Believers at Risk

Author: ZENIT


Believers at Risk

Interview on Religious Persecution in Eritrea

CINCINNATI, Ohio, 31 JAN. 2011 (ZENIT)
According to an African professor living in Cincinnati, the dire plight of Eritrea gets little international attention because it is a small, poor country with a relatively small population.

But Eritrea, suggests Habtu Ghebre-Ab, is one of the worst places on the planet to be a believer — Muslim or Christian. 

Ghebre-Ab was born and raised in Ethiopia of Eritrean parents and lived in Ethiopia until he was 18. Now in the United States, he has founded the non-profit organization “In Chains for Christ." He teaches history at the University of Cincinnati.

He spoke with the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, about the severe anti-religious policies of Eritrea.

Q: When did you first come to know Christ?

Ghebre-Ab: I came to know Christ as a child. I was born and raised in the Orthodox Church to very pious parents, so my exposure to Christianity and the Gospel goes back to fairly early in my life. [...] About eight or nine years ago, I came back to the faith of my fathers, to the Orthodox Church where today, I serve as a deacon.

Q: Although reliable estimates are hard to come by, can you tell us a little bit about the religious landscape now in Eritrea?

Ghebre-Ab: The Eritrean people are very religious. Religion is an integral part of the lives of the people and Christianity and Islam have co-existed freely for centuries. Today, of the 4 million people, more or less 50% of the population is Christian and the other half belong to Islam. The Orthodox Church, being of course the largest Christian faith in Eritrea and Ethiopia, accounts for almost 95% of the Christian population.

Q: A Freedom House Report states: "Eritrea is a nation in a perpetual state of emergency, under siege by its own leaders with a population denied the most basic freedoms of speech, assembly, press and religious practice." What does this mean for Christians today in Eritrea?

Ghebre-Ab: What it means for Christians is that, although the so-called minority churches were proscribed, beginning in May 2002, they have since been literally criminalized, their members and leaders thrown in jail and they are not allowed to worship in Eritrea at all. In the very early 1990s, there were indications of the government's anti-religious policy as it pertains to the Jehovah's Witnesses and also the Muslim community in Eritrea. Regarding the Eritrean Orthodox Churches also, there were Bible-burning activities going as far back as 1996 and 1995. It was in May 2002, however, that the Eritrean government really put its anti-religious policy in place. 

Today, within the armed forces there still are confiscations of Bibles and people who are found praying are actually being punished. Since 2005, the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been particularly targeted; its patriarch, His Holiness Abune Antonios, has been put under house arrest. Although Patriarch Antonios has diabetes and high blood pressure, he has not received any medical care nor has he been visited by anyone. So the leading clergy of the Orthodox Churches, as too the Protestant churches, have been in jail — some of them going as far back as 2004.

Q: I want to address the persecution of the Orthodox hierarchy, but before, I'd like to know what provokes this government persecution?

Ghebre-Ab: The background of this anti-religion policy is, of course, the Marxist set of beliefs that the Eritrean government adopted during the armed struggle for independence. If you look at some of the literature going back to the 1970s, they actually listed the number or the name of religions they would do away with once Eritrea became independent.

Q: So it was planned?

Ghebre-Ab: It was planned from the very beginning, but after independence, there was a tendency among the Eritrean people to go back to their faith. Their years of suffering had ended; Eritrea had attained its independence and many, many young people were becoming more religious, more spiritual. I think the government, having that Marxist background, always felt uncomfortable that the young people — irrespective of the level of politicization that was going on — were still going back to their faith.

Q: They didn't dare attack the Christians at that time but waited until more recently?

Ghebre-Ab: Exactly. With respect to the Eritrean Orthodox Church, they have gone to the point of nationalizing it because it is the largest and most ancient religious institution. I think the belief is that by nationalizing it, having total control of the Church, they will have total control of a large segment of the Eritrean population.

Q: Almost like the Chinese Patriotic Church Association, which is trying to create a state church?

Ghebre-Ab: Exactly, or more appropriately during the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union where the Bolshevik party wanted to control the churches allowed to exist at that time. That is the state of the Christian church in Eritrea today — doing away with the smaller religions and controlling the ones that are remaining. Some have done a little better job of resisting that.


Q: What is the agenda of the government?

Ghebre-Ab: I wish I could say they have an agenda — the world seems to be so totally flabbergasted because this government does not seem to know its own interests; it doesn't seem to know where it's going because a lot of the actions that it takes are so arbitrary. Those of us who know this regime, going back to the time before independence, we know at least one thing: that it is not favorably disposed toward religion.

Q: In May 2002 another wave of more severe persecution started against Christians. What provoked this and what persecution are we talking about?

Ghebre-Ab: At that time the government called the leaders of the churches that were to be closed. The pretext used by the government was that they had not registered properly. You need to register in order to become a recognized religion; that was the pretext, that was the smoke screen. Some of these churches actually did seek to comply with even the most egregious requests of the government: that they be given the names of the members of the church, where they work, what they do and their financial status; the inner working of the church as if to say, if we know what is going on inside we will do a better job of doing away with them. The government is after the gradual elimination of faith in general in Eritrea, and looking at the development over the last years, this is become more sure than ever.

Q: What is the response on the part of the Christians? Are they going underground? Are they emigrating?

