ERITREA: Church leader denied burial site in his hometown

A popular Eritrean Christian leader who died on 9 April is being denied a burial place because of his Evangelical beliefs

CSW (21.04.2023) – Pastor Tesfay Seyoum, the founder and leader of Meserete Kristos Church, had been detained in Mai Serwa prison near the capital, Asmara, for ten years, but had recently suffered a brain haemorrhage. He was sent to hospital for treatment, but died two months later, leaving behind his wife and daughter.


Following his death Pastor Seyoum’s body was taken to his home in the Godaif neighbourhood of Asmara in preparation for burial. However, permission for a burial site was denied.


According to a CSW source, ‘the government and the [local] people decided to deny the request for burial based on their belief that the pastor’s Pentecostal orientation went against their religious beliefs.’ His body remains unburied in what Christian NGO Release Eritrea states is a ‘contradiction to the cultural norms that require bodies to be buried as close to the time of death as possible.’


The pastor’s body was subsequently returned to the hospital as efforts continue to find a burial site.


In May 2002 Eritrea closed all churches not affiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox Christian traditions, including the church founded by Pastor Seyoum. The authorities also launched an ongoing campaign of arbitrary and indefinite arrests that has seen thousands of adherents of unrecognised denominations detained in inhumane, life-threatening conditions, where they may experience torture or even death. Among those arrested are seven Evangelical church leaders who have been detained arbitrarily for at least 18 years, reportedly in Wengel Mermera Investigation Centre in Asmara.


The campaign of arrests continues unabated in 2023. Among the most recent developments, Release Eritrea reports that 103 young Christians, including some from Mai-Nefhi Technical College, were arrested in mid-April as they attempted to record Christian music on YouTube, and were transported to Mai Serwa.Earlier, on 19 March, 30 Christians who had gathered in a house in Keren were also detained.


The Eritrean government’s campaign of repression also affects permitted denominations. At least 44 Orthodox monks were detained in April for supporting Abune Antonios, the legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church who was illegally deposed, and who died in detention in February 2022 following 16 years under house arrest.


In a particularly disturbing event, on 15 February, Yeneta Israel, an Orthodox monk and a strong supporter of the late patriarch, was himself found dead from multiple stab wounds in his monastery in Mendefera. Despite these circumstances, government agents reportedly declared his death a suicide, and he was hurriedly buried on 16 February without receiving the appropriate religious rites. According to Human Rights Concern- Eritrea, reliable sources allege he was murdered by government security agents.


CSW’s Head of Advocacy and Africa Team Leader Dr Khataza Gondwe said: We extend our deepest condolences to the family and church of Pastor Seyoum, who have lost their father, husband and leader following his lengthy and arbitrary detention, and whose grief is now compounded by the cruel decision to deny him a final resting place. The fact that the pastor’s rights were violated on account of his religious beliefs while he was alive and are still being violated after his death is not only deeply reprehensible, it also constitutes a flagrant affront to the principles of human dignity and non-discrimination that are foundational to international human rights legislation, including the international covenants to which Eritrea has acceded. We therefore urge the Eritrean government to fulfil its international obligations by ensuring a burial site for Pastor Seyoum as a matter of urgency. We also call on Eritrea to release all prisoners of conscience, including those detained on account of their religion or belief, immediately and without precondition, and to end its campaign of arrests and discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief.’


Notes to Editors:


  1. Rev Haile Naizge, chair of the Full Gospel Church, and Dr Kuflu Gebremeskel, chair of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance and visiting lecturer at the former University of Asmara, have been detained since 23 May 2004. Rev Million Gebreselassie, pastor of the Rhema Evangelical Church in the city of Massawa and an anaesthetist at Massawa Hospital, has been held since 3 June 2004. Rev Kidane Woldu, a senior pastor of the Muluwengel (Full Gospel) Church, has been held since 18 March 2005.
  2. Eritrea acceded to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in April 2001, and to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in January 2002.

Photo: Pastor Tesfay Seyoum (CSW)

Further reading about FORB in Eritrea on HRWF website