On 16 & 17 June, Abba Seraphim attended the 26th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. This is organised under the auspices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. On 17 June he was one of a panel of witnesses who spoke at an NGO meeting on “Human Rights in Eritrea: The Impact of Gross Human Rights Violations on Vulnerable Groups within Eritrean Society.” Abba Seraphim specifically addressed the topic of Religious Persecution in Eritrea. This was sponsored jointly by Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Human Rights Watch, the East & All of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Human Rights Concern Eritrea, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) and Civicus (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) and moderated by Matthew Jones of CSW.
In addition to representatives of various governments and others involved in human rights, there was also present Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, the first Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, who was appointed in October 2012 and is currently presenting her second damning report.
In his address Abba Seraphim recounted his close involvement with the Eritrean Church in the diaspora over two decades and the steady increase in government interference in the affairs of the Orthodox Church, culminating in the uncanonical deposition of Patriarch Antonios in 2007. He traced the efforts of the Asmara government to divide and control the church communities in the diaspora and spoke of the principled support given by the late Pope Shenouda and the courage of Bishop Makarios and the priests who remained loyal to their Patriarch. Referring to the recent pastoral letter, “Where is your Brother” issued by the four Catholic bishops of Eritrea, Abba Seraphim said, “One cannot but admire the integrity of the Catholic bishops, who at great personal risk have spoken honestly about the situation in their country. Any hope that the Orthodox Church would respond in a comparable way was lost when Patriarch Antonios was silenced and the Holy Synod became a subservient mouthpiece of government policy. As the most high-profile victim of state oppression, Patriarch Antonios’s continued imprisonment and enforced silence are in fact eloquent testimony against tyranny and injustice. Yet for all his symbolic importance this mild old-man, in indifferent health, has been held unjustly in detention now for more than seven years – as have so many others – and the responsibility for this wilful oppression and other atrocities can be clearly attributed to the Eritrean government. If civilised people fail to condemn such actions and to work for humanitarian relief of its victims, they too share in the complicity of the oppressors. “
On 17 May, what has sadly become the annual Protest Vigil at the Eritrean Embassy in Islington, London , appropriately took as its motto, “Ten Years is too long.” As on previous occasions the protesters took up their position on the pavement opposite the embassy. They represented a wide rank of Christian denominations as well as of several human rights groups (Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, Release Eritrea, Church on Chains, Human Rights Concern Eritrea) who came together to pray for the persecuted Christians of Eritrea and their government. A large number of the banners portrayed His Holiness Abune Antonios, the imprisoned Patriarch of Eritrea. Abba Seraphim was joined by the Bishop of Southwark (The Right Rev’d Christopher Chessum), Father Yonas Tesheme (Sheffield) and Deacon Joannes Gebrehiwet (Manchester) with a number of other deacons representing the Eritrean Orthodox Diocese of Europe. Speakers and Prayers were led by Abba Seraphim, Andy Dipper (Release International), Dr. Berhane Ashmelesh (Release Eritrea), David Turner (Church in Chains), Elsa Chyrum (Human Rights Concern Eritrea), Selam Kidane (Release Eritrea), Dr. Khataza Gondwe (CSW). At the end of the vigil a letter, signed on behalf of the whole group by Abba Seraphim and Bishop Christopher, was delivered to the Ambassador. The two bishops and Dr. Berhane were kept waiting at the door and when the Metropolitan Police tried to find an Embassy official to whom they could deliver it, they were at first ignored and then rudely shouted at and told to go away. Eventually the police delivered the letter on their behalf.
A Prayer Vigil was held outside the Eritrean Embassy in Islington, London, on 3 June 2010 to protest at the treatment of Christians in Eritrea. It was called to mark the eighth anniversary of the closure of minority churches in Eritrea, after which even main-stream churches, like the majority Eritrean Orthodox Church have suffered systematic persecution.
The vigil was organised through the collaboration of a number of groups, including Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Release Eritrea, Church in Chains, Release (voice of persecuted Christians), Open Doors (serving persecuted Christians Worldwide) and the British Orthodox Church. For an hour on a sunny afternoon in London, a committed group of concerned Christians stood on the pavement opposite the Eritrean Embassy – as cars and buses with intrigued spectators passed by – and prayed, read from the scriptures, sang spiritual songs and heard meditative addresses from those working with and for the suffering Christians in Eritrea, regardless of their religious affiliation. Unlike political demonstrations the tone was calm, reflective and prayerful and there was no hint of invective against the oppressors. Both the Eritrean President and the Ambassador in London were spoken of courteously and prayed for fervently. His Eminence Abba Seraphim spoke of his concerns about His Holiness Abune Antonios, the elderly Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch, who had refused to bow to pressure from the government when the persecuition began and because of his stand for truth and justice found himself deposed from office and placed under house arrest. His position of national importance and his unswerving integity made him a symbol of all who were suffering for their Christian faith. At the conclusion of the vigil Abba Seraphim, supported by The Right Rev’d Christopher Chessun, (Anglican) Bishop of Woolwich and Dr. Berhane Asmelash of Release Eritrea, called at the Embassy to deliver a letter addressed to the Ambassador expressing their concerns and asking for the release of prisoners of conscience.
Daniel Malyon (BOC Portsmouth), who was present at the vigil, writes:
Yesterday, in protest of the continuing persecution of our Christian brethren in Eritrea, a number of Human Rights groups and Church representatives attended a vigil outside the Eritrean embassy in London. It was great to see an event attended by such a variety of people from different cultures and Christian groups. We had people from the Eritrean Orthodox, the British Orthodox, the Anglican Church and independent Churches, all united in prayer and concern for the Christian community in Eritrea.
To have all these groups together representing a single cause is a rarity these days, but was certainly significant. Everyone was involved in the prayer and the speeches, rejoicing in the gifts we recieve through faith, and in the knowledge of our protection, and to show concern for those that are not given the opportunity to rejoice in their faith, for fear that it will cost them their lives.
The readings from Romans certainly set the tone for the vigil, reminding us that whatever we suffer for Christ in life will be repaid in joy after we die. We are reminded that though the Eritrean Christians suffer needlessly and for no real legal reason, they are the martyrs of the modern day, just as Justin Martyr, St Paul and other early Christians suffered for their faith. As Romans 8:18 says “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
There was much media coverage on the day from the respresented charity groups, and a lot of focus on Church representation, such as the support of an Anglican Bishop and HE Metropolitan Seraphim, as to know that the church establishments are supporting them is vital for the people of Eritrea of whom 90% belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Church, a sister Church of the British Orthodox. The Evangelical representatives also spoke of the need for more to be done by the world to prevent single party governments such as Eritrea from arresting political opponents or those that speak for the rights of the persecuted, as freedom of worship and conscience are vital in society.
The vigil continued with “praise songs” from the Evangelical Church representatives, as well as prayers for both those suffering in Eritrea, and for her government. Some may not understand why we would pray for the opressors of our Eritrean brothers and sisters, but if we do not pray for those who cause suffering, we are no better than they are, as we would be as uncaring as their actions. At 4pm, after the Charities had finished speaking of the Eritrean situation Abba Seraphim led a deputation to deliver a letter to the Embassy across the road. This was given to one of the staff of the Ambassador, informing him of the reaction of the British public, church organisations and Human Rights groups to the continued opression and imprisonment of Christians in Eritrea.
This event happens yearly in London, and though it has not ended the persecutions in Eritrea, I feel that it is a moral duty to continue to stand beside the people of Eritrea, and let them know that they are still in our prayers and thoughts, for if we lose hope, so wil they.