The British Orthodox Church was among a number of groups which stood in solidarity with imprisoned Eritreans at a Prayer Vigil outside the Eritrean Embassy in London on 26 May. Abba Seraphim, supported by Father Simon Smyth and Deacon Theodore de Quincey, joined representatives from Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, Church in Chains, Release Eritrea, the Evangelical Alliance, Release, Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide for prayer, scripture readings and spiritual songs. Abba Seraphim opened the proceedings with the Prayer of Thanksgiving and later spoke about the unjust imprisonment of Abune Antonios, the canonical Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Despite the torrential showers (the first for many weeks) all those present stood their ground and remained constant in their vigil. At the end of the proceedings, Abba Seraphim crossed the road to the Embassy and handed in a letter on behalf of all those present.
H.E. Mr. Tesfamicael Gerahtu
Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland
Embassy of the State of Eritrea
96 White Lion Street
London N1 9PF
26 May 2011 Your Excellency, We have gathered today, representing thousands of Christians in Britain and Ireland, to mark the ninth anniversary of the forced closure of all churches in Eritrea, apart from those belonging to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions. Standing in solidarity with fellow Christians in Eritrea, we once again call for the granting of full religious freedom, and for the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience in Eritrea. We are dismayed at the continuing imprisonment without charge or trial of tens of thousands of Eritrean citizens, including several thousand Christians, detained solely on account of their faith. We are also deeply troubled at the increasing harassment of authorised churches, as illustrated by the illegal dismissal and indefinite detention of Abune Antonios, the canonically-ordained Orthodox patriarch, and the imprisonment, dismissal and forcible conscription of scores of Orthodox clergyman. Credible reports continue to emerge from Eritrea of Christians being incarcerated in inhumane conditions, physically and mentally abused, and deprived of access to adequate food, potable water and medication. We are aware that over a dozen have died following mistreatment and/or denial of medical attention, and are particularly concerned at the continuing practice of requiring prisoners to sign statements renouncing their faith as a prerequisite to obtaining their freedom. We assure you, once again, that these Christians pose no threat to the government in the peaceful practice of their faith, and can affirm that the teachings and principles of their faith encourage good citizenship and loyalty to one’s country. We are confident that Christians in Eritrea are committed to strengthening the nation, and to contributing positively towards its development. We urge you to convey to your government our appeal for swift and positive action to ensure the release of all prisoners of conscience, regardless of their creed, and to facilitate every human right outlined in Eritrea’s commendable national constitution, including the right to religious freedom. Please be assured of our continued prayers for the well-being and prosperity of your people and nation. We remain committed to the people of Eritrea, and seek to support the nation’s progresses towards a just and equitable future.
26 May 2011
We have gathered today, representing thousands of Christians in Britain and Ireland, to mark the ninth anniversary of the forced closure of all churches in Eritrea, apart from those belonging to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions.
Standing in solidarity with fellow Christians in Eritrea, we once again call for the granting of full religious freedom, and for the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience in Eritrea.
We are dismayed at the continuing imprisonment without charge or trial of tens of thousands of Eritrean citizens, including several thousand Christians, detained solely on account of their faith. We are also deeply troubled at the increasing harassment of authorised churches, as illustrated by the illegal dismissal and indefinite detention of Abune Antonios, the canonically-ordained Orthodox patriarch, and the imprisonment, dismissal and forcible conscription of scores of Orthodox clergyman.
Credible reports continue to emerge from Eritrea of Christians being incarcerated in inhumane conditions, physically and mentally abused, and deprived of access to adequate food, potable water and medication. We are aware that over a dozen have died following mistreatment and/or denial of medical attention, and are particularly concerned at the continuing practice of requiring prisoners to sign statements renouncing their faith as a prerequisite to obtaining their freedom.
We assure you, once again, that these Christians pose no threat to the government in the peaceful practice of their faith, and can affirm that the teachings and principles of their faith encourage good citizenship and loyalty to one’s country. We are confident that Christians in Eritrea are committed to strengthening the nation, and to contributing positively towards its development.
