State of Denial: Religious Persecution In Eritrea – A Response to Mr. Yemane Ghebremeskel
State of Denial: Religious Persecution In Eritrea. "The following article was written by Fr. Athanasius Ghebre-Ab nearly a decade ago as a response to Mr. Yemane Gebremeskels lies that "there is no religious persecution in Eritrea."
|State of Denial: Religious Persecution In Eritrea.|
|“The following article was written by Fr. Athanasius Ghebre-Ab nearly a decade ago as a response to Mr. Yemane Gebremeskels lies that “there is no religious persecution in Eritrea.” This article was written before Fr. Athanasius’s ordination into the priesthood in the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and when we knew him as an academic and human rights advocate, which he still is.”
The freedom to exercise one’s faith freely is the most fundamental and indefeasible rights of all people. No sufficient reason can be offered for any attempt to abridge this sacred right by any authority. No temporal power has the imprimatur to grant it, nor to take it away. It is as natural a right as the right to breathe.” Abba Haileyesus Oqbai
On January 10, 2006 and immediately after, there was a disturbing news in the local media in Cincinnati, Ohio. The same news item reverberated across the country as it generated immense interest and curiosity. The headlines read, “Corpse Was Kept out of Loyalty”, “Woman Sat Dead at Home for 2.5 Years”, “Mummified Body Found Watching TV”, etc.
Here are the facts of this strange case. According to one of the news reports, police made a grim discovery after receiving report that a family was keeping the body of a deceased relative in a bedroom. The deceased, 61 year-old Johannas Pope, had been dead for two and a half years. Painter, a 42-year-old friend who lived with the deceased and cared for her before she died in August 2003, kept the 61 year-old’s dead body in an easy-chair in the upstairs room. She constantly ran a window air conditioner unit, covered heating vents in the winter and used bug spray to ward off maggots and flies as the body eventually mummified. The woman who kept the corpse, cared for it, keeping it cool and checking on it at least once a day during the nearly two and a half years.
In describing what could have propelled anyone into keeping a dead-body at home for so long, the county coroner explained that the dead body was kept “out of loyalty… This is a case of not wanting to let go.” It was the ultimate denial of the facts of death.
Apparently, the deceased had believed that she would be coming back to life, and had thus instructed her friend not to have her buried. The friend, strange as it may seem, complied. Other family members also went along with a wholesale denial of the death.
So, when relatives came to visit, they pretended the deceased to be alive. The relatives would just look up towards the top of the stairs and holler, “Hi mom, I know you’re not feeling well” and just went on their merry way. During the course of the two and a half years, Ms. Pope’s 36 year-old daughter, Lisa Pope, and a granddaughter, born in November 2003, also lived in the home. The reporter added a telling statement that, despite one’s efforts, standing outside the house one could smell death. He added eerily, but “you can get somewhat accustomed to it.”
When I came across the above story, I was struck by the similarity of how the mind of the relatives of the deceased and most members of the PFDJ (the sole ruling party in Eritrea) seem to work. I have always felt that PFDJ members cannot all be put in one undifferentiated category. Broadly speaking, though, they can be divided into two main groups and several sub-groups – depending on many factors.
As the above story illustrates, there is a category to which many of the rank-and-file belong. Most in this group are completely clueless about the sad political, economic and social state into which Eritrea has descended. They have made a deliberate choice not to know, and when they do, they choose to remain in complete denial of the incontrovertible facts. Ignorance, we have been told, is a bliss; and many in this category choose to wallow in their blissful ignorance. They feel comfortable believing in the falsities they had all along believed, and the shifting earth underneath them makes them uncomfortable. Many otherwise sincere people, therefore, sincerely hang on to what they are used to believing. Change is a difficult thing for a lot people, you know. Consequently, these folks choose to believe all the lies and deceptions they continue to be fed.
