who appeared regularly on Eritrean TV and had positions on many government-appointed commissions
Tekleab Menghisteab, a deacon and priest in the Eritrean Church
were all detained in 2004 for their involvement in the renewal movement of the Orthodox Church.
They have been kept incommunicado since then, and no formal charges have ever been brought against them.
On 6 July 2017, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the cases of Abune Antonios and Dawit Isaak. The resolution stated that:
“Abune Antonios, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the nation’s largest religious community, has been in detention since 2007, having refused to excommunicate 3000 parishioners who opposed the government […] since then, he has been held in an unknown location where he has been denied medical care.
The European Parliament called ‘on the Eritrean Government to release Abune Antonios, allow him to return to his position as Patriarch, and cease its interference in peaceful religious practices in the country’. Additionally, it reiterated ‘that freedom of religion is a fundamental right, and strongly condemned any violence or discrimination on grounds of religion’.
In its 2021 Annual Report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed its concern for the continuation of religious repression in the country and highlighted the domination of the government in the internal affairs of the four recognised religious communities, including the Orthodox Church of Eritrea.
USCIRF recommended to the US government to
- Redesignate Eritrea as a country of particular concern (CPC);
- Impose targeted sanctions on Eritrean government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States;
- Use bilateral and multilateral diplomatic channels to urge the government of Eritrea to release unconditionally detainees held on account of their religious activities, including Patriarch Antonios.
- Urge the Eritrean government to release the remaining detainees held on account of their religious activities, including Patri- arch Antonios;
- Call on the Eritrean government to end religious persecution of unregistered religious communities and grant full citi- zenship rights to Jehovah’s Witnesses; and
- Encourage the Eritrean government to extend an official invitation for unrestricted visits by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, the UN Special Rappor- teur on freedom of religion or belief, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the International Red Cross.
Since 2004, USCIRF has designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern.
On 21 June 2019, the UN Human Rights Council issued a press release by Special Rapporteur Daniela Kravetz about human rights in Eritrea, especially the government’s crackdowns on various religious communities. Concerning the arrest of Orthodox believers, she said that on 13 June 2019, ‘security forces arrested five Orthodox priests from the Debre Bizen monastery. The priests ‑ three over 70 years old ‑ were allegedly arrested for opposing the government’s interference in the affairs of the Church’. She also pressed the government to ‘release those who have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs’.