We urge you to convey to your government our appeal for swift and positive action to ensure the release of all prisoners of conscience, regardless of their creed, and to facilitate every human right outlined in Eritrea’s commendable national constitution, including the right to religious freedom.
Please be assured of our continued prayers for the well-being and prosperity of your people and nation. We remain committed to the people of Eritrea, and seek to support the nation’s progresses towards a just and equitable future.
Among the speakers at the Vigil was Elsa Chyrum, who spoke movingly of the plight of Eritrean refugees:
“Eritrea has just celebrated its 20th independence anniversary.
Let me start with the latest events regarding Eritrea and Eritreans that may highlight the irony of the independence of Eritrea. The regime, in its usual fanfare, has prepared Grand Festivals to celebrate the 20th year of the nation’s independence. This totalitarian regime dares to call these 20 years “20 Years of Dignity”. But the indignity of it all is to be seen in the latest tragic events that have affected Eritreans everywhere.
First, you must have heard of the tragedy that occurred lately in the Mediterranean Sea, as thousands of African refugees tried to escape the turmoil of the Libyan uprising. The plight of black Africans was compounded by the unfounded rumour that they are serving as mercenaries in Gadaffi’s army. Many Eritrean refuge es had no other option but to escape this double jeopardy. As a result, sadly, the greatest number of those who perished in the Mediterranean Sea happen to be Eritreans – so far, hundreds of them.
The other tragedy is the ongoing problem in the Sinai desert: human trafficking. In this peninsula, Bedouin human traffickers, in close collaboration with Eritrean criminal elements, are openly conducting a ransom-for-hostage enterprise. Here, there are about 400 Eritrean refugees still held in captivity, waiting for ransom money to arrive from family members and close relatives in the West. For each captive, the traffickers ask more than US $10,000. If ransom money is not paid, the hostages are subjected to constant rape, torture, involuntary removal of organs, and murder. This living hell has become a business. The ransom amounts that are paid encourage the smugglers to raise their demands. The higher the sum, the harder it is for the family abroad to raise the money. This results in an even longer period of imprisonment and torture for the refugees many of whom die before or even after the ransom has been paid. So far, the Egyptian government is unwilling to do anything about it – even a personal plea from the Pope had no effect at all.
Eritrean asylum seekers have been criminalized for trying to escape from a living hell in their own country and enter Egypt illegally. They are imprisoned incommunicado, physically tortured and psychologically abused. They have been herded like animals into what are little more than cages. Small rooms house forty or fifty asylum seekers night and day at high, unbearable temperatures with no ventilation or any other basic hygiene, leading to skin rashes and more serious ailments none of which are treated, for adults and children alike.
Some of the Eritreans who have tried to cross to Israel have been shot dead, or wounded and consequently imprisoned in Egypt.
Little enough to celebrate so far, but the tragedy doesn’t end there:
On 22nd May 2011, at around 3:30 a.m, four Eritrean refugees were burnt to death and one was critically scorched at the Tunisian refugee camp near the Libyan border. The victims had recently fled from Libya and were waiting to be resettled to a safe country via UNHCR. Their tents were deliberately set on fire. Two Sudanese refugees have been arrested in connection with the crime, and they are remanded in custody. There has been a clash between the local Tunisian community and certain groups of the refugee communities in the Sousha camp which has led to more violence and destruction. The refugees in the camp are very anxious and tension is very high. Unless urgent action is taken by The Tunisian government and the UNHCR, the situation could escalate into furt her tragedy resulting in further loss of life.
Due to forced conscription and endless military service in Eritrea, tens of thousands are fleeing to Ethiopia and Sudan and much farther to Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Australia, Europe, the US and other countries. Yet the plight of these Eritreans is largely misunderstood. They go through a lot of hardship and pain in search of a safe haven and freedom by escaping from one country only to find themselves virtual or actual prisoners in another.
Thousands of Eritreans whose asylum claims have been refused become illegally resident in Europe, USA, Australia, etc., spend long periods in detention awaiting deportation or are left to live on the streets in destitution. Legislation bars these individuals from access to basic public services – shelter, food, etc and they are prevented from working. Most of these destitute asylum seekers rely on support from families, religious organisations or well-wishers.