With such habits of mind, if the government of Eritrea says that the economy is doing just great, they say it must be so. Never mind the stack of indisputable evidence to the contrary. When high government officials, generals and people who had sacrificed a better part of their lives fighting for Eritrea’s independence are suddenly carted off, thrown into jail without so much as a semblance of a trial, and the government claims they had committed some unspecified treasonous crime, the response of the people in this category is, “It had to be so!” Not even a whimper. When they are told to pay money, the only question they may ask is, “How much?” When they are asked to jump, the likely response is “From which bridge?” They have parked their own brain someplace else long ago and have forgotten how to think for themselves. Instead, they are resigned to relying completely on the government of Eritrea to tell them what to think. For such a mindset, such things as truth, facts, and evidences are inconveniences that had to be side-stepped.
Then there is the second category of PFDJ members – my main topic of discussion. These are the ones who belong to the top brass in the party’s food-chain. Because their interests are so closely intertwined with the survival of whatever has remained of the PFDJ, they will do anything to try to perpetuate the system. Within the country, they have killed so many, maimed many others and have thrown innumerable innocent Eritreans into their notorious dungeons. This group, in fact, has gone so far in its cruelty and destructive ways that it has shed all pretensions to humanity and civility. As the main beneficiaries of the system, they are inclined to engage in all manners of lies and deceptions to maintain the ever-dwindling loyalty of the low-level apparatchiks in the first category. The generals, colonels and the high and most mid-level party officials belong in this category. Their one and only, their consuming preoccupation is maintenance of power at whatever cost to the rest of the nation. Some of these are the people whose post-PFDJ mailing address would be of interest to the international community to serve them arrest warrants for “crimes against humanity.
Like all operators in autocratic and tyrannical regimes, this latter group has one thing unique about it – audacity, “finger-in-your-eyes” sort of audacity, as they try to lend legitimacy to their otherwise illegitimate rule. They have what is known as chutzpah.
The humorist, educator and screenwriter, the late Leo Rosten, has enriched so many with his pearls of wisdom over the years. As if he were writing about the PFDJ, he had told us that “some things are so unexpected that no one is prepared for them.” “Truth is stranger than fiction: fiction has to make sense” etc. It was the same Leo Rosten who gave us the truly classic definition for this old Yiddish word. “Chutzpah,” he said, “is that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” PFDJ party bosses and their defenders whose task has been trying to defend the indefensible, people like Mr. Yemane Ghebremeskel, Mr. Ali Abdu et al, belong to this category. Their one defining characteristic is this: they are the very personification of chutzpah. Keep this in mind as you read on.
In early July 2006, Mr. Yemane Ghebremeskel, who carries ever-changing sundry titles – “Director of the Office of the President”, “Presidential Advisor” and “Presidential Spokesperson” participated in what was dubbed an “interview”. In order to give credence to his soliloquy, Mr. Steffano Pettini, a long-time friend of the PFDJ from Italy, was called in to be used as a prop, holding up the microphone. As one of the personages in the inner circle of the tyrannical regime in Asmara, Mr. Yemene’s unenviable task was to attempt to whitewash the regime’s well-documented crimes – to deny everything, and do so with chutzpah.
Leaving aside the long list of equally unbelievable polemical sophistry, denials and distortions by the “interviewee” on well-established facts, the one issue I would like to speak to here is his response to the following question – quoted verbatim: “Eritrea is also accused to be repressive towards the freedom of faith and has been responsible for mass arrests of believers who only ask to pray in a free way. What is the response of the Government in the case?” A reminder: there were no follow-up questions by Mr. Pettini.
Mr. Yemane’s Answer: “The government cannot interfere in people’s religious belie[fs]ves.”
The Facts: Invariably, all emissaries of the PFDJ government, including Mr. Girma Asmerom, the regime’s former Ambassador to the United States, are keen on quoting the relevant article from the Eritrean Constitution that was ratified in 1997 but never saw the light of day. The lies, deceptions and denials aside, Mr. Yemane very well knows; the international community knows; we all know that Eritrea has had NO constitution since independence. Period!
