LOS ANGELES, May 4 (Compass Direct News) –
In still another police raid in the Eritrean capital, local
authorities last weekend arrested 80 members of the Mehrete Yesus
Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Asmara at the close of a Sunday
A U.S. couple as well as several teachers from India working in
Eritrea were among those reportedly detained on Sunday (April 29).
But local sources confirmed that after four days of
incarceration, the two U.S. citizens were released yesterday and
allowed to return to their home in Asmara.
“They have been told not to teach or preach, but they haven’t
been asked to leave,” a source who requested anonymity stated.
Church leaders identified as still under custody included the
Rev. Zecharias Abraham, the Presbyterian church’s pastor, and a
church elder named Mikias Mekonnen. Some of the jailed worshippers
Initiated by former Sudan Interior Mission staff and affiliated
with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the indigenous MehreteYesus
Church has existed in Eritrea since the late 1940s.
According to a statement posted today by Release Eritrea, a
London-based advocacy group, Abraham has served as head of the
Eritrean Evangelical Alliance since the May 2004 arrest of his
predecessor, Full Gospel Church leader Haile Niazgi.
The latest raid against Eritrea’s Protestant community came only
five days after the government Ministry of Information posted a
notice on its website, www.shabait.com, announcing that the Eritrean
Orthodox Church had elected a new patriarch.
Renegade Bishop Named Patriarch
Dioskoros of Mendefera to be the fourth patriarch of the nation’s
Orthodox Tewahdo community, the statement claimed he had been
“unanimously approved” by the church’s Holy Synod on April 19, with
his formal installation set for Pentecost Sunday on May 27.
But according to an April 23 posting on the opposition website
www.asmarino.com, “When the bishops in attendance expressed a desire
to bring the matter to a deliberation, they were told that the
announcement was not open for further discussion.”
Signed by “priests, monks, deacons and the faithful of the
Eritrean Orthodox Church,” the Asmarino statement warned: “The
Eritrean people should be aware that the rights and beliefs of the
two-million strong [Orthodox] church have been flagrantly violated
once again; and the hijacking of the church by the government that
has been underway for quite some time is now completed.”
In direct violation of the church’s canon laws, the Asmara
government stripped ordained Eritrean Patriarch Abune Antonios of
his ecclesiastical authority in August 2005, after he protested the
imprisonment of three priests from the Medhane Alem Orthodox Church.
The government replaced him with Yoftahe Dimetros, a layman
appointed as interim administrator of the church.
Antonios was officially removed from office in January 2006, when
he was placed under formal house arrest. Four months ago, his
patriarchal vestments and insignia were taken away from him by
According to an Action Letter appeal from Amnesty International,
“…The authorities have also forbidden Abune Antonios from having any
contact with Orthodox followers and from attending or leading
worship services. He has not been permitted to receive communion for
the past year.”
The ecclesiastical canons of Coptic Orthodoxy forbid the
consecration of a new patriarch while the previous one is still
alive, unless found guilty by official church councils of committing
flagrant sin or heresy.
Antonios is still recognized as the legitimate head of the
Eritrean church by Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenoudah III, who
presided at Patriarch Antonios’ ordination in April 2004.
Now 79, the Eritrean patriarch is being held incommunicado and
reportedly suffering from diabetes without access to adequate
2,000 Jailed Without Charges
Patriarch Antonios is the
most prominent of at least 2,000 Eritrean Christians now under
arrest without trial or legal charges solely for their religious
The prisoners include dozens of pastors and priests incarcerated
in jails, police stations and military camps in 14 different cities
and towns, some of them for more than three years.
In the last nine months alone, Compass has confirmed the deaths
of three Christians from severe mistreatment while under arrest.
Eritrean security forces began a harsh crackdown against the
country’s evangelical Protestant community five years ago, outlawing
all churches not under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Catholic or
Evangelical Lutheran denominations.
Since May 2002, anyone caught worshipping outside the
government-approved religious institutions, either in church
buildings or in private homes, has been subjected to arrest, torture
and extreme pressure to deny their faith.
Even weddings and other social activities held within Christian
communities have been raided and the participants hauled off to
Under the totalitarian regime of President Isaias Afwerki,
religious repression has escalated even further in the past two
years. Targeted groups have included the Orthodox church’s
flourishing renewal movement, a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses and
Muslim leaders who oppose the government-appointed mufti.
At least 40 percent of Eritrea’s citizens consider themselves
Coptic Orthodox by birth, with at least half of the population of
ethnic Muslim background.