A call to release Eritrean religious prisoners

Hopes ran high when Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Instead, it has become not only one of the poorest countries on Earth

By ATHANASIUS GHEBRE-AB,
August 29, 2019 23:33
4 minute read.
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A man walks in front of a church in Eritrea. (photo credit: REUTERS)

He is known by his people as His Holiness Abune Antonios. The 94-year-old prelate is the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and has been imprisoned by Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki for the past 13 years. Last month in the Oval Office, US President Donald Trump was told of his suffering as part of a conference on religious persecution. Here is the story of his people’s enslavement, brutal suffering and fear, fully sanctioned by the international community.

Hopes ran high when Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Instead, Eritrea has become not only one of the poorest countries on Earth, but labeled the “North Korea of Africa,” one of the most hostile and repressive regimes toward all religions.

Despite the enslavement by the military of about one in every 15 citizens with indefinite military service – which the UN described as “crimes against humanity” – last year the United Nations Security Council unbelievably lifted biting sanctions against Eritrea and its leadership. This was despite there being no improvement in Eritrea’s human rights record and without it releasing Antonios and thousands of religious prisoners. Christian leaders are imprisoned and tortured in Eritrea, and yet the Trump administration did not use its veto in the UN Security Council to pressure for their release. This can be corrected by the president immediately through an executive order freezing the assets of President Afwerki and his ruthless generals until these faith leaders and people of faith across the entire spectrum are freed.

The premature lifting of the UN sanctions last year was prompted by misplaced optimism after Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement after 20 years of bloody war and hostilities. The state of war with Ethiopia was the pretext for lifetime forced conscription of its citizens. The treaty has been signed now for over a year, yet conscription has not been scaled back to its original 18-month limitation. Eritrea’s human rights record is actually deteriorating while its international standing, and the personal fortunes of its leader and his generals, are improving.

Indeed, the government has taken over the Eritrean Orthodox Church and is now run by dictates of the country’s national security agency and the Department of Religious Affairs, an arm of the government. Many of the leading lights of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and any clergy deemed to sympathize with the imprisoned patriarch have been languishing in prison, some since 2014.
Recently, with a tidal wave of support to the imprisoned patriarch, priests, monks and deacons, including five monks from the historic monastery of Debre Bizen, have been rounded up and imprisoned.

Earlier this summer, the military closed down 22 Roman Catholic medical centers. It had already closed down the only Catholic seminary, and is gunning next for the schools and nurseries, many in the least developed regions of the country. Indeed, a staggering two-thirds of the people live below the poverty line, largely because of government repression, incompetence, under-investment in the agricultural sector, enslavement for state purposes of working-age men and women, and a culture of fear that stymies any entrepreneurship.

 And due to the complicity of the international community in allowing the widespread arrests, religious repression and state-sponsored slavery, Western nations have already absorbed hundreds of thousands of Eritrean asylum-seekers, and there will be many more. President Trump can only turn off the refugee tap from Eritrea to the United States and our Western allies by fixing the piping at the source, which can be achieved by organizing with our allies the freezing of the assets of Eritrea’s leaders and demanding the release of the religious leaders.

Meanwhile, the dictator’s personal fortunes have improved, with his assets unfrozen by the UN and now greater international investment in the country’s mining sector, which benefits from state-sponsored slave labor.

The prime minister of Ethiopia has released thousands of political prisoners and journalists in the past year, and Eritrea should follow with a grand gesture by September 12, the Geez New Year.

Otherwise, the US should lead the international community on freezing the assets of President Afwerki and his generals until the influential patriarch, His Holiness Abune Antonios, and the other religious and political prisoners, are released; state-sponsored slavery eliminated; and the military conscription reduced to back to its original 18 months. Let’s bring Patriarch Antonios to the Oval Office by the Geez New Year for a photo with President Trump, rather than just sympathetically hear his case and have it disappear, like the tens of thousands of prisoners in the country’s jails. And then let’s welcome him to the Holy Land on pilgrimage.

Fr. Athanasius Ghebre-Ab, PhD, is professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and a parish priest in the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Yosef I. Abramowitz is a green-energy impact investor in Africa and can be followed @Kaptainsunshine.


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