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Persecution watchdog demands release of church leaders detained in Eritrea

by Tola Mbakwe

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and Human Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE) have called for the release of four pastors detained arbitrarily by the Eritrean authorities in separate incidents.

CSW argues that there’s no reason for the arrests as the clergymen belong to Christian denominations that are permitted to operate in the country.

On 15th October, Abune Fikremariam Hagos, the first Bishop of the Catholic Eparchy of Segheneity, was arrested at Asmara International Airport as he returned from a visit to Europe, and taken to an unknown location

Three days prior to the bishop’s arrest, the government detained Abba Abraham Habtom Gebremariam, the deputy parish priest in charge of students at the Capuchin Society in Teseney town.

On 11th October, Eritrean security agents detained Fr Mihretab Stefanos, the parish priest of St Michael’s Church in Segheneity. CSW said his current whereabouts are unconfirmed, although there is speculation that both he and Bishop Fikremariam are being held in Adi Abeito prison.

The Eritrean government is yet to give a reason for arresting the church leaders. However, along with Eritrea’s three other Catholic bishops, Hagos has often expressed concern for the wellbeing of the Eritrean people.

In a 2014 pastoral letter, the four Catholic Bishops addressed the refugee exodus generated by Eritrea’s human rights crisis, stating: "The true enemy of peace is injustice. Respect for persons, their dignity and their rights, is the corner-stone of peace."

Following Eritrea’s rapprochement with Ethiopia in 2018, in another pastoral letter, the bishops had called for, among other things, “resolute and historical change” through the setting up of a comprehensive truth and reconciliation plan.

Additionally, during a sermon Hagos talked about the seizure and closure Catholic health facilities in line with a government. More recently, he and his fellow bishops reportedly discouraged congregants from purchasing goods that had been looted from Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

Dr Khataza Gondwe, CSW’s Joint Head of Advocacy and Team Leader for Africa and the Middle East at CSW said: "The arbitrary detention of clergy from denominations which are ostensibly permitted to function illustrates that in reality, the right to freedom of religion or belief is being restricted comprehensively in Eritrea, along with every other human right.

“We call on the Eritrean regime to release the four clergymen, along with every other prisoner of conscience it has detained arbitrarily. We also call for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia, and for the regime to focus instead on respecting and protecting the rights of Eritrean citizens, and ensuring they finally enjoy the dividends of independence, for which so much was sacrificed by so many."

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