In 2004, in responding to Mr. Girma Asmerom’s uncannily similar and scripted statement of denial concerning the prevalence of widespread religious persecution by the Eritrean authorities, the ferociously blunt pen of my good friend, Abba Haileyesus had stated: “A government cannot cite articles of a non-existent…constitution to attempt to convince people that there is freedom of worship in the country. Therefore, one can only shake one’s head at the brazen press release that came out of the Eritrean Embassy in Washington on January 6, 2004 in response to the most recent scathing criticism by the US State Department of religious persecution in Eritrea.” The same thing can be said of Mr. Yemane’s assertion.
At the very core of Eritrea’s intractable political, economic and social problems is, in fact, the lack of rule of law in the country. There is no law for anyone to appeal to. There is no law to assure citizens due process. Arbitrary arrests on a massive scale, seizure of property, disappearance of citizens after being taken out under the cover of night, and many more ills of the society are the direct result of the non-existence of a constitution. And Mr. Yemane has the temerity to once again unearth the constitution that has been gathering dust in the President’s office just to be able to quote from it. Is he deluding himself? Does he really think there is anyone else left anywhere to believe that Eritrea has a constitution?
Mr. Yemane’s Answer: “the country is a secular State.”
The Facts: I am not sure Mr. Yemane fully understands the historic and philosophical underpinnings of what is meant by the term secularism. If what he means by secularism is the generally accepted view that state institutions “should exist separately from religion”; that freedom of worship is a sacred right of citizens that no state can or should interfere with or abridge; that there should be an impregnable fire-wall separating religion and state, then Mr. Yemane must be talking about a different planet, and not the Eritrea of PFDJ we all know.
To expose Mr. Yemane’s bold-face lies, it is now possible to give the reader the identity of most of the over 2000 people who are today languishing in Eritrea’s prisons for no other offence but exercising their faith. Leaving that for another time, the following is just a few of the large amount of evidence that point to the non-secular and extremely anti-religious character of the Eritrean government:
1. One of The first acts of the Eritrean government following independence was the establishment of a government agency – the Department of Religious Affairs. This agency is nothing more than another layer of a security apparatus through which the government has continued to exercise its iron-grip control over all the faith communities in Eritrea. Those who preside over this agency have always been semi-literate enforcers whose only credential is loyalty to the ruling party.
2. One of Mr. Isaias Afewerki’s earliest trips abroad was to Egypt. The purpose was to meet with Pope Shenouda, the prelate of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, to negotiate on the behest of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and to ask for assistance in the establishment of an autocephalous (independent) Eritrean Orthodox Church. The president was the one who personally saw to the signing of the famous 1994 protocol between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Church.
3. The Eritrean Orthodox Church has been under the direct control of the Eritrean government from the outset as evidenced by the fact that the government has been the source of the Church’s operating budget since the country’s independence. It is worth noting here that no other religion or denomination even among the so-called “recognized faiths” enjoys a similar “privilege”. The defense of the President for why this was necessary is instructive indeed.
4. The large-scale religious persecution that the government has unleashed in the country, particularly since 2002, is so well documented that there is no need to discuss it here.
5. The illegal unseating and detention of H.H. Abune Antonios, the legitimate Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and the subsequent, illegal elevation of a pretentious bishop named Abba Dioscoros to the patriarchate was the handiwork of the PFDJ regime. That the government, in so doing, has rendered the Eritrean Orthodox Church schismatic in the eyes of its faithful and out of fellowship from the communion of the Oriental Orthodox Churches is also well documented. Also, the Eritrean government is responsible for, in effect, declaring the above protocol null and void.
6. The imprisonment without trial and disappearance of some of the most prominent priests of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (The Rev. Dr. Fitsum Ghebrenegus, The Rev. Dr. Tecleab Mengisteab, The Rev. Ghebremedhin Ghebregiorgis, meri-geta Yitbarek Berhe – a leading Doctor of the Church) as well as leaders of the so called “banned” churches is further proof that the government has been an incorrigible enemy of religion from the get go. The term secularism does not even begin to describe the regime.
