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Legal & Moral Authority in Eritrea: Eritrean Regime and Religious Pluralism – IV Fessahaye Mebrahtu

  Legal & Moral Authority in Eritrea: Eritrean Regime and Religious Pluralism – IV Fessahaye Mebrahtu This essay will focus on the historical and cultural perspective of religious pluralism, tolerance in our area. It will also give some


Legal & Moral Authority in Eritrea: Eritrean Regime and Religious Pluralism – IV

Fessahaye Mebrahtu

This essay will focus on the historical and cultural perspective of religious pluralism, tolerance in our area. It will also give some background to the intrusion of the Government of Eritrea in the religious affairs of the various traditions and the struggle to be free. Finally, I will present a challenge to our religious leadership to add intentionality and purpose to their good relationship and speak in unison of their moral obligation with authority.

  1. EPLF’s Religious Vision of Independent Eritrea

During the armed struggle, the EPLF was explicit in its political education what religion to exclude or include in independent Eritrea. Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostals, Faith Mission, Seven Day Adventists, etc. were on its top exclusion list. In many instances these were labeled as CIA instruments because of their American origin. If “Islamic Fundamentalism” was characterized as such at the time, it would have been on the same list too. In Eritrea, the recent closing of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches is an implementation of a policy crafted decades ago. The smaller denominations became convenient targets and guinea pigs of PFDJ’s irreligious policy. Therefore, PFDJ had to pick and choose winnable fights.

Islam and Christianity (Tewahdo-Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran) were to be tolerated but not as fundamental right and freedom of worship. Tolerating these major religions was a strategy not to undermine the movement’s support base by exhibiting its anti-religious stance upfront. Therefore, the criterion of tolerating Islam and mainstream Christian denominations was mostly based on their sheer number and compliance with the rigid policy of the movement. In reality, EPLF’s vision of religious tolerance did not secure freedom of worship as fundamental human right. The tolerated religious traditions neither had any safety net nor legal recourse to protect them from government intrusion.  The government can close or open a church or a mosque at a whim, especially if it can monitor the public reaction.

The atheistic principles of EPLF had the façade of being neutral and equal to the tolerated faith traditions but its contemptuous attitude toward religion was glaring. The movement tacitly discouraged its members, especially those in the leadership from exhibiting religious devotion or practice even at a personal level. Occasionally, its cadres “spilled the beans” exposing the anti religious policy of the movement. There are ample examples when these cadres openly declared to their captive audience that there is no God and religion will be irrelevant to free and progressive Eritrea. Of course, these elites were citing Karl Marx who wrote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Did Isaias regime change its policy about religion? Well, it really fooled the religious leaders when Isaias surprised them that they can teach Bible and Qur’an in public schools. The religious leaders had to scramble to find suitable religion teachers. After a while Isaias told them at a whim that they cannot teach religion in public schools any more – “ባዕላ መምጽኢት ደርፊ ባዕላ መጥፍኢት ደርፊ” The religious leaders murmured but did nothing except saying Amen to the decree of H.E. Isaias.

It is against this backdrop that we can have a better perspective in understanding the behavior of the Government of Eritrea (PFDJ) toward religious practices today. It is one thing to have a secular government that leaves religious practice alone as a fundamental right and quite another to have self-proclaimed atheistic government that persecutes believers yet claims to be neutral and fair to religious matters. Such policy goes against the Eritrean approach to religious practice, pluralism, coexistence and above all to the human conscience.

  1. The Essence of Religious Pluralism and Tolerance in Africa

The Traditional African Religions do not depend on doctrinal and dogmatic explanations of their faith. They rather are in tune with the natural world intrinsically connected to the spiritual world, without splitting the body and soul. The sacred and the profane are intertwined and the dichotomy of spirit and body is almost unnatural to the African belief system.

