A Temple in Chains

Radio Erena: 25 November 2019

Sudan News Agency (SUNA) reported on 20 November 2019 that the Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments Nasser-Eddin Mufrih met in his office with the Eritrean Ambassador Ibrahim Idris. The two officials discussed bilateral relations; the Minister highlighted the need for a protocol on religious´ affairs cooperation between the two neighboring countries. On his part, the Ambassador emphasized the importance of cooperation between Eritrea and Sudan.

At a glance, and from a diplomatic viewpoint, the encounter is no more than a routine meeting between a minister and an accredited diplomat. Such meetings take place almost in all world capitals and on a daily basis. What draws attention to this particular meeting is the absurdity engulfing Eritrea´s claim that it is a secular state which does not interfere in religious affairs either in a positive or negative manner as these matters fall within the sphere of the individuals, not the state.

The records show otherwise. In summer, 1993 the security forces rounded up the Jehovah’s Witnesses, confiscated their property and denied them all citizens’ rights. A year later, the government turned against the Muslims. More than a hundred clerics, imams, and Arabic language teachers were arrested from different cities and towns around Eritrea. The arrested persons, whose whereabouts are not yet known, were prominent social figures in the local communities. They have been teachers in the Islamic Religious Institutes or the locally known (Mahad Dini).
These institutes are the main provider of Islamic religious education; the oldest among them is the one built in Massawa, in 1940. These institutes have survived the infamous regimes of emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam.

At present-day Eritrea, two monumental figures stand as symbols of religious defiance against tyranny. Haj Musa Mohamad Nur breathed his last in police custody in March 2018. An old man with the apparently a fragile build but endowed with an unwavering fortitude, Haj Musa Mohamad was the chairman of the Parents´ Board of Addiya Islamic School in Asmara. At the beginning of the academic year, 2017, the Board received a letter from the Ministry of Education notifying that the school will be placed under the Ministry´s direct supervision and control, which inevitably means the suspension of the religious curriculum in the school. Consequently, Haj Musa gathered the school teachers, the students, and the parents and gave a fiery speech in which he said the school will maintain its educational policy whatever the cost may be. The government´s response was outrageous; it arrested the Board members, the teachers, and some students. The infamous act generated an outcry as the students embarked on the first demonstration in the capital after its independence in 1991. After five dreadful months in detention, Haj Musa perished in custody like his brother the late Taha Mohamed Nur, a co-founder of the Eritrean Liberation Front E.L.F; and of the few Eritreans who obtained their university degree from a western university. In January 2019, another prominent figure of the Addiya Board passed away in police custody: Haj Ibrahim Younus, the arms comrade of Haj Musa Mohamad Nur.

The other pillar of religious resistance is Abune Antonios, an old sage of prominence and indefatigable resolve. The ninety-two old patriarch stands as a model of struggle from his forced house arrest. Abune Antonios the legitimate Patriarch of the Tewahdo Orthodox Church, resisted the blatant and furtive interference of the security forces in the affairs of his church. Once more, the government´s response was wrathful as it decided to depose him and assign a new bendable pro-government patriarch. Despite his old age and failing health, he still stands as a beacon of hope for his followers.

The independent Tewahdo Church in the United States organized a widespread demonstration in front of the United Nations Head Quarter on the 74th anniversary of the establishment of the organization calling for the immediate release of the Patriarch and all the prisoners of conscience. The pressure on the government is steadily mounting as the world discovers the scope of violations. The Department of State in its annual report on religious freedoms worldwide in December 2018, expressed concern about the situation of religious freedoms in Eritrea. The report listed the flagrant violation of religious freedoms in the country, ranking Eritrea among the worst countries in violation of religious freedoms.
Earlier, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea concluded that there are crimes that amount to a crime against humanity committed by the Eritrean security forces. The Pentecostals have disclosed atrocious violations. Some of them spent more than twelve months in shipment containers, others passed away under agonizing torture. The Commission´s report which was released in June 2016 put the number of the Eritrean refugees who arrived in Europe at 47 thousand; hundreds of them escaped religious persecution. The bleeding of the mosques and the churches still continue profusely. Bold actions, not only prayers will end the atrocities in Eritrea.

By Fathi Osman

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