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Eritrea: Orthodox Christians in prison

– HRWF (19.06.2020) – Despite state recognition, the Eritrean Orthodox Church and its Patriarch have been heavily persecuted since Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1991.[1] The newly independent government wanted a national Orthodox Church separate from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and so asked Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria for Eritrean Orthodoxy autocephaly.[2]
In 2004, Abune Antonios was elected as Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. He opposed the government’s interference in the affairs of the church and objected its confiscation of church properties, hijacking of church offerings, expropriation of tithes and pressuring priests and deacons to military services. The government deposed him, put him under house arrest in 2006 and appointed a new, more obedient, Patriarch.
This context explains the persecution of Abune ANtonios and those who are faithful to him.
Orthodox Christians behind bars: some statistics
As of 1 April 2020, HRWF documented four cases of Eritrean Orthodox Christians in its Prisoners’ Database.[3] Three of these individuals are in maximum-security detention centres and one is under house arrest, Patriarch Abune Antonios. Before their arrest, these members occupied high level positions within Eritrea, until they were arrested for involvement in the renewal movement of the Orthodox Church. The number of cases documented by HRWF has not changed over the last couple of years.
Articles of the Penal Code
Quite often believers of all faiths are arrested and imprisoned without any formal charges, trial or conviction.
International advocacy
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’.[4]
In its 2018 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 determined that Eritrea merited designation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. USCIRF has designated Eritrea as a CPC since 2004.[5]
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 that ‘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’.[6] She also pressed the government to ‘release those who have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs’.[7]
As of 15 June 2020, there were 63 FoRB prisoners in Eritrea in HRWF’s Prisoners’ Database
Jehovah’s Witnesses: 55
Coptic Orthodox: 4
Protestants: 4
See details of these documented cases at https://hrwf.eu/prisoners-database/
[1] “Eritrean War of Independence,” New World Encyclopedia, accessed June,
[2] Stefon, Matt, “Shenouda III,” Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., March 13, 2020.
[3] Our Database is updated on a regular basis. For more details about imprisoned Orthodox Christians, see https://hrwf.eu/prisoners-database/.
[4] European Parliament, Resolution on Eritrea, notably the cases of Abune Antonios and Dawit Isaak (2017/2755(RSP)) July 6, 2017. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-8-2017-0309_EN.html.
[5]  United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report, USCIRF-
Recommended countries of particular concern: Eritrea 2018, 2018. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier1_ERITREA.pdf.
[6] “UN Expert Urges Eritrea to Allow Religious Institutions to Operate Freely and Respect
the Right of Freedom of Religion,” OHCHR, June 21, 2019.
[7] “Crackdown on Christians in Eritrea Spurs UN Expert to Press Government ‘to Live up to
Its International Commitments’ UN News,” United Nations, June 21, 2019.

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South Korea: Intolerance against Shincheonji Church after coronavirus incident

– By Massimo Introvigne

– CESNUR (28.02.2020) – https://www.cesnur.org/2020/shincheonji.htm – Media all around the world are focusing attention on Shincheonji Church, a South Korean Christian new religious movement, after members of the church’s Daegu congregation were infected by the coronavirus.   

As a scholar who has studied Schincheonji, I am concerned with the fact that international media that obviously know nothing about it have ‘discovered’ this church overnight because of the coronavirus incidents in Korea, and have repeated inaccurate information they found on low-level Internet sources. 

Even of more concern is the fact that Shincheonji members who have contracted the virus, who are the victims in this story, are being treated unfairly by the Korean media and described as “cultists.” Worse still, some Shincheonji members have been insulted, discriminated and forced out of their jobs, as scapegoats for what has become a national and international hysteria about the virus. 

As far as I have ascertained, Shincheonji is cooperating with the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) to contain the coronavirus, complying with all the indication of the authorities, and even testing for the virus all its members at its own expenses. Some politicians and media in South Korea are scapegoating Shincheonji for the epidemics, in order to distract the public attention from widespread criticism leveled at them for the fact that, despite concerns voiced by the Korean Medical Association, South Korea did not prohibit entry into the country from China. The South Korean public news agency, Yonhap News, mentioned the possible relationship between the arrival of 1,000 Chinese students in school trips to Daegu last month and the outbreak of the epidemics there. Instead, Shincheonji is unfairly blamed, even if, 24 hours after one of its devotees was identified as infected with the virus, it provided the authorities with a full list of its members. Members were also encouraged to tell co-workers and their bosses that they belong to Shincheonji—no small step, since because of the anti-Shincheonji campaigns normally they keep a low profile in the workplace and now they put themselves at risk of being insulted, threatened, and even lose their jobs. 

The anti-Shincheonji sentiment in South Korea is fueled by fundamentalist Christian groups, which are much more influential in that country than elsewhere in the world and are disturbed by Shincheonji’s rapid growth. These groups have a history of vitriolic propaganda and even physical violence against Shincheonji, whose members are routinely kidnapped and confined to be submitted to forced conversion (deprogramming), and now went so far to accuse Shincheonji to intentionally spread the virus and to call for the forced dissolution of Shincheonji. Spreading fake news in a moment of national crisis is dangerous and irresponsible. 

