Representatives of churches and non-governmental organisations from the UK and Ireland joined members of the Eritrean diaspora in a Protest Vigil outside the Eritrean embassy in London on 18 May, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the imposition of severe restrictions on Eritrea’s Christian community and the closure of churches affiliated to targeted denominations.
The vigil was moderated by David Turner, Coordinator of Church in Chains, who travels from Ireland annually to attend the event in solidarity with prisoners detained indefinitely in Eritrea.
Father Shenouda of the Eritrean Orthodox Church requested prayers for the wellbeing of Abune Antonios, the legitimate Eritrean patriarch who was removed from office illegally following a series of machinations and has been incommunicado under house arrest since 2007. According to a recent report published by the Eritrean website Assena, the Patriarch fell gravely ill after being injected with a substance that is thought to have been poisonous.
In a statement addressing the plight of Eritrean refugees Mrs Elizabeth Chyrum of Human Rights Concern-Eritrea, said: "60,000 Eritreans flee their country every year – more than from any other African country - and yet the world’s media seems unaware of the causes and continues to call them "migrants", shutting its eyes to imprisonment without trial, torture, persecution of believers, 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".
Dr Berhane Asmelash, Director of Release Eritrea, spoke on the Eritrean government: "Our government started arresting Jehovah Witnesses. At that time, we said nothing because we felt they deserved to be persecuted. Then they started persecute the handicapped, the ex-fighter handicapped. Some of them were shot. At that time we said nothing because we weren’t one of them… I was in Eritrea when our government started to arrest journalists and some political prisoners and we said nothing because we thought they were all the same. Then, in 2002, they started to shut churches and arrest Christians and we thought our government was going to release them. But after 15 years things are getting worse."
Dr Khataza Gondwe, CSW’s Team Leader for Africa and Middle East (AME), read the names of 28 Christians who are confirmed to have died at the hands of the regime since 2005, either in prison or soon after incarceration.
In May 2002, the government closed down every church except for those belonging to the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations. This marked the beginning of an open and ongoing campaign of repression which at its zenith saw an estimated 3,000 Christians imprisoned without charge or trial in life-threatening conditions and pending denial of their faith. However, members of authorized faiths also suffer repression, as exemplified by the plight of Patriarch Antonios.
As the protest vigil drew to a close, representatives from Church in Chains, the Eritrean Orthodox Church CSW and Release Eritrea attempted to deliver a letter to the Embassy. However, Embassy staff, who earlier on had been photographing attendees from a window, would not open the door, and the letter was posted through the mail box.
CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: "It is a privilege for CSW to stand in solidarity with the Eritrean people. We affirm that we will continue to do so until every prison door is opened and every prisoner of conscience is set free, regardless of their creed. However, our thoughts and prayers are particularly with Abune Antonios at this time. We are alarmed at allegations his current ill-health may have been deliberately engineered. It is appalling that a man in his 90th year should be treated in a manner entirely inconsistent with ecclesiastical custom, African tradition and basic human decency. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release and reinstatement of Patriarch Antonios, and urge the international community to remind the Eritrean Government that it will be held accountable for ensuring his continued wellbeing."