7. The character-assassination and smear campaigns against individual religious leaders in the United States are another example. In this connection, one can point to the unrelenting campaign of the Eritrean consulates and PFDJ chapters throughout the United States against Fr. Ghebremikael Yohannes and other clergy for their principled stand in defense of their church. The documents that the Embassy of Eritrea in Washington D.C. discreetly distributed to some of the chapters of the PFDJ along with talking-points and instructions on how to defame the name of this cleric and other persons will be made available in due course.
8. Besides the various false rumors and innuendos the government engaged in spreading to try to discredit priests and other individuals, a signal trademark of all communist regimes, one can point to the two infamous letters, dated August 9 and 25, 2005. These letters were sent to all PFDJ chapters in North America, instructing those members of the PFDJ who also happened to be followers of the Orthodox church to, in effect, join and take over all local churches for use as a political platform. How certain local PFDJ members translated this instruction into action and ended up destroying local congregations will be a subject of a future article.
Again, in the words of Abba Haileyesus, the claims of the Government of Eritrea to secularism “can only be termed a grotesque contradiction in terms. It is irrational, and the height of absurdity.”
Mr. Yemane’s Answer: “we had problems with a handful of “new faiths. Other small groups have also emerged in the past seven, eight years; …fringe groups that are alien to the society.
The Facts: Mr. Yemane, of course, conveniently mentions only one sect in this context, namely, the small community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What other groups could he be referring to? Could he be talking about the campaigns which the government unleashed against Eritrean Muslims in the early days of independence under the guise of “fighting terrorism”? Could Mr. Yemane be talking about the Roman Catholic Church in Eritrea the publication of which the government had closed down in the mid-1990s? If he was talking about Kale Hiwet Church (formerly Sudan Interior Mission – with Baptist affiliation), I am sure he knows that this church predates even Emperor Haile Selassie. Faith Mission (a Methodist denomination) has been in existence in Eritrea since the time of the British Administration.
Coincidentally, the latter two were very well known for their humanitarian work – running schools, orphanages and clinics throughout the width and breadth of Eritrea for over two generations. In fact, many of the children who were raised as orphans by them are today well represented in the professions, including in many of the prestigious universities in the West, and as community leaders everywhere. Mr. Yemane would also be surprised to know the large number of people who grew up in these churches and orphanages and are today serving within the government of Eritrea. No need to mention names for now. If what Mr. Yemane has in mind is the Adventist Church, I think he needs to refresh himself with the history of their coming to Ethiopia, and later on to Eritrea, under the invitation of none other than Emperor Haile Selassie. The founding of the renowned Zewditu Hospital and many other educational institutions in Ethiopia are their signature accomplishments. Could Mr. Yemane and the government for which he is a spokesperson be so far behind in their thinking from or far more religious than the old Emperor himself? And the Full Gospel Church, another target of the fury of the government, did not come to Eritrea in just the “last seven or eight years.” Its existence dates back to the 1960s.
Ironically, the denominations that are today criminalized and whose adherents are hunted down and relentlessly persecuted by the government of Eritrea had enjoyed the protection of the law when Eritrea was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie. Even More paradoxical, under the officially atheistic regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, these churches might have suffered a generalized repression, but were never criminalized.
Mr. Yemane’s Answer: These Churches “went against the national fabric: to oppose the national service”
The Facts: Let me start off with what is normally reserved for a concluding remark. No citizen ought to recognize a government whose legitimacy to power emanates from the barrel of the gun and can only rule with absolute terror, as is the case with the government of Eritrea. Of all the malicious and gratuitous slanders the government of Eritrea levels against all religions across all confessional lines, I wish this one was true. But it is not.
