Politics, rather than religious freedom, was the main focus of a recent meeting between the head of an ecumenical church body and the Eritrean president – at least on the surface.
The Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), visited the Eritrean capital of Asmara May 16-19 and met with church representatives and the country's president in an effort to facilitate peace and reconciliation in a nation struggling with border disputes and religious freedom violations.
In his meeting with Eritrean President Isaias Afworki, Kobia affirmed the WCC's commitment to continue advocating for peace and reconciliation in the region. In particular, he mentioned the long-standing border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Kobia also recognized the role played by Afworki in the peace processes in Eastern Sudan in Darfur.
The president said he would welcome greater WCC involvement in these political peace processes, according to the WCC.
Kobia also briefly met with leaders of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church – the only WCC member in the country – at its headquarter in Asmara. The report noted that "given the current difficulties affecting the leadership of the church," Kobia only shared greetings with the members of the church staff who were present.
Currently, the ordained Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, is being held under house arrest after being forced out of office in January 2006. He was reportedly ousted after criticizing the government's interference in church activities and their persecution of evangelical churches. A new patriarch was recently appointed but is accused of being propped by the government.
Eritrea is one of the world's worst religious freedom violators and is said to have detained some 2,000 Christians without charges, trial and end date to their imprisonment. Some Christians are even locked up in metal shipping containers under the intense heat of the African sun.
The U.S State Department has blacklisted Eritrea for three straight years as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) for its "egregious" religious freedom violations. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has advised the U.S. State Department to maintain Eritrea's CPC status again this year.
During his visit to the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Kobia also reportedly used the opportunity to learn first hand about the church's situation.
The visit also included meetings with the president of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea, the Rev. Asfah Mehari; the general secretary of the Catholic Secretariat – Eparchy of Asmara, Abba Teclemicael Tewalde; as well as country representatives of Norwegian Church Aid, Dutch Interchurch Aid and the Lutheran World Federation.
The WCC general secretary was accompanied by Dr. Agnes Aboum, a member of the WCC central and executive committees and former WCC president from Africa, and by the Rev. Dr. Andre Karamaga, the WCC staff member responsible for Africa regional relations.