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Christian groups demand release of bishop, 2 priests arrested in Eritrea

Members of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Christian Orthodox community from Tel Aviv are dancing before a baptism ceremony in the waters of the Jordan River as part of the Epiphany celebrations at the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site, located on the border between Israeli control areas and Jordan near the West Bank city of Jericho on January 19, 2016.
Members of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Christian Orthodox community from Tel Aviv are dancing before a baptism ceremony in the waters of the Jordan River as part of the Epiphany celebrations at the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site, located on the border between Israeli control areas and Jordan near the West Bank city of Jericho on January 19, 2016. | Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

The United Kingdom-based watchdog Christian Solidarity Worldwide and one of its local partners are calling for the release of a Catholic bishop and two priests arrested earlier this month without reason in Eritrea, one of the world's most repressive and closed countries.

According to a joint statement from the advocacy organization and its partner Human Rights Concern Eritrea, Bishop Fikremariam Hagos, the first bishop of the Catholic Eparchy of Segheneity, was arrested on Oct. 15, three days after the detention of Fr. Abraham Habtom Gebremariam from the Capuchin Society in Teseney town.

A day earlier, on Oct. 11, authorities arrested Fr. Mihretab Stefanos of St. Michael's Church in Segheneity. Fr. Kiros Tsegay, an American citizen and founder of the Debre Abune Aregawi-Orlando Orthodox Church in Florida, was arrested last year.

Bishop Fikremariam was arrested at Asmara International Airport as he returned from a European visit. The others are thought to be detained in Adi Abeto prison, a prison north of Asmara known for its inhumane and crowded conditions. 

"The Eritrean government is yet to give a reason for arresting the clergymen," the statement reads. 

Although they belong to a Christian denomination permitted to operate in the country, the advocacy organizations suggest that the arbitrary arrests could be linked to the Catholic leaders' calls for justice and reconciliation in Eritrea.

The four bishops wrote pastoral letters in 2014 and 2018 calling for reconciliation and justice, saying, "Respect for persons, their dignity and their rights, is the cornerstone of peace."

Fikremariam spoke against the seizure and closure of 22 Catholic health facilities in 2019. 

CSW reports that more recently, the bishops have discouraged congregants from buying goods looted from the war-torn Tigray region in Ethiopia, a separatist conflict that has also involved Eritrean forces. 

"The arbitrary arrests of the Catholic clergy are occurring against the backdrop of massive and punitive door to door round ups of Eritrean citizens of all ages, who are being sent to fight in Tigray, in a military offensive that appears predicated on wearing down the stamina and ammunition of the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) by sending Eritrean men and woman, who are viewed as expendable by their government, to die at the frontlines in waves," HRCE Director Elizabeth Chyrum said in a statement. 

Citing sources, Catholic News Service reports the clergymen were accused of highlighting human rights violations in Eritrea in their homilies.

The sources said that the human rights violations include "imprisonment of parents (women and men), mobilization of deserved army people, young people [taken] by force to the war fronts, closing homes, [and] confiscation of animals from those people who have refused to go to war."

Organizations, including Amnesty International, CNN and Sky News, have previously published investigations into massacres committed against civilian populations in Tigray since fighting escalated in November 2020. 

Eritrea's President Isaias Afewerki is a member of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Asmara — belonging to the largest among the only three Christian denominations allowed to function in the country: the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.

In 2002, Eritrea closed all churches not affiliated with Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox Christian denominations and began arresting adherents of non-sanctioned churches. The global watchdog organization Open Doors USA reports that there are possibly more than 1,000 Christians imprisoned in Eritrea, with none formally charged.

When arrested, Eritrea's persecuted Christians often disappear without a trace, leaving their loved ones with no information on their whereabouts or safety. Prison conditions are some of the harshest in the world, with many inmates kept in shipping containers.

"While some are released, many of these are moved to military service — which is no freedom at all — or house arrest," Open Doors warns in a factsheet. "The ongoing detention of Christians shows that the government has no intention of relaxing its repressive policies."

Adherents to sanctioned religious denominations have also been persecuted. The legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, who was illegally removed from office for resisting government interference in church affairs, died earlier this year under house arrest after spending over 15 years in detention. 

Afewerki, 75, the leader of the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice Party, also has a reputation as a ruthless autocrat. Afewerki's policy of restrictions is more about his fear that religion will mobilize people as a political force than religion itself, advocates say. 

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