Since Mr. Yemane singles out the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the hope that his readers would associate all the other “banned” churches with the beliefs and practices of this sect, let me clarify certain points. It is true that a core tenet of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is non-involvement in politics of any kind in any country. It is equally true that, based on the dictates of their faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses had refused to participate in the 1993 Referendum or in what the government euphemistically continues to call “national service”. The purpose here is not to defend the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, I go so far as agreeing with Mr. Yemane that the teachings of this particular sect are totally alien to the historic Christian faith. Be that as it may, by definition, religious freedom involves the right of people to adopt even the least palatable and most disagreeable notions. And whenever a government takes on the responsibility of theological arbitration for which it has no qualification, it treads on the most dangerous grounds. The government of Eritrea’s foolhardy entanglement with religion in general is, therefore, a perfect case study in what the poet T. S. Eliot describes: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
But Jehovah’s Witnesses are not peculiar to Eritrea. They are found in almost every country. The question then is, “How have other countries dealt with them when they refuse to vote, salute the flag, and refuse to participate in the political life of the nations of which they are citizens – including, for argument sake, Ethiopia?” One fact is clear. No other country resorts to the draconian and inhumane measures for which the Government of Eritrea is so well known.
This is how countries that are governed by laws deal with people who are referred to as conscientious objectors, i.e., citizens who, for religious or other reasons, decline to join compulsory military services. They allow them to substitute with equivalent services that are of non-military nature. Such a provision is often enshrined in the statutes of countries where the law, not an individuals, is supreme. But, of course, this is too simple and unacceptably humane for the leaders of Eritrea whose concept of statesmanship is the habit of using a sledge hammer where a mere scalpel might suffice.
To put the above in some historical perspective, Hitler’s Germany was one other country that was known for revoking citizenship rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses and hauling them off to the gas chambers of the concentration camps for their refusal to take part in Nazi Germany’s politics. They had refused to raise their arms in the trademark salute of the Nazis, join party organizations at all levels and hang in their homes Nazi flags. In this, the PFDJ is in good company. Birds of the same feather flock together.
Mr. Yemane would also be surprised to know, based on the same belief for which the government of Eritrea has demonized them, Jehovah’s Witnesses of both Ethiopia and Eritrea were the only faith community that had defiantly refused to accede to the obligatory anti-Eritrean slogans during Eritrea’s armed struggle for independence. For this “crime” they were similarly persecuted by the Marxist regime of Mengistu Hailemariam.
As for their refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum, one of the beauties of democracy is to exercise, for whatever reason, one’s right not to vote. The Eritrean government would be the odd exception in criminalizing the right of citizens to such an indispensable right. As Mark Twain has aptly said of his beloved freedom in America, “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.” Mark Twain was never sent to jail for his “prudence never to practice” his rights not to vote.
What about the other denominations that have been criminalized in Eritrea (Kale Hiewt, Faith Missions, the Adventist Church, Full Gospel Church, the Presbyterian Church, etc.)? Did they in any way, shape or form refuse participation in the “national service”? Did they explicitly or even implicitly refuse to participate in the 1993 referendum? The answer to both questions is: “ABSOLUTELY NOT!” The views and beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and these other churches, which Mr. Yemane and the government have tried to paint with one broad brush, are diametrically opposed. They are as different as day from night. The young people of these churches joined Eritrea’s national service with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the nation. A large number of them died for their country in the same manner – heroically. In fact, their adherents joined the armed struggle for Eritrea’s independence in no less measure than people of any other religious denominations.
The main contention with many of the young men and women from these churches arose when the government began confiscating the Bibles they took with them to Sawa and to the frontlines, and when the government criminalized the reading of the Bible by soldiers during their down time. It is a well-documented fact today that Bibles were often collected from young soldiers and set ablaze by the military establishment as part of a well-orchestrated anti-religious policy.