We are here this afternoon to demonstrate our awareness of their troubles, to show our solidarity with those of our people who have suffered, and are suffering, at the hands of the Eritrean government and its supporters, and to signal to the Eritrean government and those Eritreans in diaspora who continue to finance its evildoing, that the truth cannot be hidden by phoney celebrations praising a country which remains a prison for so many of its citizens. We are here now, and we will be here again, and we will not go away even if it takes another twenty years to bring true freedom to our people, to stop the suffering of Eritrean refugees.”
The United Copts of Great Britain organised a peaceful protest on Saturday, 15 January, in Whitehall opposite the entrance to Downing Street. A large group of Copts from churches in London, Bromley and Rotherham gathered between noon and 3.00 p.m. holding crosses and banners recalling recent sectarian attacks on Copts in Egypt.
Several Coptic clergy were present and Abba Seraphim and Father Sergius Scott were there to represent the British Orthodox Church. Among their supporters were Baroness Cox and Dr. Charles Tannock, Conservative MEP for the London Region, who are both passionate supporters of Christians suffering persecution. Dr. Tannock addressed the gathering and promised to raise the issue at the European Parliament next week.
Having promised to investigate thoroughly the attacks on al-Qidiseen Church in Alexandria, the Egyptian government needs to decide whether any actions or failures on the part of Major-General Adel Aly Labib, who has been Governor of Alexandria since 2006, and the Minister of the Interior, General Habib Ibrahim El Adly, contributed in any respect to this tragedy. The Governor claimed that the attack had nothing to do with sectarianism, but it should be noted that:
- A specific threat to attack Coptic Churches was made publicly by Al Qaeda in Iraq at the beginning of November, which was condemned by President Mubarak, who vowed he would protect the Copts;
Where was the heightened security ? What checks were being made on those entering or loitering near the church ?
- For some weeks regular vociferous demonstrations against Pope Shenouda and the Coptic Church, with chanting of inflammatory and insulting slogans, have been taking place after Friday prayers in mosques in Alexandria and, that same evening in front of Al Kayed Gohar Mosque in Alexandria, Salafi Muslims held their seventeenth such demonstration;
Why were these demonstrations permitted, when a demonstration by Copts at Omrania in Giza was dispersed with live ammunition and showed security forces throwing stones at Coptic demonstrators ? Why have anti-Coptic demonstrations been permitted since the attack ?
- It is reliably reported that following the explosion, the mosque adjacent to the bombed church began broadcasting comments congratulating the Mujahedeen for their great achievement until the Interior Ministry cut off the electricity supply;
If national unity is the government’s aim, why are mosques allowed to routinely broadcast anti-Christian propaganda;
- Security forces withdrew from guarding the church one hour before the blast leaving only four policemen on guard;
Can promises to protect Copts and the churches be taken seriously when security is so lax, yet the Security forces always appear in large numbers in response to Coptic demonstrations ?
- Video footage shows that following the atrocity Muslims began chanting “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) which incited the distraught Copts who survived;
As the attack was specifically aimed at the church and timed to coincide with worshippers leaving, how can the Governor seriously claim that the attack was aimed at Muslims and Christians alike ?
- Following the clash between Copts and Muslims after the incident, the security forces reappeared and started firing rubber bullets at the crowd as well as using tear gas on the crowd, including some of the wounded survivors.
Why were the Security forces not more pro-active in preventing the attack, assisting the victims rather than appearing to be partisan in their handling of such outbursts of outrage by the Copts ?
- It is reported that the State security is preventing relations and friends from visiting some of the victims in hospital.
How is it possible now to exercise such tight security over hospital visits when nothing of the sort was put in place at the church ?
According to the most recent press reports a suicide bomber exploded his device outside al-Qidiseen (St. Mark & St. Peter the Seal of Martyrs) Coptic Orthodox Church in Sidi Beshr, in Alexandria as worshippers were leaving Mass, left at least 21 worshippers dead and 43 people wounded.
