CSW is deeply concerned by the seizure of health facilities belonging to the Catholic Church and the arrests of Orthodox priests in Eritrea, which occurred within a 24 hour period from 12-13 June and which target faith communities that are supposedly permitted to operate in the country.
On 12 June, 21 health facilities owned by the Catholic Church were seized and closed in line with a government directive that was communicated verbally and enforced by police, soldiers and government doctors. The seizures took place just over six weeks after Eritrea’s four Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter on 29 April calling for “resolute and historical change” in the country through the setting up of a comprehensive truth and reconciliation plan.
In a letter dated 13 June and addressed to Eritrea’s Minister of Health, Amna Nurhussein, the four bishops described the confiscation of the Church’s properties as a potential violation of the Church’s religious rights. They pointed out that several facilities were situated inside monasteries, and stated that in some instances employees were ordered by security personnel to evict patients who were receiving medical treatment, and to close the buildings, thereby interfering with religious activities. The bishops stressed that the buildings had not been handed over willingly, and that the closures jeopardise the work of the Church, which has been offering medical services since 1995. They also declared themselves open to further dialogue on the matter, as long as it is pursued in a respectful and lawful manner.
On 16 June the Catholic Bishop of Segeneyti , Father Fikremariam Hagos addressed the issue in his sermon, expressing distress at the lack of due process surrounding the seizures and questioning the use of armed officers to enforce the verbal directive.
The next day, on 13 June five Orthodox priests from the Debre-Bizen Monastery in the country’s Northern Red Sea Region were arrested. Abba (Father) Kebreab Tekie, Abba Markos Ghebrekidan, Abba Ghebretensae Teweldemedhin, Abba Kidanemaryam Tekeste and Abba Ghebretensai Zemichael were detained, reportedly for supporting the legitimate patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, and protesting government interference in Church affairs.
Contrary to an initial claim that the priests were detained for purchasing flour on the black market, CSW’s sources assert the arrests were linked to events that followed the death of an Orthodox bishop on 17 May. Abune Atnatewos had been the bishop of the Dioceses of Europe, Gash Barka, and Northern and Southern Red Sea region since 2005, and was also a member of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC). The bishop wanted to be buried in the Monastery, but his request was refused due to his acquiescence in the removal of the legitimate EOC patriarch, Abune Antonios in 2006, in violation of canon law. Patriarch Antonios, who has been under house arrest since that time, had excommunicated Bishop Atnatewos along with other clergy.
In May 2002, the government effectively outlawed all practices not affiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox Christian denominations and Sunni Islam, and began a campaign of arrests targeting unsanctioned denominations that continues to date, and that also affects the officially sanctioned religious communities. In a June 2016 report, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea (COIE) found “reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity have been committed by state officials in a “widespread and systematic manner” since 1991, including the crime of persecution against religious groups.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “It is deeply concerning that the seizure of Catholic-owned health care institutions and the arrests of Orthodox priests occurred within a 24 hour period. The targeting of faith communities that are supposed to enjoy government sanction illustrates once again the Eritrean regime’s abiding unwillingness to respect and fulfil the right to freedom of religion or belief. It is clear that instead of viewing its seat on the Human Rights Council (HRC) as an opportunity to improve its dire human rights record by engaging with Council mechanisms, the regime continues to violate the rights of its citizens comprehensively. We reiterate our call for Member States to facilitate the renewal of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate in order to ensure continued human rights monitoring, to assist in advancing accountability for crimes identified in the Commission of Inquiry’s report, and to enable the implementation of time-bound, verifiable benchmarks for human rights improvements.”