In the African traditional religions ethnic group has its belief system that differs to an extent from the next ethnic group; yet there was no tradition of enforcing your belief system on others. Assimilation, syncretism, and tolerance were facts of life. African belief systems were best expressed in rituals; borrowing from each other certain rituals deemed beneficial to the community or individual devotee were acceptable and even encouraged as well, especially, fertility, and healing rituals.

In the earlier times, the introduction of Judaism, Christianity and Islam into Africa, particularly, the Horn of Africa did not completely upset the equilibrium of tolerance and coexistence.  The conflicts that flared up once in a while cannot be compared to the European religious wars or Crusades that lingered for centuries.

Christianity and Islam in the Horn of Africa had the longest existence but the method of spreading Christianity or Islam was more of assimilation and less of propagation. As a result we have a distinct Christian tradition that incorporated a lot of the traditional religious practices in its liturgy and other rituals, such as dancing, the concept of sacred places, dividing the liturgical seasons according the natural cycles, etc. In the same manner, Islam made its home in the area without Arabizing the indigenous cultures which is evident in the lifestyle, language and other subtle practices of the Eritrean ethnic groups who practice Islam.

It was much later when Africans encountered European and Arab slave traders that has upset the equilibrium of ethnic coexistence and to some extent with negative effect on tolerance. Especially the 19th century, the Scramble of Africa and the Christian missionaries that led or followed the European colonizers brought in with them religious rivalry, exclusion and intolerance which can be characterizes as the root cause of Africa’s problem.

The Western notion of Christianity and religion brought into Africa by missionaries gave a new twist to the traditional tolerance and ethnic co-existence. The balance of religious tolerance and ethnic coexistence either was deliberately upset as a divide and conquer scheme or as a response of Africans to their new imposed realities (identity).

  1. The Religious Tolerance and Coexistence in Eritrea and Ethiopia

Judaism pre-existed Christianity in our area and the introduction of the Christian faith into the society did not seem to have encountered hostility and persecution like in other parts of the world. Christianity became the state religion of the Axumite Kingdom around 330 C.E. At the rise of Islam when the disciples of Prophet Mohammed took refugee most likely in the Axumite Kingdom from persecution in the Arabian Peninsula, a certain Christian King gave them refugee and protection. The followers of Prophet Mohammed were given the opportunity to state and practice their new religion freely.  Therefore, for centuries Judaism, Christianity and Islam were practiced and coexisted in our area. Yet, due credit should be given to the indigenous Traditional Religions that became the foundation of tolerance and mutual acceptance.

I do not want to paint all rosy picture of co-existence either; the long and bitter political rivalry between the Jews and Christians in the area. Of course, such power struggle was not religious neutral; the contenders were trying to claim legitimacy to power as divinely ordered for one at the exclusion of the other. The writing of the “ክብረ ነገሥት – Kibere-Negest – the Chronicles of Ethiopian Kings” was meant to ascertain the theocratic claim to power. Later in the 16th century, the war between Christian Abyssinia and Ahmed Gragn is recorded as religious war but it would be better characterized as a proxy war of the Ottoman Turks to expand their empire (sphere of influence) into the hinterland; however, this is open for further studies and better analysis.

The religious tone was used as a motivational factor for both sides to rally support and keep fighting. I need also to mention that some religiously zealous emperors like Emperor Yohannes IV of Ethiopia used force to convert their subjects with an aim to make their kingdoms religiously homogenous. But this was the exception rather the rule. In the Ethiopian recorded history, we read more bitter wars fought between Christian kings than against other religious traditions.

  1. Ethiopia: Declaring Christianity the state religion of the Axumite Kingdom, the Church gave a theological justification to the theocratic power of the kings; in return the Church enjoyed the protection of the state. Both wielded a secular and spiritual power; and this symbiotic relationship continued to our time. In this relationship, the Church was not totally subservient of the State. To the contrary, the Church was the king maker or deposer. Its spiritual role was well respected and feared by those in power.

The Church power was weakened by Emperor Haileselassie I.  How so? It must be remembered that for the longest time, the Tewahdo-Orthodox Church depended on the Coptic Church for its bishop who had to be and Egyptian. The Egyptian Metropolitan (Bishop) was usually brought in through diplomatic maneuvers with the Muslim rulers of Egypt. In 1929, Haileselassie managed to have Ethiopian Bishops ordained (I believe) for the first time in its Christian history. Again 30 years later Emperor Haileselassie helped the Tewahdo-Orthodox Church of Ethiopia (including Eritrea) to be an autocephalous  Patriarchate. Abune Basilios became the first Patriarch of the Ethiopian Tewahdo-Orthodox.


Due to such historical facts, Emperor Haileselassie managed to control the Church in unprecedented way. The roles of the king and the church were reversed. The Church who was the king maker became an institution dependent of the state. Like the Anglican Church the head of state (King, Queen) became a de facto head of the Church. Even the election of a Patriarch or a diocesan bishop had to meet the government requirements and expectations. Bishops who decried the complacency of the Church were silenced. In my earlier article I had mentioned Abune Philipos Mengistu’s who challenged the Haileselassie’s method of governance but not his role as the head of the Church.


The Dergue administration followed Emperor Haileselassie’s method as the custodian of the Church and even exerted more control over it by confiscating or nationalizing its property, mainly its land. Dergue imprisoned the previous Patriarch and the Synod supposedly elected Abune Teklehaimanot as a Patriarch of Ethiopia. Like the EPLF, the Dergue had a Marxist-Leninist approach to religion and religious practice. Only very few Ethiopian Bishops challenged Dergue’s grip on the Church. By and large, the Church as an institution remained complacent and subservient to Dergue’s policies while the priests and the faithful at large were less affected.


The current Ethiopian government continues the same legacy, even the appointment of Abune Paulos; the Patriarch, who replaced the former did not go unchallenged. Since Emperor Haileselassie I, the church depended on state subsidy to run its infrastructures. Until mid-1970s,  Ethiopian Christians believed that they were the majority and did not take into consideration to sharing real power with others except to appease them. Yet religious practices of other traditions, especially Islam and Traditional African Religions were not seen as a threat. Catholicism and Protestantism were perceived as antagonistic to the homogenous Christian Orthodox until Emperor Haileselassie declared with his famous line, “ኣገር የጋራ ሃይማኖት የግል ነው፡ a nation is for all and religion for the individual.”

  1. Eritrea: When the state of Eritrea was curved as an Italian colony in the1880’s Catholicism and Lutheranism had been established for almost fifty years but were still perceived as anti-establishments. Before and after the colonization of Eritrea, these two relatively new Christian denominations in the area were tolerated and eventually became as mainstream not of their number but because of their contribution to human and social development, namely through education and healthcare systems. The Catholics who followed the Ge’ez Ritual their Orthodox counterparts could have been a bigger threat to the established Church. But most of the Eritrean Catholics before urbanization lived on geographic periphery sandwiched between Highlander Orthodox and Lowlander Moslem regions. Even in this case the coexistence was exemplar, “blood was thicker than religion.” If there was any negative attitude toward each other, was part and parcel of the European attitude toward religious differences at that time not inherent to the culture.


The irony is that the Eritrea government who fought for so many years to get rid of Ethiopian colonial rules continues its legacy, particularly in its relationship with the Tewahdo-Orthodox Church. The Eritrean regime’s intrusiveness in the religious business is not limited to the Tewahdo-Orthodox; the Mufti of Eritrea also has to be approved by the government.


The Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Churches have to walk a very fine line under the watchful eye of Isaias; especially the government is very sensitive that the religious leaders might emulate and adapt to their reality Bishop Tutu’s and other religious leaders’ moral stand against apartheid and other form of injustices in South Africa.  Since both denominations have international backings, if their leaders speak with moral authority denouncing the injustices of the Eritrean government, they can easily be heard to get moral support. For example the Catholic Church has a well-grounded Social Teachings advocating for human, social, religious, political and economic justice for all citizens. In addition, the Catholic Church has Liberation Theology with a more radical approach to social justice that has been operating for the last 50 plus years from Managua to Manila to Latin America.


