ERITREA: Protest vigil marks twenty years of imprisonment

Vigil participantsChurch in Chains together with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release Eritrea and Human Rights Concern Eritrea held a Prayer and Protest Vigil outside the Eritrean Embassy in London on 30 May to mark the 20th anniversary of the imprisonment of Eritrean Christians, which began when two Eritrean pastors, Rev Haile Naizghe and Dr Kiflu Gebremeskel, were arrested in May 2004.

The protest vigil was the first to be held in person outside the embassy since May 2019, having previously taken place every year since 2003 to mark the anniversary of the Eritrean government’s banning in May 2002 of all churches except the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.

David TurnerDavid Turner (Church in Chains) welcomed protesters, saying that their participation in the vigil had five main aims: “We have come here today to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering in Eritrea, especially those who’ve been imprisoned indefinitely and incommunicado for the past twenty years; to proclaim truth about the long-running denial of freedom in Eritrea; to protest for justice and call for the release of those unjustly imprisoned; to pray to the King above all Kings and to praise our great God.”

Berhane AsmelashDr Berhane Asmelash (Release Eritrea), a former prisoner in Eritrea and a personal friend to many of the pastors currently imprisoned, spoke about their continued detention and also about the church in the country: “Twenty years is too many. Now the situation in Eritrea is getting worse. In the last month, hundreds of Christians were arrested. They collected them from their houses during the night, some of them at 3am, and they sent them to several prisons. All of these people have not committed any crimes, but the Eritrean government says: ‘So what? I can do whatever I want.’ No, they cannot do whatever they want because the final word will come from the Lord. We trust and we know change is coming shortly.”

Elsa Chyrum (Human Rights Concern-Eritrea) spoke about the plight of Eritrean refugees, pointing out that they are no longer safe in Tigray, Sudan, South Sudan or even further afield in Egypt and Israel: “Thousands of Eritreans continue fleeing their country every year – more than from any other African country – fleeing from imprisonment without trial, torture, persecution of beliefs, and, above all, lifetime National Service for every young man or woman over 18 years of age, condemned to endless years in the armed forces or slave labour in government-owned factories, farms, construction sites, and mines. To be a refugee from Eritrea is to be one of the most endangered people seeking protection worldwide.”

Dr Khataza Gondwe (Christian Solidarity Worldwide) spoke about the continuing injustices perpetrated by the Eritrean government: “The government is one of the most repressive in Africa. Enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and indefinite and/or incommunicado detention without trial or legitimate charge are rife, and can occur for the most minor reasons. Fundamental rights and freedoms are non-existent; there is no opposition, no independent press, the judiciary is compromised, the national assembly has not met in decades, democratic elections are long overdue and a commendable and ratified constitution with an extensive bill of rights remains unimplemented.”

Each section of the vigil was followed by prayer and the participants also sang two praise songs: “How Great Thou Art” and “How Great Is Our God”.

Representatives from four organisations outside EmbassyThe vigil concluded with an attempt by representatives from CSW, Church In Chains, Human Rights Concern-Eritrea and Release Eritrea to deliver a letter to the Eritrean Ambassador to the UK and Ireland, His Excellency Estifanos Habtemariam Ghebreyesus. The letter highlighted the anniversary of the Eritrean government’s 2002 church ban and called for this decision to be reversed and for full religious freedom to be granted in the country. The letter ended by calling for the unconditional release of every prisoner of conscience in the country.

However, as the embassy refused to open the door to receive the letter directly, it was posted through the letter box.

The vigil followed a day of prayer and fasting held earlier in the month.

(Church in Chains, Christian Solidarity Worldwide)

Photo Credits: Church in Chains, Christian Solidarity Worldwide