NGOs commemorate the closure of churches with vigil outside the Eritrean Embassy

Around fifty people took part a peaceful protest vigil outside the Eritrean Embassy on 23 May to commemorate the closure of churches in Eritrea, despite efforts by a counter-protest to intimidate attendees.

The protest vigil has taken place every May for 16 years, and is jointly organised by CSW, the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the UK, Church in Chains, Human Rights Concern Eritrea and Release Eritrea.  It marks the anniversary of the Eritrean government’s effective outlawing of religious practices not affiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox Christian denominations or Sunni Islam in May 2002, and the  ensuing and ongoing campaign of arrests, which at its peak saw at least 3000 Christians of all denominations detained arbitrarily.

The protest vigil generally commences in the afternoon and is planned well in advance. As a few of the organisers arrived early to make preparations, they found counter-protesters had spread out across the area where the vigil normally occurs, having notified local police of their “all-day event” on the previous evening. Several male counter protestors, who approached the organisers, told them to “leave this area because there are many more of us than you.”  Another asked: “where is Martin Plaut?” referring to a British journalist who was lured to a café near the British library and assaulted. They also began videotaping the Eritrean organisers.

The protest vigil was shifted to an area on the opposite side of the road close to the Embassy, and it continued as planned, despite loud music, singing, dancing, chants and gesticulations from counter-protestors.

Speaking at the new location outside the Eritrean Embassy, Dr Berhane Asmelash of Release Eritrea said: “Every year thousands of Eritreans are perishing in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to flee from the government. In 2001, the government arrested journalists and some who asked for reform, and until now they are in prison, and in 2002 the Eritrean government shut all churches, and until now none of them have been opened and a lot of officials are still in prison, hundreds of them. Even last week some Christians were arrested. In Eritrea it is bad for everybody.”

Other speakers included Father Shenouda of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and Elsa Chyrum of Human Rights Concern Eritrea, who said: “Nothing has changed in Eritrea since the rapprochement with Ethiopia. They are fleeing from imprisonment without trial, torture, persecution, and above all the lifetime national service for every young man or woman over 18 years of age.”

In other developments, 30 Christians were arrested on 17 May, as they gathered in two locations in Godaif, an area situated around south of the capital, Asmara.  This follows reports of the arrest of 141 Christians, including 14 minors, in the Maitemenai district of Asmara, on or around 10 May, who were reportedly transported to separate detention centres according to their gender. Fifty of these detainees are now reported to have been released.

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW has been protesting peacefully outside the Eritrean Embassy every year for the past 16 years, and the fact that the Eritrean authorities organised a counter-protest this year means we are making an impact. We were not intimidated by any aggressive displays, and will continue our yearly vigil at that venue until every prisoner of conscience is free. We remain concerned for those who were arrested recently merely for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief as articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Eritrea is party, and Eritrea’s ratified constitution, which the government has failed to implement since May 1997.  Clearly, grave violations are continuing even as Eritrea occupies a seat on the Human Rights Council (HRC).  We therefore urge Member States to facilitate the renewal of the special rapporteur’s mandate during the upcoming HRC session in order to guarantee continued human rights monitoring, to assist in advancing accountability for atrocity crimes identified in the 2016 report of the Commission of Inquiry, and to enable the development and implementation of time-bound benchmarks for improvements in human rights.”