The government of Eritrea is aware of these potential challenges that might come from the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Therefore, it tries to intimidate, coerce, and blackmail the leadership on the basis of their minority status. Above all, the government is playing favoritism following the Ethiopian tradition, apparently sponsoring the autocephalous Orthodox-Tewahdo Church in Eritrea. The purpose is not to help but to control the Tewahdo-Orthodox of Eritrea to be submissive to the policies of PFDJ. The Orthodox Church does not need government subsidy; the faithful in Asmara alone can easily meet the financial needs of its central administrations and the salary of its staff.


The Islamic tradition is under the same scrutiny, even more son in the name of fighting Islamic Fundamentalism and terrorism. At the end of the day, who controls the religions traditions can easily control the people. As the government steadily implements its anti-religious policies, our religious leaders are muzzled from exercising their Moral Authority advocating for human and religious rights as well as social, economic and political justice for all.

  1. The Attitude of Mainstream Religions toward the Sects

The GoE’s persecution and incarceration of the members of the small Churches, collectively known as “ጴንጠ-Pente i.e., Pentecostals” are not getting any sympathy from the mainstream Churches. However, the mainstream Churches have not been able to read “the writing on the wall” that they could be the next targets of a control freak government. To the contrary, Eritrean mainstream Churches feel threatened by these young and energetic Pentecostal/Evangelical Churches, who are converting young adults to their membership in great numbers. Aware of the sentiments by the mainstream churches toward these sects, the government pretends to do them a favor by removing these threats. The letter supposedly signed by the mainstream religious leaders condemning religious fanaticism of any sort is a clear example of their complacency to the political engineering of a government that does not have any sacred boundaries or fear of God to achieve its goals.


The Pentecostals  “holier than thou” attitudes; denigrating the religious practices of the mainstream Christian denominations as archaic and irrelevant to salvation could be another reason for the lack of sympathy from the general public.  In reality, the Pentes present a challenge and an opportunity for the mainstream Church traditions to revive or reform by looking into their past and present methods of ministering to their faithful. Especially in this fast-changing times. Such soul searching would help them how to be more relevant to the spiritual and pastoral needs of the young adults faced by endless sufferings, hopelessness and an absence of justice. With no alternative, the Pente are filling the vacuum.  Even the young adults who preferred to remain faithful to their Orthodox or Catholic traditions emulate Pente spirituality and teaching style. Such approach also creates friction within the mainstream Churches and a very good opportunity for the GoE to exploit and meddle in their internal business.

Though part of the mainstream Churches in Eritrea, I have not focused much on the Evangelical Lutherans; they are more accommodating to the spirituality of the Pente than the Orthodox and Catholics who have more rigid tradition. For Lutherans, it is part of their Protestant tradition to join or found your own congregation that can meet ones spiritual needs. Therefore, the Lutheran opposition toward Pente might not be as severe as the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. On the other hand, the Lutherans’ lenient toward Pente can have attract negative attention from the GoE as well. Therefore, no main stream religious tradition is safe from the Eritrean regime’s intrusion or the vision of building a state with no religion but PFDJ cult.

The Catholic Church has learnt and matured since the time of Inquisition; its policy toward religious movements like Pente, as far as they do not do morally objectionable things they can follow their conscience in exercising their faith. The Catholic Church in Eritrea follows the same policy; likewise it does not believe in persecuting or closing the Pente Churches. This is my personal assessment; since Abune Menghesteab was not in Eritrea when the letter that condemns any kind of religious extremism was signed, the Catholic Church in Eritrea has no official part in the signing. It is against its official and universal policy too.

