Eritrea: Authorities Arrest Founder of Full Gospel Church

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Three jailed Protestant leaders released on bail; Muslims also detained.

LOS ANGELES (Compass Direct News) -- Just days after Eritrean security police arrested one of the founders of the Full Gospel Church last month, two Protestant pastors and another church leader jailed months ago have been released on bail without explanation.

In the latest arrest, Pastor Habtom Tesfamichel was taken into custody on January 23 in Asmara, capital of the East African nation.

Security officials interrupted a time of mourning at Tesfamichel’s home, where his family was grieving over the death of a Lutheran pastor in Sweden, to summon the pastor for questioning at a nearby police station, sources said.

The 57-year-old Tesfamichel had been pastoring the Full Gospel Church’s Asmara congregation since its previous pastor, Kidane Woldu, was arrested and jailed in March 2005.

Tesfamichel is now incarcerated in the capital’s Wongel Mermera prison, along with nearly two dozen other Christian pastors and priests known to remain jailed in the notorious investigation center.

In late January, two Kale Hiwot Church leaders were set free after posting bail. The two released Protestants, identified as Pastor Simon Tsegay and Gebremichel Yohannes, had been arrested last September in the town of Adi-Tezlezan, 20 miles north of Asmara.

The pastor and Yohannes, administrator of the church’s central office, had been interrogated and then arrested by security officials over use of the local church building, which had been sealed four years earlier by government order. Two trucks owned by the Kale Hiwot Church that had been confiscated by state security officers at the time of the men’s arrest remain in government hands.

Soon after the release of the Tsegay and Yohannes, Full Gospel Church Pastor Fanuel Mihreteab was freed from Sempel Prison in Asmara, two years after his arrest in January 2005 in the town of Dekemhare. Like Tsegay and Yohannes, Mihreteab was forced to surrender property deeds to guarantee his required bail.

First incarcerated in the Wongel Mermera investigation center, Mihreteab was one of three pastors brought before military commanders in extrajudicial hearings in September 2005. Married with two children, he was reportedly sentenced to two years in prison.

The Eritrean government has not made public any charges against the pastors and priests still held at Wongel Mermera, some of them jailed for nearly three years now. Most are held incommunicado, with police authorities refusing to even confirm their location.

Since May 2002, Eritrea has closed down dozens of churches, forbidding its citizens to worship outside of the four government-approved religions: the Orthodox Church of Eritrea (Coptic Orthodox), Catholicism, the Evangelical Lutheran church, and Islam.

More than 2,000 Eritrean citizens in at least 14 cities and towns are known to be jailed in police stations, military camps and prison solely for their religious beliefs. Although the majority are Protestant Christians, a growing number of Coptic Orthodox members, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the Muslim community are also being jailed without charges by Ethiopian President Isaias Afwerki’s authoritative regime.

Quelling Open Protest

According to a local source, “ongoing complaints and dissatisfaction” began to surface in January from a number of priests and adherents of the Eritrean Orthodox Church inside the country. Historically, 40 percent of Eritreans consider themselves Coptic Orthodox by birth.

The open dissent represented a growing reaction to the government’s December 5, 2006 ultimatum, commandeering all the church’s tithes and offerings into state bank accounts as of January 1.

On January 17, 15 Orthodox priests openly opposing the new financial regulations received warning letters to “hold their tongue” on the issue. The orders were issued by the office of Yeftehe Dimetros, a government-installed lay administrator running the Eritrean Orthodox Church since August 2005.

Fears are running high, the source said, that the government will soon arrest these 15 priests.

On January 25, a group of dissident monks, priests and deacons of the Eritrean Orthodox Church wrote to the opposition Asmarino Independent News website, reporting that Patriarch Abune Antonios had been forcibly divested of his patriarchal robes and insignia by government order.

Reportedly Dimetros sent two priests and three security agents from his administrative office on January 20 to confiscate the patriarch’s vestments, two chains of St. Mark, shepherd’s scepter of Moses, a container of Myron oil used in confirmation ceremonies and other sacramental items.

Patriarch Antonios has been held under house arrest since August 2005, after he objected to the jailing of three of his priests. In their letter to Asmarino, the unnamed Orthodox dissidents said they were “saddened” by the apparent compliance with government demands by Bishop Dioscoros, whom they indicated was “being groomed for his illegal and uncanonical consecration and enthronement” to the seat of the ordained patriarch.

“The deposing of the patriarch and the confiscation of the offerings of the church have become burning issues, both in the life of the Coptic church and the affairs of the state,” one local source stated this week.

Muslim Arrests

Eritrean Muslims also expressed growing resistance in January against the government’s arbitrary appointment of their mufti.

In reaction to open protests in the town of Keren, 55 Muslims were arrested and jailed. The official pretext, local Muslims said, was that the arrested individuals had been either dodging their obligatory military service or helping their children flee the country to avoid military duty.

Since then, Keren sources have confirmed that at least 35 more Muslims have disappeared in the city and are presumed to be under arrest.

For more than a year, 69 Muslims have been incarcerated in Wongel Mermera for opposing the government-appointed mufti. They include Taha Mohammed Noor, a prominent national figure arrested in November 2005 for protesting government interference in the religious affairs of Eritrea’s Muslim community, constituting nearly half the national population.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct