The Oriental Orthodox Churches were represented by Metropolitan Abba Seraphim of the British Orthodox Church (who chaired the proceedings), Bishop Angaelos (Coptic Orthodox) and Archbishop Mar Athanasios Touma (Syriac Orthodox). There was a strong ecumenical representation with The Rev’d Bill Snelson, General Secretary of Churches Together in England; the Bishop of Woolwich (The Right Rev’d Christopher Chessun) as well as Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Evangelical clergy present as well as representatives of Amnesty International, Aid to the Church in Need, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Human Rights Concern – Eritrea. A Report of the meeting, with extracts from an interview with Metropolitan Seraphim by Martin Plaut (Africa Editor) was broadcast on the BBC World Service programme “World Briefing” on 28 June.
A list of some 2,000 prisoners held in Eritrea, with many photographs, extended the length of the church’s altar rails, whilst two large pictures of Patriarch Antonios had pride of place.
In his opening remarks, Metropolitan Seraphim thanked people from diverse backgrounds for attending, stating that they were “all here because we love freedom and justice and hate oppression, especially the denial of the freedom to follow one’s conscience.” The Patriarch, as head of the majority Orthodox Church was clearly the most high-profile prisoner of conscience but his main offence appears to have been a refusal to condemn the Madhane Alem Sunday School movement or to condone the arrest and imprisonment of other religious leaders.
Many messages of support for this meeting had been received, but Abba Seraphim read a letter of greetings from the Diocese of North America of the Eritrean Tewahdo Orthodox Church saying that “we are encouraged beyond words to know that His Holiness is not forgotten during this time of great persecution in his life.” The service began with the Coptic Orthodox Prayer of Thanksgiving which, appropriately offered thanks to God “for every condition, and for all things and in all things.”
His Grace Bishop Angaelos spoke of his first encounter with the Eritrean Abbots, whilst serving as Pope Shenouda’s secretary at St. Bishoy’s Monastery. They had come to serve a long retreat prior to their ordination as bishops, after which they would become the nucleus for the Holy Synod of the new Eritrean Orthodox Church. Among these was the future Patriarch Antonios, a gentle and devout monk, whose qualities had led to his unanimous election as Eritrean Patriarch in 2005.
Lessons were read from Matthew V: 2-12 (Bill Snelson) and Romans VIII: 31-39 (Mark Hassell) and prayers were led by Father John Whooley (Catholic priest of Church of the Holy Ghost & St. Stephen, Shepherd’s Bush), the Bishop of Woolwich and Father Simon Smyth (British Orthodox priest of Christ the Saviour Church, Bournemouth) and candles were lit on the altar by the main participants to symbolise the light of hope for all those suffering Christians.
Pastor Gerald Gotzen from Torquay, spoke of his long relationship with Ethiopia and Eritrea and how he had cooperated with Patriarch Antonios in the distribution of Bilbles in Tigrinya when he was Bishop of Hamasien province. Visiting Asmara after the Patriarch had been placed under house arrest, Pastor Gerald happened to meet President Afwerki when he visited the hotel where he was staying. Greeted cordially by the President, he was asked if there was anything he needed, but when he asked to meet with the Patriarch, the President’s cordiality vanished and he was told it was “not possible.” From that moment he was shadowed by the secret police and two days later arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. Although he was denied access to legal representation or the British Embassy and the food and conditions were of the most basic, he was encouraged by the witness and behaviour of many of the other prisoners, many of whom had been imprisoned without trial or sentence for their religious belief. When he was eventually released on Palm Sunday and summarily deported, he was inspired by the text “The Lord sets the prisoners free” (Psalm 147: 7) and his love for Eritrea and its people were not diminished by his treatment.
Dr. Martin Hill from Amnesty International (Africa Programme) noted that although Eritrea had signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its record was one of the worst. Several thousand prisoners of conscience were detained incommunicado without charge or trial and the whereabouts of many political or religious prisoners, including journalists, were not known. Many were in effect victims of enforced disappearance. Many detainees were tortured. Prison conditions, including being held in underground cells or metal shipping containers, amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Virtually no medical treatment was provided.
Minority faith groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and over 35 evangelical Christian churches remained banned, their places of worship shut down and religious gatherings prohibited. Only the four main faiths in Eritrea were allowed to function – the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran (Mekane Yesus) Church and Islam. Dissenting groups within them were also repressed as were those who opposed government authority over them. Patriarch Antonios, head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, was stripped of his powers in mid-2005 and has been held under house arrest since then for protesting at the 2004 detention of three Orthodox priests and secret prison sentences imposed on them.
Elizabeth Chyrum of Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, spoke as an Eritrean human rights activist and outlined the breakdown of justice as an increasingly authoritarian government imposed its will on society. Even those who had distinguished themselves by fighting for independence were not free from persecution, whilst any dissent, even protests about low pay and conditions, was quelled with brutality. She spoke movingly of those who had been taken from their homes and imprisoned for years without any legal process and the steady suppression of human rights and the rule of law.
Bishop Christopher Chessun brought greetings from the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe (The Right Rev’d Geoffrey Rowell), who was also Anglican Co-Chairman of the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission, and spoke of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s deep concern for the current situation in Eritrea.
The meeting concluded with the reading by Abba Seraphim of Abune Antonios’ letter protesting at his illegal and uncanonical removal from office, “No one can be above the law. Whoever tries to trample the law underfoot will himself end up being trampled over by the law. This is a veritable truth.” It was, stated Abba Seraphim, the one opportunity of hearing the authentic voice of the imprisoned Patriarch and it concluded with the prayer, “May God grant His peace to our Church. May God bless our country, Eritrea.”
A petition, addressed to the President of Eritrea, expressing grave concern about the treatment and welfare of Patriarch Antonios and deploring his removal from office without proper judicial and canonical process, was inaugurated at the end of the meeting. Copies may be obtained from the Committee to Remember Patriarch Antonios of Eritrea at 10 Heathwood Gardens, Charlton, London, SE7 8EP.
See the report on the BBC website