The Current Religious Situation by wulinqing


									Artikel                                                                                                    53

The Current Religious Situation in Eritrea                 The heavy handed dismantling of Eritrean
Joachim Persoon                                            institutions by Ethiopian rulers created a ‘pan-
                                                           Eritrean national sentiment’. Members of an
Introduction                                               Islamic movement the Eritrean People’s
                                                           Liberation Front fired the first shots of the armed
Recently The United States declared Eritrea to be          struggle in 1961, supported by Arab countries
a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’, influenced by              alarmed at an Ethio-Israeli alliance in the Red
reports of detention and torture in the US State           Sea. Discrimination against Christians (1969-
Department Anuual Report into religious                    1970) provoking a crisis in the ELF, engendered
freedom. On 10, 12, 2004 demonstrators                     the EPLF Eritrean People’s Liberation Front
gathered outside the Eritrean Embassy in the               (advocating multi-culturalism). After a brutal
Hague with a petition and banners saying:                  civil war (1981) the ELF was defeated, and
‘Freedom of Belief in Eritrea’. The strange                EPLF synthetic nationalism triumphed. A strong
phenomena of a predominately Christian                     EPLF cooperating with the Tigrean People’s
government persecuting their own Christian                 Liberation Front (in Northern Ethiopia) was able
youth, has generated shocked reactions around              to topple the Ethiopian Communist regime or
the globe. Since its territorial genesis Eritrea           Derg (1991), and achieve independence (1993).
incorporated nine ethno-linguistic groups,                 Solidarity between Tigrinya speaking Orthodox
equally divided between Christians and Muslims,            highlanders in Eritrea and Tigray thus
its basis for nationhood is civic identity. The war        contributed to victory. Gradually highland
and the sharing of suffering in struggle have been         Christian elements prevailed and now
the very cement of national unity through                  disproportionately dominate state power in
common identity and aspiration. When the                   independent Eritrea.
imperative for wartime cooperation ceased, there
was a threat of the rise of religious tensions, the        Through the intervention of the Coptic Patriarch
governments subsequent policies have been a                Shenouda III Eritrean Orthodox autocepaly was
reaction to this threat.                                   obtained, in February 1994 an agreement was
                                                           signed in Addis Ababa. Official documentation
Brief historical overview                                  implies a smooth transition, but locally there was
                                                           a serious rupture in relations. The aged first
Ethiopia and Eritrea share the heritage of the             Patriarch of Eritrea Abune Phillipos the Bishop
ancient Aksumite Empire, with its Coptic                   of Asmara was consecrated in April 1998, rapidly
Bishops. Islamic domination of the Red Sea                 to be followed by two succesors, Abune Yakob,
Coast was consolidated by 19’th century                    and the the present incumbent Abune Antonios
repressive Ottoman laws and the activities of              (consecrated April 2004).
Sufi fraternities. In 1850-1870 the first stirrings
of Eritrean nationalism expressed itself in                The independence of Eritrea seemed to initiate
applications for protection from European                  an African Renaissance, until a border dispute
missionaries and diplomats. After their defeat at          erupting in Badme (May 1998) became a
the Battle of Adowa the Italians were allowed to           ferocious war. Churches, and religious
retain Eritrea. The 56 years of Italian rule               institutions in combat areas such as Za-el
effectively created Eritrea. From 1941-1952                Anbassa were destroyed. With the expulsion of
Eritrea was governed by the British, and                   Eritreans from Ethiopia and of Ethiopians from
subsequently federated with Ethiopia, only to be           Eritrea by 1998 over a million displaced people
annexed in 1961. With the help of the Orthodox             lived in tents. Minority churches were hardest
Church in Eritrea religious and kinship ties               hit, many Catholics in Ethiopia were Eritreans,
became the rallying point for elements proposing           and a Catholic orientated ethnic minority known
union with the empire. Abune (bishop) Marcos               as the Irob inhabit the border area. The Ethiopian
an Italian appointee used ardent support for the           side made accusations (denied by Eritreans) that
unionist cause to get confirmation for his                 advancing Eritrean troops targeted churches.
position.                                                  Orthodox and Catholic priests are listed among
                                                           the missing Ethiopian civilians.

                            Kirche und Schule in Äthiopien, Heft 58 / September 2005
54                                                                                                     Artikel

