Update December 2022: Bishop Fikremariam Hagos was freed after 75 days in prison. A video emerged on 28 December showing him being greeted in the cathedral in Asmara, following reported diplomatic efforts made by the Vatican to secure his release. The authorities also released Father Mihretab Stefanos, who had been detained with the bishop in Adi Abeto prison. Abba Abraham Habtom Gebremariam was released on 23 November.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) are calling for the release of four clergymen detained arbitrarily by the Eritrean authorities in separate incidents (three in October 2022 and one in October 2021) despite belonging to permitted denominations.
On 15 October Abune Fikremariam Hagos (52, pictured), bishop of the Catholic Eparchy of Segheneity in southern Eritrea, was arrested at Asmara International Airport as he returned from a visit to Europe and was taken to an unknown location.
On 12 October Abba Abraham Habtom Gebremariam, deputy parish priest in charge of students at the Capuchin Society in Teseney town was detained and held at the 2nd Police Station in the capital, Asmara, before being transferred next day to Adi Abeito prison, north of Asmara.
On 11 October, security agents detained Father Mihretab Stefanos, parish priest of St Michael’s Church in Segheneity. His whereabouts are unconfirmed, although there is speculation that he and Abune (Bishop) Fikremariam are also being held in Adi Abeito prison.
The Eritrean government did not give a reason for the arrests, but CSW and HRCE stated that “along with Eritrea’s three other Catholic Bishops, Abune Hagos has often expressed concern for the wellbeing of the Eritrean people”.
Abune Hagos had spoken out from the pulpit about the government seizing and closing 22 Catholic health facilities on 12 June 2019, and more recently he and his fellow bishops reportedly discouraged congregants from buying goods that had been looted from Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
In a Pastoral Letter dated 29 April 2019, following Eritrea’s rapprochement with Ethiopia in 2018, the four bishops called for “resolute and historical change” through the setting up of a comprehensive truth and reconciliation plan.
In a 2014 Pastoral Letter, the bishops addressed the refugee exodus generated by Eritrea’s human rights crisis and stated: “The true enemy of peace is injustice. Respect for persons, their dignity and their rights, is the cornerstone of peace.”
Orthodox cleric arrested
CSW and HRCE have also recently learned of the detention in 2021 of Father Kiros Tsegay, an American citizen and founder of the Debre Abune Aregawi-Orlando Orthodox Church in Florida, where he had served for over 25 years.
Father Tsegay’s mother died in November 2020 and he travelled to Eritrea in October 2021 to organise a memorial service marking the first anniversary of her death, which was scheduled to take place in November 2021. Eritrean security agents arrested him on or around 5 October 2021 and he is being held in an unknown location.
Commenting on the most recent arrests, Elizabeth Chyrum, Director of HRCE, said: “The arbitrary arrests of the Catholic clergy are occurring against the backdrop of massive and punitive door-to-door round ups of Eritrean citizens of all ages, who are being sent to fight in Tigray.”
Khataza Gondwe, CSW’s Joint Head of Advocacy and Team Leader for Africa and the Middle East commented: “The arbitrary detention of clergy from denominations which are ostensibly permitted to function illustrates that in reality, the right to freedom of religion or belief is being restricted comprehensively in Eritrea, along with every other human right. We call on the Eritrean regime to release the four clergymen, along with every other prisoner of conscience it has detained arbitrarily. We also call for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia, and for the regime to focus instead on respecting and protecting the rights of Eritrean citizens, and ensuring they finally enjoy the dividends of independence, for which so much was sacrificed by so many.”
On 2 November a ceasefire was agreed by the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front after a week of peace talks in the South African capital, Pretoria, which it is hoped will bring peace to Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where Eritrean troops have been fighting in support of the Ethiopian military.
In May 2002 the Eritrean government banned all religious groups except the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches and Sunni Islam. Christians from banned denominations began to be arrested, but members of the permitted denominations also experience persecution, especially those involved in a renewal movement within the Eritrean Orthodox church or who speak out against the government.
Most famously, Patriarch Antonios (pictured) of the Eritrean Orthodox Church was deposed in 2006 for resisting government interference in church affairs. He died in February 2022 having spent the intervening years under house arrest.
Read more about the situation facing Christians in Eritrea in Church in Chains’ Eritrea Country Profile.
(Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Concern Eritrea, The Tablet)
Image: Asenna TV