The dedication and love of the adherents of the aforementioned churches for their country can best be illustrated by the sad but true story I had heard of the late Rev. Solomon Tesfamichael who had served as President of Faith Mission before his tragic death in 2003. His two young sons and a daughter were in the armed forces during Ethiopia’s third invasion of Eritrea in 2002. It so happened that one of his sons was home on leave when fighting broke out again. Understandably, the young man wanted to delay returning to his unit. But his father took the most painful decision any parent could make. The words of Rev. Solomon to his son, as I was told later, will forever remain etched in my memory as a tribute to his family’s sacrifice. He said to his son, “My dear son, as your father I would like nothing more than for you to remain here. But if you stay here in Asmara, whose sons and daughters can the country count on to defend it? Please, far be it from you. You must go.” The son respectfully listened to his father and immediately went back to his unit in the frontlines and never made it back alive.
Now, Mr. Yemane, tell the widow of this highly respected religious leader that her son “went against the national fabric: to oppose the national service.” For you to deny the immense sacrifices of the young men and women of these churches for the country they love so much is frankly a new low even for your government that seems to have no bottom.
And while we are at it, allow me to remind you what indeed is against the national fabric, Mr Yemane. It is the denial of the most basic rights by the government of Eritrea to its citizens – the right to freely think, freely express oneself, freely worship, freely organize, and freely elect a government of their choice. What is against the national fabric is the mass imprisonment, disappearance and torture of citizens. What is against the national fabric is the betrayal of the trust of the people in transforming what the Eritrean people thought was a genuine “national service” into a horrid, involuntary, unremunerated and interminable servitude and exploitation. What is against the national fabric is the government’s extortion of an entire nation on an unprecedented scale through all sorts of confiscatory taxations, schemes, and innumerable demands for “contributions.” It is the denial of Eritrea’s young men and women from falling in love, getting married and assuring the nation a viable future generation that is against the national fabric.
Now that the government, through its official spokesperson, has once again reiterated the fact that the Eritrean people will, on pain of harsh imprisonment, be told what to believe, what religion to follow, how to worship, etc., people across all confessional lines will have to stand up and say in unison: “Enough is Enough!” No one should have the illusion that the Eritrean government is a friend of certain religions and an enemy of only certain others, as some have often erroneously claimed. If one follows how this nihilistic regime has since its founding generally dealt with religion, it is easy to see that it has consistently remained as anti-Islam, anti-Orthodox Church and anti-Roman Catholic Church as it has been against the evangelical churches, as well as other sects. This unsavory history, too, will be dealt with in a future article.
There are already many people and organizations who have taken a bold stand against the cancerous and destructive intrusions of Mr. Yemane’s government into the religious life of the nation. The life and work of His Holiness Patriarch Antonios is a perfect example of an individual who stood eye-ball to eye-ball against the enemies of his church. He was willing to pay whatever personal sacrifices to himself. The Eritrean people are deeply indebted to his moral and spiritual courage and leadership. And posterity will remember his name as a true hero. Release Eritrea, an organization that works out of England, is another example. For the past few years it has publicized the relentless religious persecution Eritreans have endured under the PFDJ regime. The Nehemiah Project out of the United States has also undertaken laudable efforts to address the immense suffering of Eritrean believers. These efforts have to be supported. But much more has to be done.
The time for silence is long gone. It is high time that others also join forces to call attention to the unimaginable religious persecution in Eritrea. Here are a couple of ways. Speaking of followers of the Christian faith, we are called, first and foremost, to continue praying for Eritrea – even for the enemies of the church, those who have declared the faith religio illicita (illicit religion).
The temptation to hate the perpetrators of persecution is always the greater enemy that one must watch against. Throughout the history of the church, the triumphant response of victims of persecutions has always been to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:45) even as one resists evil. I don’t pretend for one minute that this is easy, but there is no other choice. Moreover, we are enjoined to “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless and plead the cause of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). This is an integral part of the Christian doctrine. Having done that, we rest on the promises of God who “will make the justice of your cause shine like the noonday sun” (Psalms 76:6)
Going a step further, we have to recognize that religious freedom is only part of a larger issue of freedom in Eritrea. As such, the struggle of the Eritrean people for democracy, justice and rule of law is also the struggle of people of faith. The right to full religious freedom can only be attained in the context of the larger demand of the Eritrean people for liberty.
Habtu Ghebre-Ab, Ph.D