Following post-war disillusion Eritrea                   Sambrana former French Ambassador in Eritrea
experienced mid-2001 serious internal unrest. In         while expressing concern over human rights,
an abrupt ruthless reaction students were sent to        stated that the Eritrean state was rare in Africa in
workcamps, private presses shut down and                 its absence of corruption, efficient organisation
unions suppressed. Eleven Government ministers           and consecration to the service of the public
‘disappeared’, Catholic bishops were                     good. He praised above all the creation of a
reprimanded for their critiques and the Church’s         national unity in a country of extreme diversity,
press was closed. At least 74 (including 13              and unstable transition.
female) Eritrean soldiers converted to
evangelical Christianity through radio                   Eritrean Orthodoxy
programmes were locked up in metal containers,
some died. Eritrean officials explained that             Orthodoxy in Ethiopia and Eritrea follows the
soldiers were not imprisoned due to possessing           same Ge’ez rite, with some varying customs.
bibles, but because of allowing themselves to be         Eritrean monks rarely reside in cities, begging
indoctrinated. Drastic measures were required to         around churches is forbidden and preaching
preserve the integrity of the armed forces.              hermits are rare, in contrast to Ethiopia. The
                                                         Eritrean Orthodox Church seems in some ways
Problems with Evangelical Groups                         better organised, but less socially influential than
                                                         its Ethiopian counterpart. At the festival of the
Between 1960 and 1997 Ethiopian evangelicals             Epiphany in Asmara in 1998, only a small
rose from less than 1% to 14% of the population,         percentage of the population were involved,
the Eritrean government appears to be trying to          whereas in Addis Ababa the whole city
prevent a similar occurrence. Only Orthodox,             participated. An all powerful ministry of
Muslims, Catholics and Lutherans were officially         religious affairs, watches over all religious
recognised. A new law of 1995 ordered all                practitioners. For example Mr. Takle Mariam
religious groups to re-register. The Kale Heywot         Merkehazian 62 years old chief editor of two
(Word of Life) Church (originally Sudan Interior         church publications, (and formerly resident in
Mission) founded in 1953, and registered with            Germany) wrote in 1994 challenging articles
British, Imperial and communist Governments              defending church autonomy. He disappeared
became illegal. In 2002 they and others were             without trace after questioning by security
closed after refusal of permission to register.          agents.
Since then clandestine worship services, resulted
in arrests and disappearances. Even the brothers         In Both Ethiopia and Eritrea there has been
of martyrs of the liberation struggle such as the        controversy due to Orthodox renewal movements
two pastors from the full Gospel Church Dr.              employing evangelical ideas. In Eritrean they
Gebremeskel and Naizgi, were imprisoned.                 were systematic eradicated. For example in 2001
                                                         in Asmara young people were beaten up, and
 Eritrean evangelical groups number                      religious literature including bibles were burned.
approximately 20,000, and there are said to be           The authorities say they are associated with
10,000 evangelically inclined Orthodox. Their            people known as ‘amichey’ (those who speak
suppression by the government is usually                 imperfect Tigrenya) and thus perceived as
attributed to fear of disturbing the religious           foreign to indigenous church structures.1 Certain
status-quo, desire to placate Orthodox                   groups were obliged to abandon Orthodoxy in
resentment, a government anger at groups                 favour of affiliation with Protestant groups.
beyond their conrol. The Eritrean Constitution
guarantees freedom of conscience and belief, but         Eritrean Catholicism
this is confined to state endorsed groups. The
president of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki claimed              Eritrean Catholicism is associated with minority
independent Churches must be stopped because             ethnic groups such as the Bilen, and Kunama,
they are destroying the unity of the Eritrean            comprising 3.4 - 5% of the country’s 3.5 million
people and distorting the true meaning of                inhabitants. The Catholic Church has patriotic
religion. He prioritises avoiding disunity: Gerard         According to a member of the Eritrean Catholic

                          Kirche und Schule in Äthiopien, Heft 58 / September 2005
Artikel                                                                                                      55

associations; due to its links with the Italian             Conclusion
colonial rulers it is also very well endowed. The
Eritrean Catholic Church is unique in                       The Eritrean conflict (1961-1991) was initiated
maintaining its links with its Ethiopian                    by Muslims to counter the anticipated
counterparts, and remaining in the same Bishops             predominance and pressure of Christians, despite
conference. However, the Vatican nunciature is              varying ideologies, religion continues to play an
now linked with that of Sudan. As an                        important role. The Ethiopian and Eritrean
international organisation the Catholics are better         leaders, once comrades in arms have pursued
able to act independently, although Catholic                widely diverging religious policies, linked to
institutions are not exempt from political                  different attitudes of state formation. In Eritrea a
pressures. Eritrean Catholics leaders resisted              one party state consolidated itself, preserving the
government pressure to condone closing of                   ethos of a liberation movement with its emphasis
Evangelical Churches on the basis of human                  on idealism and sacrifice for the public good.
rights and freedom of conscience.                           The Eritrean government has been praised for its
                                                            original and imaginative policies, steering an
The Diaspora and NGO’s                                      independent course of international economic
                                                            and political institutions. However, the attempts
Religion plays an important part in the Eritrean            to turn Eritrea into the Hong Kong of the horn of
Diaspora. Eritrean Christians are concentrated in           Africa have not succeeded, and recent policies
Western countries, and Muslims in the Middle                have backfired. The ensuing unrest has resulted
East and North Africa. Religious influences are             in draconian measures to retain national unity.
associated with emergent civil society, and trans-          This has had particularly dramatic implications
national influences. There is a danger of diaspora          for religious groups or movements perceived of
religious agendas conflicting with local ones in            as ‘foreign’ and considered to undermine
Eritrea or with those of other religious groups.            national integrity. Meanwhile Ethiopian and
The NGO sector so important in most African                 Eritrean religious leaders convened in Ethiopia,
countries has been virtually closed down in                 Eritrea, Kenya, Sweden, and Norway have been
Eritrea, the government prefers to mobilise its             the only civic coalition to address the
own nationals for development projects.                     consequences of the Border war and work for
However, the humanitarian crisis caused by the              reconciliation. This is an indication of the
border war resulted in more flexibility towards             positive role religious discourse can play in the
NGO activities.2                                            region, and will hopefully contribute to the
                                                            inclusion of a religious dimension in the process
2                                                           of national reconstruction.
  Due to the humanitarian crisis following Ethiopia’s
invasion the number of foreign aid organisations
active in the country rose, together with the number of
local NGO’s Nov. 2000, 34 International NGO’s and
13 National NGO’s N. Hirt Eritrea Zwischen Krieg
und Frieden Die Entwicklungen seit der
Unabhängigkeit,       Institut Für Afrika_Kunde im
Verband Deutsches bersee-Institut 62, (Hamburg
2001) p. 113.

                             Kirche und Schule in Äthiopien, Heft 58 / September 2005

To top