Commenting on these events, Abba Seraphim said, “Once again we have woken up to a new civil year with news of a horrifying and brutal attack on Coptic Orthodox Christians. Through the timing of this attack we are reminded that as the world celebrated a new millennium on the night of 31 December 1999, the Christians of El-Kosheh suffered the nightmare of a sectarian mob on the rampage, security forces which failed to intervene and inhuman and degrading treatment leaving many dead and wounded.
It is a matter of deep sadness that the intervening years have not seen any significant improvement in the lot of Coptic Christians but have instead been marked by sporadic and increasingly frequent outbursts of violence in which Christians have been clearly targetted. Those who perpetuate such crimes are heartless and cruel and act against the tenets of their religion which enjoins all who believe in the one God to develop peace in their relations with others. On the contrary, those who commit such wickedness follow in the footsteps of Satan.
Because of the universal celebration of the new millennium, the atrocities in El-Kosheh just over a decade ago, took some time to attract the attention of the international media, whereas, last night’s events hit the headlines throughout the world. Perhaps the world has finally become aware of the seriousness of the situation in Egypt.
Despite professed assurances of security for all its citizens, the Egyptian government is failing to provide the protection which is its fundamental responsibility. Last year, worshippeers at Nag Hamadi were attacked and killed as they left church after the Christmas Eve Mass (6/7 January) and extremist groups have vociferously threatened further violence against Copts both in Egypt and abroad. Are we to wait powerlessly for them to consummate their threats or may we expect a serious mobilisation of the state’s security services to prevent history repeating itself ?
What is encouraging, however, is to see that the Egyptian government has on this occasion responded swiftly and decisively to the incident in Alexandria by voicing strong condemnation and practical support. President Hosni Mubarak vowed to track down those behind the fatal bomb attack: “This terrorist act has shaken the conscience of the nation …. All of Egypt was targeted, and blind terrorism does not distinguish between Copt and Muslim.” The Ministry of Health and the Governorate of Alexandria provided rapid assistance for those wounded in the bombing by flying them to specialist hospitals in Cairo and reports spoke of Muslims donating blood. The Minister of Social Solidarity announced an exceptional decision to offer urgent financial assistance to the victims and their families: £5,000 to the family of each of those killed and £1,000 for each person injured.
The terrorist group, Jama’at al-Jihad al-Islami also known as the Community of Holy Warriors, a terrorist organisation affiliated with al-Qaeda, is believed to be responsible for the incident. It is clearly in their interest to foment sectarian strife in Egypt as the government of President Mubarak has no sympathy with such groups. The Dean of Al-Azhar University spoke of his pain and grief at “this criminal incident” which tried to undermine national unity. His Holiness Pope Shenouda echoed this theme, saying it was “aimed at destabilising the country’s stability and security” and that such criminals are “the enemies of Christians and Muslims alike and they do not want good for this country, and seek to foment sedition inside.”
The Coptic Church has always supported appeals to national unity and H.H. Pope Shenouda said it was too early to indict any of the powers, preferring to leave this matter to the investigating authorities. If the Egyptian government can utilise these common feelings of outrage whilst at the same time more publicly redressing some of the imbalance which has led to just grievances from the Coptic community, the cause of national unity will be strengthened. Whilst no-one accuses the government of complicity in such attacks, injustices unresolved may be exploited by extremists, whose failure to achieve success in the recent elections does not mean they have gone away. Until it demonstrates a willingness to address the deeper concerns of the Coptic community in both a committed and effective way, Egypt’s government will be seen to be neglecting its primary duty of ensuring the security and welfare of all its citizens. We must pray that out of these terrible events some lasting good may yet come.”
At the invitation of the North American Archdiocese of the Eritrean Orthodox Church Abba Seraphim attended its twelfth annual conference, held this year in Stamford, Connecticut. Accompanied by Mr. Trevor Maskery, he was received at the Hampton Inn on Friday, 23 July by His Grace Bishop Makarios and introduced to the clergy and senior lay representatives of parishes as far afield as Oakland (California), Atlanta (Georgia), Seattle (Washington) and Toronto as well as east coast communities.
