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. “
Abba Seraphim joined a Prayer vigil outside London’s Eritrean Embassy on 22 May to mark the twelfth anniversary of the Eritrean government’s persecution of Christian churches. This event is jointly sponsored by the British Orthodox Church, Church in Chains, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Evangelical Alliance, Human Rights Concern Eritrea and Release Eritrea. As in previous years the protest is dignified and composed of scriptural readings, prayers, hymns and short talks highlighting the plight of Christians in Eritrea. Abba Seraphim spoke of the uncanonical deposition and long imprisonment of Abune Antonios, the legitimate Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Only recently OCP Media Network released a clandestinely taken snap of Abune Antonios from a cellphone, which showed His Holiness looking tranquil and at peace, although still under house arrest. Requests for him be moved to a monastery have fallen on deaf ears.
Commenting on this photograph Abba Seraphim noted that although the government had stripped away his regalia, his authority and his freedom, they had not been able to take away his inner peace and life of prayer. The photograph showed a monk at peace with himself and his God, having served faithfully and refused to compromise with truth in order to retain his status and worldly honour. By contrast, Bishop Dioskoros, who allowed the government to place him upon a stolen throne, was now suffering from the effects of recent debilitating stroke, which left him physically and mentally incapacitated. We pray that, while he still has time, he may yet repent in his heart for his faithlessness and receive forgiveness. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark VIII: 36).
At the conclusion of the vigil, Abba Seraphim, accompanied by Andy Dipper, David Turner and Dr. Berhane Ashmelash, (on behalf of the participating organisations) handed in a letter of protest to His Excellency the Eritrean Ambassador.
On 15 October Baroness Berridge, convenor of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Religious Freedom, hosted a reception at the House of Lords to relaunch the AAG (Asylum Advocacy Group). It was founded in 2007 under the chairmanship of His Grace Bishop Angaelos, to bring together a wide range of people working in the field of support for those seeking asylum on the grounds of religious persecution. Initially its remit was to support Egyptian Christians, but events in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years, led to a desire to widen its remit to support those of other faiths and in other countries, where people suffer for their religious convictions. At the relaunch there were also representatives of Baha’i and Shia Muslim Groups and those who spoke expressed the desire to see a wide range of faiths represented as witnesses of their commitment to human rights and justice. Abba Seraphim, who is a founder member, attended along with representatives of some sixteen diverse bodies. He spoke of his active support over many years for those persecuted for converting to Christianity, as well as Christians suffering injustice under regimes in Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea.
The tragedy which occurred off the island of Lampedusa, in which hundreds of Eritrea and Somalian refugees were killed in a shipwreck, took place on 3 October, while Abbas Seraphim was on pilgrimage in Turkey and without proper access to current news. This meant that he did not learn the full scale of the tragedy until after his return to the United Kingdom.
On 6 October a candlelit vigil was held at Speakers’ Corner at London’s Hyde Park, at which Elsa Chyrum, an Eritrea human rights’ activist spoke movingly of the plight of those driven out of their country by the current regime. Also present was Father Shenouda Haile, the London priest of the free Eritrean Orthodox Church under His Grace Bishop Makarios, whose simple but heartfelt speech also moved many people. One of those present later wrote on Facebook, “What impressed me is his analysis of the underlying reasons why Eritreans at home and in Diaspora found themselves in such helpless situations. It can be summarised as fear, greed, selfishness “a culture of I don’t care about others” and indifference to the injustice that is driving people to flee Eritrea …. He pleaded to change our behaviours to care for each other, to be tolerant and help those who are in dire needs such as those languishing in refugees’ camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. He pleaded with us to turn ourselves to God to help us to awaken our authentic self and stands up to injustices with unity and love for each other. He also prayed to God so that he whispers to the ears of the [current Eritrean ruling] authorities to come to their senses and stop oppressing the Eritrean people. His advice was worth listening to, it was words of wisdom.” Another commentator spoke of his “courage, clarity and words of wisdom” and expressed the hope that “his words will reverberate in the ears of the other religious leaders and their followers who have chosen to ignore the plight of our youth – their very flock.”
A video of his message (in Tigrinyan) can be viewed at:
The 2012 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, covering the period 1 April 2011 to 290 February 2012, has just been published. The full text can be accessed online at http://www.uscirf.gov/images/Annual%20Report%20of%20USCIRF%202012(2).pdf
Of particular interest are the reports dealing with Egypt and Eritrea. Whilst the period under review covered the Egyptian Revolution and overthrow of President Mubarak, there were no significance developments in Eritrea. Yet, both countries raise significant concerns. For Egypt the report found:
“Over the past year, the Egyptian transitional government continued to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as disfavored Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt. Violence targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians increased significantly during the reporting period. The transitional government has failed to protect religious minorities from violent attacks at a time when minority communities have been increasingly vulnerable. This high level of violence and the failure to convict those responsible continued to foster a climate of impunity, making further violence more likely. During the reporting period, military and security forces used excessive force and live ammunition targeting Coptic Christian demonstrators and places of worship resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. The government also continued to prosecute, convict, and impose prison terms on Egyptian citizens charged with blasphemy. Implementation of previous court rulings – related to granting official identity documents to Baha‘is and changing religious affiliation on identity documents for converts to Christianity – has seen some progress but continues to lag, particularly for Baha‘is. In addition, the government has not responded adequately to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government controlled media.”
In Eritrea, the report found:
“Systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations continue in Eritrea. These violations include: torture or other ill-treatment of thousands of religious prisoners; arbitrary arrests and detentions without charges of members of unregistered religious groups; a prolonged ban on public religious activities; revocation of citizenship rights of Jehovah‘s Witnesses; interference in the internal affairs of registered religious groups; and inordinate delays in responding to registration applications from religious groups.”
Abba Seraphim welcomed the report and said it was of particular help in supporting those seeking asylum, whose personal stories of intimidation and persecution were the specific outcomes of failures by the states in question. Whilst his particular concern was directed towards Orthodox Christians; he highlighted that religious persecution was an evil into which all societies could fall and those who love truth and justice must defend the rights and freedom of all, even those holding un-Orthodox beliefs. “We cannot demand religious freedom as an inalienable human right if we seek to limit those rights for groups whose beliefs we reject. Sadly, there are instances in countries where Orthodoxy is the dominant faith, of severe restrictions, if not direct persecution. If we remain passive in the face of such limitations of other’s freedom, we are not upholding a universal human right but merely seeking to defend our own interests.”