Ghebre-Ab: The evangelical churches, of course, went underground at first, though the government made it impossible for them through its security apparatus — they were being hunted down. So what remained for them to do was to try to escape the country, and thousands of young people — and not just people of faith — but thousands of people who are not even religious are now fleeing the country and requesting political asylum in other countries. There are refugee camps in Northern Ethiopia as well as in Sudan accommodating this increasing number of refugees flowing out of Eritrea.

Q: And this is despite a shoot to kill order for any one caught fleeing over the Eritrean border?

Ghebre-Ab: Precisely. That doesn't seem to have affected the number, particularly of young Eritreans who are fleeing the country.


Q: What about the more recognized institutions and traditions: Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Church. How is the government confronting and trying to limit the religious activity of these larger traditions?

Ghebre-Ab: I do not pretend to speak for the Muslims, but I can say that they have suffered under this regime as well. In this regard the Eritrean government is really an equal opportunity persecutor. With respect to the other so-called recognized churches — although the independent media was abolished in 2001 — way before that time, the main organs of the recognized organizations, that is, the Catholic Church’s newspaper, the Eritrean Orthodox's flourishing newspaper, and so too the other Christians organizations that are supposed to be recognized — all these newspapers were closed down even before the independent secular media was closed. 

Another thing the government ordered, particularly of the Orthodox and the Catholic Church, is that priests of a certain age should report for military service. I commend the Catholic eparchy for taking an unwavering stand in this regard saying that there is absolutely no way that their priests can go to military service, but because the Orthodox Church is controlled by a political appointee, they have not been able to resist and priests actually have been forced into the army.

Q: The United States has placed Eritrea on the State Department list of "Countries of particular concern." Why don't we hear about this? Why is the international community mute on this question?

Ghebre-Ab: This is a very good question. Eritrea is a very small country, a population of less than 4 million people [other reports place the population at 5.7 million]. A large segment of the population has been fleeing for as long as I can remember. There have been waves of exodus out of Eritrea for one reason or another but Eritrea, unlike many of its neighbors, does not have any oil, it does not have a huge population. Because of this, while other countries around Eritrea and their suffering people receive a tremendous amount of coverage, the Eritrean people have never really received that kind of coverage, even during the time they were fighting for independence against the Soviet Union. So, as long as the country is considered insignificant by the rest of the world, I think it will remain neglected.

Q: What can we do?

Ghebre-Ab: First and foremost, I would say that we should pray for the Eritrean people, but I would also say that all people of faith should contact their elected representatives to make sure that the suffering people of Eritrea receive the kind of attention that is absolutely necessary. Now there are, as I have said, tens of thousands of young people that are leaving the country. They are suffering tremendously. The refugee camps in Northern Ethiopia and in Sudan — these refugees should be given the rights of refugees and be given asylum in these countries. We have a recent report of scores of Eritreans drowning in the Mediterranean Sea trying to cross from Libya to Italy or Malta and many of these countries repatriate these Eritreans. In Egypt now there are hundreds of refugees without any recognition or help from anybody.

Q:What happens to those who are repatriated?

Ghebre-Ab: The stories from those who have escaped a second time after being repatriated … the kind of torture is quite unimaginable. The government tried to put its best foot forward saying: We will take care of them. The stories, however, reveal a different story; they have suffered tremendous torture and the whereabouts of many is unknown to this day.

Q: What restrictions do the established churches face in terms of publishing literature and construction permits?

Ghebre-Ab: The established churches have not been able to operate the way they have always operated. Building permits or things of that nature is not something they can even think about; they have difficulty just maintaining the buildings they have. For instance the Catholic Church ran several good schools and during the previous regime, before Eritrea's independence, the schools were nationalized. I think the hope was, and most Eritrean Catholics and people of good will had hoped, that these schools would be returned to the Catholic Church and that was the demand of the Catholic Church, and that has not been fulfilled as yet.


Q: I've read that more than 3,200 Christians are presently in prison for various religious activities. What is the status of these Christians?

Ghebre-Ab: Nobody knows. In fact we say 3,200 as that is an estimation given by the U.S. State Department. My own personal estimate is more than that because every military camp has its own detention center. There are many unofficial prisons where no one has ever been brought to trial and have never been accused of anything in a properly constituted court. So the best we can do is perhaps estimate how many people there are in prison. If you count all prisoners of conscience it would be far more than 3,200 and if you talk about Christians it will be again far more than that. Let me make one point: There are a lot of people who have died in prison for their faith.

Q: What are these prisons?

Ghebre-Ab: These prisons were designed to punish and are sadistic. There are reports that people have been kept underground for years without seeing sunlight. People are not properly fed. People have been kept in metal shipping containers. One has to remember how hot it gets in that part of the world and how cold it gets at night and these people are still kept in these metal containers. If the government of Eritrea would permit international humanitarian organizations or the Red Cross to visit these detention centers or these imprisoned people, the world could see the kind of conditions in which these people are being held; but no one has been able to see these people.

Q: Are you hopeful?

Ghebre-Ab: I am hopeful. The Eritrean people are very resourceful. They are not going to tolerate this injustice for too long. The Eritrean people have paid a great sacrifice for freedom. I lost two brothers and 12 family members in the war for Eritrea's independence. Now, it may sound that my story is unique but it is not unique — every Eritrean will tell you a similar story. The Eritrean people have not paid all these sacrifices and been made to suffer these indignities to be denied their rights for which they have fought and the rights which they deserve.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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