Islamic fundamentalism operates from similar mindset; the Muslim young adults see that their mainstream religion complacent to the moral decadence of the West or accommodating faithless and brutal dictators who prolong the suffering of their brothers and sisters locally or globally. It is to be remembered that the introduction of “Wahabism” had caused some frictions among the Moslem community in Asmara during the time of Dergue and later. These are exploitable opportunities for the GoE to further its anti-religious stance. Though the government of Eritrea is using Islamic fundamentalism as a political ploy to get international support, the silence of the mainstream religious leadership in the face of so much injustice in the country is consistent with the rest of religious leaders’ attitude – religion and politics don’t mix.

The government of Eritrea is implementing its anti-religious policy with the passive blessings of the mainstream religious denominations, who feel threatened by these radical movements.  The right of the believers to practice the faith of their choice or what satisfies their spiritual need is never taken into consideration.

The young adults hunger and thirst for a God of Faith who can understand their needs, sufferings and aspiration for justice and peace comes into direct conflict with the God of Religion safeguarded by the religious leadership concerned with maintaining the status quo. The religious leaders are chosen with governmental interference to perpetuate the conflict. The GoE will continue to project that the questions of the young adults and the response of the religious leaders as irreconcilable and incompatible. The tension of values between generations are as old as the human race, but we need to look into the African ethos toward religious tolerance and accommodation. With visionary and courageous Moral Leadership these tensions can be easily balanced provided the government stays a mile away from interference.

  1. The Call for Moral Clarity and Authority

The Eritrean Tewahdo-Orthodox Church’s enthusiasm to be an autocephalous from the Ethiopian Patriarchate was blinded to the danger of being too close for comfort with the government. ኣመጻጽኣ ሰይጣን ዘይፈልጥሲ ኣይፈልስ – Who does not know the way of the devil, should not become a monk – the Church should have known better that the devil can infiltrate it in the name and face of the current government.

The complacency of the institutional religions to the governmental abuses in Eritrea shows an absence of moral clarity. Our moral authorities’ nebulous stand on issues of justice and peace is contrary to their Biblical and Quranic concept of the God of justice. God takes special attention of the poor, the weak, the orphan, the widow, and the alien and mistreating them or other defenseless people we have to answer to our actions before God of justice who take no favoritism. For example, “ጽድቂ- tsidqi in our language has evolved to mean harmless religious piety.” Its true meaning is justice, synonymous to ፍትሒ – fitHi ርትዒ – rit’I.” Our religious leaders need to go beyond religious piety in practicing “ጽድቂ tsidqi – by advocating for justice (ፍትሒ) (ርትዒ).

In the name of humility our religious leaders are becoming docile and complacent to a regime who is undermining their Moral Authority. By being complacent, they end up enabling the oppressor of our people with impunity. Unless the voice of  Moral Outrage by  our religious leaders is audible enough to challenge the oppressive system by saying, “ፍትሒ ጎደለ ድኻ ተበደለ – ftHi godele dKa tebedele – the poor is suffering a lack of justice” their credibility will continue to be questioned. In response to the indifference of our moral leaders, the young adults are either engaging in dangerous behavior or joining the Pente to get spiritual solace.  It is high time for our religious leaders to stand on clear moral ground against the injustice our people is suffering.

The GoE has managed to protect its unbridled power from any moral reproach by defining the role of the religious leaders to worry about spiritual matters. Our religious leaders seem to be satisfied with the roles the GoE has defined for them. The contradiction is that the government does not stay clear from interfering in their religious affairs. For example, in the name of helping the Orthodox Church, the government feels entitled to meddle in its internal affairs. The government also intimidates or outright persecutes the faith communities (traditions) and leadership that either show a lukewarm support or challenge on social justice issues. For example, in 2003 when the Eritrean Catholic Bishops on the occasion of Eritrea’s 10th Anniversary of Independence wrote a pastoral letter entitle: “እግዚኣብሔር ነዛ ሃገር የፍቅ’ዩ -God Loves this Nation – the government took offense for the social and political issues that need to be addressed.