From here the clergy processed the short distance to the hall of the Sacred Heart Parish in Schuyler Avenue, which was made available for conference sessions by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport. Upon arrival the clergy were greeted by a large body of laity and vested deacons who conducted them to the hall with traditional songs and the beating of drums. They were then formally welcomed by Bishop Makarios, following which Abba Seraphim spoke of his close association with the Eritrean Church since its independence and his delight at visiting the North American diocese, which had remained such a staunch supporter of His Holiness Abune Antonios. Later that evening Abba Seraphim and Bishop Makarios dined together and were able to discuss matters of common concern and interest.
On Saturday morning, 24 July, Abba Seraphim and Bishop Makarios, assisted by the priests and deacons, celebrated the Divine Liturgy (Anaphora of the Apostles) at Archangels Greek Orthodox Church in Bedford Street, Stamford, during which Professor Deacon Habtu Ghebre-Ab was ordained a priest (with the name Father Athanasios) to serve the Eritrean community in Cincinatti. The new priest had only visited Abba Seraphim at the Church Secretariat in Charlton two months previously when he had spoken of his planned ordination although at that time Abba Seraphim had not planned to be in New York this summer.
During the Liturgy Abba Seraphim preached on the Gospel (John X: 11-21) and illustrated the importance to the apostolic faith and traditions, which recognised Abune Antonios as the canonical Eritrean Patriarch or the one who “entereth in by the door” as “the shepherd of the sheep” in contrast to the government appointee who “enterest not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” Abba Seraphim declared that the clergy and faithful who upheld the canonical church order were faithful to the apostolic tradition and were right not to follow a stranger but rather to “flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.” During the service special prayers were said for Abune Antonios and those imprisoned in Eritrea for their faith and the Patriarch’s picture was prominantly displayed in the church.
After lunch Mr. Trevor Maskery, who has designed the websites for Patriarch Antonios and the British Orthodox Church, spoke about the importance of harnessing the power of the internet and directed attention to some of the opportunities which still needed to be grasped.
Abba Seraphim also gave a keynote address, “How shall we sing the Lord’s Song in a strange Land?” addressing some of the issues which face an expatriate community which has largely fled from persecution at home. The text of this talk is now available in booklet form from www.lulu.org In the evening Abba Seraphim and Mr. Maskery dined with a group of lay leaders and explored further some of the issues raised during the day’s meeting.
On Sunday. 25 July Abba Seraphim and Bishop Makarios, assisted by the priests and deacons, celebrated the Divine Liturgy (Anaphora of St. Jacob of Serough) with St. Gabriel Eritrean Orthodox Parish of New York which worships in the basement chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church at 469 W. 142nd Street, New York, which was also the commemoration of the Archangel Gabriel. After the liturgy the clergy and people went in solemn procession around the entire block as an important witness in the community where they worship. Many people came out to watch with deep respect and to share in the joy which the procession presented to all around. After a festive agape Abba Seraphim again preached on St. Gabriel and the angelic ministries and Bishop Makarios made commemorative presentations to Fr. Athanasios and those also ordained hegoumenos and reader over this blessed weekend. Abba Seraphim returned to London on 26 July.
Commenting on his visit Abba Seraphim spoke of the deep joy experienced in the opportunity to have close contact and eucharistic communion with this particular diocese of the Eritrean Orthodox Church which is notable for its integrity and fidelity to Abune Antonios and the Orthodox tradition. He was impressed by the dedication and commitment of the clergyand by their energy, which not only involved teaching the faith but also in studying for theological degrees (often in addition to degrees already earned in other disciplines) to advance their own knowledge. The continuing love and pastoral concern which His Holiness Pope Shenouda has always shown for the Eritrean Church was manifested recently by providing them with a bishop highly respected for his fidelity and integrity, which will provide the oversight long needed by the dio0cese. “Under the wise leadership of Bishop Makarios, these faithful priests and people will prove to be a powerful witness to this authentic expression of Orthodox ecclesiology, and with its eirenic and spiritually based ethos, this diocese will one day be the means of blessing the Orthodox in Eritrea who remain and quietly witness to their long and preciously held faith in Christ.”
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10.00 am Liturgy of St. James
11.45 am Refreshments
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Divine Liturgy – 10:30am
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7.45pm Talk and discussion
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Divine Liturgy – 10:30am