Further poisoning the atmosphere is the fact that political elections will be held in South Korea on April 15, and that hate speech against new religious movements is used both as an electoral tool and a way to take the attention away from public criticism of politicians who handled the coronavirus crisis poorly, and the fact that Reverend Jeon Kwang-hoon, the president of the Christian Council of Korea and the leader of the main anti-Shincheonji coalition in South Korea, has been arrested on February 24 on charges of violating the law regulating electoral campaigns. 

Some fundamentalist groups are using the virus epidemics as a pretext to increase their campaign against Shincheonji, in the hope that the virus may achieve what they failed to accomplish, i.e. putting a halt to Shincheonji’s spectacular growth, which largely happens at their expenses. While Shincheonji certainly has a peculiar theology, and it is normal that others disagree with it, fundamentalist anti-cult Korean Protestants are now engaged in a shameful form of profiteering. Responsible international media should be wary of inadvertently cooperating with it.

(*) HRWF additional information

See interviews of victims of deprogramming attempts in South Korea carried out by HRWF and published in 2019: https://bit.ly/2wVZMUQ

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SYRIA: Towards an international alliance of governments to support persecuted Christians

– Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Russia and the USA are the first candidates

Source: en.kremlin.ru

HRWF (02.11.2019) – At the end of October, Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, organized a conference to which he invited Russia’s President Putin and leaders of various Christian denominations from the Middle East to pave the way to an international alliance of European and other governments ready to prioritize support Christians in the Middle East and Africa persecuted by the Islamic State and other driving forces of political Islam.

A number of European governments – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – are planning to join such an alliance. The Vatican is interested in these developments.

Building up on his political and military success in Syria, Putin is now finding new allies in Europe where he wants to appear as the sole protector of Christians in the Middle East.

Russia and Hungary to discuss persecuted Christians

 Vatican News (01.11.2019) – Hungary wants to set up an international alliance of governments to support persecuted Christians in especially the Middle East, Africa, and other areas. The announcement came a day before Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin were to discuss the issue in Budapest with Middle East church leaders.

 By Stefan J. Bos

Hungary’s state secretary, for the aid of persecuted Christians, Tristan Azbej, is worried. He told Vatican News that Christians are now the most persecuted people in the world.

That’s why, he says, Hungary wants to set up an international alliance to help Christian believers and other faith minorities during an upcoming conference next month. “We have an aim of collecting and mobilizing governments on one platform. That would coordinate its efforts to help the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, Africa, and also other minorities who are persecuted for their religion and belief,” he explained.

Coordination underway 

The Hungarian government is already coordinating efforts with the United States and Poland it seeks cooperation with other countries of Central and Eastern Europe such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Hungary says the move is also aimed to help persecuted to stay in their own countries rather than emigrate to the West.

The country has spent tens of millions of dollars on humanitarian aid, including such as rebuilding hospitals, schools, and churches in war-torn Syria and other nations.

The aid was welcomed at a conference in Budapest Tuesday attended by crucial church leaders representing Catholic, Orthodox and other Christians in the Middle East.

Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syriac Orthodox Church noted that Christians feel alone amid ongoing violence that even killed infants. “Many times, we feel we are abandoned as Christians of the Middle East. We feel that we have no friends. That nobody cares about us,” he said.

Own interests 

“We have seen throughout these years of war that countries and governments are most interested in their interests about imposing their ideas and their agendas. But they don’t want to really care about the people,” the patriarch stressed.

He cited plans by the United States to protect oilfields in Syria as examples of such alleged egocentric behavior.

The patriarch and other church leaders warned there is little time to prevent the extinction of Christian communities in the Middle East.

Most Christians have fled the troubled region amid attacks by Islamic State and other extremist groups.

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Putin pledges to ‘do everything to protect Christians in the Middle East’

 by Jeffrey Cimmino

After a meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Wednesday, Putin expressed sorrow over the persecution experienced by Christians in the Middle East, according to the Associated Press. Russian leaders have worked to develop close ties with Syria’s Christian communities. Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart has called Russia’s intervention in the country a source of “hope for the country’s Christians.”

“The Middle East is the cradle of Christianity, and Christians are in peril there, facing persecution, being killed, raped, and robbed,” said Putin. “Russia will do everything to protect Christians in the Middle East. We must help them restore and preserve their holy sites, preserve their congregations.”

At a meeting later in the day, Putin expressed concern for the “massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East.”

“We are watching what’s happening to the Christians in the Middle East with tears in our eyes,” said Putin.

Russia’s efforts to work closely with Syria’s Christians have also earned praise from Syrian President Bashar Assad, who called Putin “the sole defender of Christian civilization one can rely on.” Putin has propped up the Assad regime against his opponents in the country’s civil war.

And while many Syrian Christians are concerned about Assad and his Russian backers, they also fear that any new government would either be weak or filled with extremists.

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