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ERITREA: Three Catholic clergymen released from arbitrary detention

CSW and Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) welcome the releases of three Catholic clergymen who were detained arbitrarily by the Eritrean authorities in separate incidents in October 2022, despite belonging to a denomination that is ostensibly permitted to operate in the country.

CSW (05.01.2023) – https://bit.ly/3GG8Qxt – Abune Fikremariam Hagos Tsalim, the first Bishop of the Catholic Eparchy of Segheneity and Father Mihretab Stefanos, the parish priest of St Michael’s Church in Segheneity, were released on 28 December, with several videos emerging of the Bishop returning to the eparchy. Abba Abraham Habtom Gebremariam, the deputy parish priest in charge of students at the Capuchin Society, was released a month earlier on 23 November 2022.

Abune Hagos was arrested at Asmara International Airport on 15 October 2022 as he returned from a visit to Europe, while Father Stefanos and Abba Abraham Habtom Gebremariam were detained on 11 and 12 October 2022 respectively. While the bishop and Father Stefanos were held in an unknown location, Abba Abraham Habtom Gebremariam was detained in Adi Abeito prison, north of the Eritrean capital Asmara.

In May 2002 Eritrea closed all churches not affiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox Christian traditions, and began a campaign of arrests of adherents of non-sanctioned churches that continues to this day.

Among those arrested are seven church leaders who have been detained arbitrarily for at least 18 years, reportedly in Wengel Mermera Investigation Centre in Asmara. 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.

The Eritrean Orthodox Church has also experienced severe repression despite being sanctioned by the government. Orthodox priests Dr Futsum Gebrenegus, at the time Eritrea’s only psychiatrist, Dr Tekleab Menghisteab, a highly respected physician, and Rev Gebremedhin Gebregiorgis, have been detained since 19 November 2004. All three are from the Medhane Alem Church. Moreover, Abune Antonios, the legitimate patriarch, died on 9 February 2022, following 16 years under house arrest. Two pro-government bishops installed uncanonically in his place have died in office, the first in December 2015 following a debilitating illness, and the second on 2 December 2022, around 17 months after his installation. Unconfirmed reports indicate another successor may have been quietly appointed.

Elizabeth Chyrum, Director of HRCE said: ‘The arrest and subsequent release of the Catholic clergy provide a clear illustration, if one is needed, that permitted religious communities also experience repression. While CSW and HRCE welcome these releases, we also recall that thousands of prisoners of conscience remain detained without charge or trial, some of whom have been held in shipping containers and makeshift, overcrowded and unsanitary facilities for over two decades. We therefore urge the Eritrean government to go much further, by releasing everyone who has been subjected to lengthy and unjust arbitrary detention.’

Eritrea is heavily involved in the civil unrest in Ethiopia, and the arrests and subsequent releases of the Catholic clergy occurred against the backdrop of punitive door to door roundups and forcible conscription of Eritrean citizens of all ages, which continue despite the African Union-brokered cessation of hostilities. Eritrea is not party to the peace agreement and its troops have also continued to violate the rights of Tigrayan civilians. Although some recent reports have indicated that Eritrean troops have withdrawn from towns including Axum and Shire, others detail ongoing violations, including the murders of two young men by Eritrean troops in Axum on 3 January, while photographs continue to emerge allegedly showing Eritrean troops on the streets of Shire.

Khataza Gondwe, Joint Head of Advocacy and Team Leader for Africa and the Middle East at CSW, said: ‘The continuing presence of troops implicated in the commission of the gravest of international crimes constitutes a clear threat both to the peace process and to the lives of Tigrayan civilians. We call on the African Union and the rest of the international community to ensure the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Ethiopia, including by formulating and initiating additional targeted sanctions and a comprehensive arms embargo, if deemed necessary. We also call for the demobilisation of conscripts, and urge the Eritrean government to end its military adventurism and focus instead on respecting and fulfilling the rights and freedoms of Eritrean citizens, ensuring that they are finally able to enjoy the dividends of their hard-won independence.’

Note to Editors:

  1. Patriarch Antonios was officially placed under house arrest in May 2007, when he was transported from his official residence to an unknown location.  Prior to this he had been under de facto house arrest in his official residence since January 2006.
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