Generally speaking, the behavior of the religious leaders in Eritrea betrays their true mission and moral clarity which should call for justice and common good in the face moral decadence and outright oppression. The absence of moral voice has been clear all the way from the unjust persecution of the Jehovah witnesses, the killing of the disabled heroes, and the hundred disappeared young Eritrean Muslims accused of religious extremism associated with Islamic Jihad but never had their day in court to prove their innocence.

PS: This article was part of a series of articles “Legal and Moral Authority in Eritrea” which I wrote between 2002-2005 mostly in and other websites. I decided to repost the final of the series “# IV.” I made some minor revisions as its relevance is even clearer today than when I first posted it. When I wrote the articles, Abune Anthonios, Patriarch of Eritrea was not yet deposed. The regime’s anti-religious policy continues unabated, every day tightening the noose on religious tolerance and on human rights in general.


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Review overview
  • k.tewolde October 31, 2017

    Well researched teaching masterpiece Mr. Mebrahtu.I like to support your article with this quote from an American social scientist,’ “Moral hazard” signifies situation where a government is insulated and immunized from the consequences of its negligent,reckless and incompetent behavior.’ He seems as if he is looking at PFDJ square in the eye. This regime in Asmara has done everything dehumanizing imaginable to our people and is taunting us to do something about it.

  • Nahon October 31, 2017

    ” Our religious leaders seem to be satisfied with the roles the GoE has defined for them.”

    Fessahaye Mebrahtu

    The above statement may not be true.
    I think our religious leaders know very well, if they start speaking about their moral obligation to support the oppressed, government agents hiding within religious institutions, will instigate religious conflict in the country. Forto incident is a good example of what they are going to do: although there were Eritreans from every religious group involved in the coup attempt, the government blamed it on Muslim elements within the Army and ruling Party.

  • kibur October 31, 2017

    I hope that especially the Catholic bishops realized and wake up from their sleep to speak up and defend the poor from the devil and bloody government .

  • Berhe Tensea November 1, 2017

    Thank you for this excellent article,.yes the regime anti regime by Iseyas , is mainly concerned and occupied with excessive greed and power..
    People tolerated him when their daughters were taken to Sawa to face hardship and rape, and their marrying age getting compromised.
    The dictator, kept insulting despising and urinating on the heads of the Tewahdos, this time around he is met by stiff resistance, for for his childish and irresponsible actions..
    People mund that they have nothing to loss , from confronting the killer except gain and restore their long lost dignity.
    Death to Bashai Lema and his greedy and coward officials.

  • Berhe Tensea November 1, 2017

    people mund is incorrect and should be read as people must understand , , thank you

  • FM November 2, 2017

    The Catholic Bishops pastoral letter “Where is your brother?” of 2015 was bold and courageous act. The Pastoral Letter was embraced by all faith traditions in Eritrea and in the Diaspora. Though it gave some hope to the people of Eritrea under brutal yoke, without any outlet for self-expression, it will remain a bottled emotion until it violently explodes. The recent incident is a symptom of what could one day happen. The government cannot kill its way to into self-preservation. That too will come to an end, the regime would like to postpone but the end is inevitable that cannot be avoided. The course of nature cannot be avoided regardless no matter how one dreads the day of reckoning.

  • Fethen selamn November 12, 2017

    Friends, I just wish to remind you that the “Where is your brother” pastoral letter of the Cathoilic bishops isthe 10th document of its kind published by the same bishops. The previous 9 documets have been collected and published in both Tigrigna and Englush in a book entitled መገድታቱ ኣቕንዑ making God’s ways straight. Please give a look at it.

  • FM November 13, 2017

    Fethen Selamn,

    Yes, you are right but “Where is your brother?” is what gained better national and international attention. I remember when, “Egziabher neza Hager yefqra’yu” was written, I heard many Eritrean citizens in the Diaspora criticizing the Catholic Bishops for meddling in political affairs instead of focusing in spiritual matters. That is what the regime keeps repeating as a mantra but never refrains in meddling in religious affairs.