The small northeastern African nation of Eritrea lies on the Red Sea just north of Ethiopia. It is a nation of six million, with a growing overseas community in the United States and Europe, though most Westerners could not locate it on a map. Many Americans may be more familiar with other nations in the Horn of Africa, like the terrorist attacks of Al-Shabaab in Somalia, or the brutal civil war in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, Eritrea experiences its own set of crises, especially within the context of religious liberty.
Under its current constitution, the Eritrean government officially recognizes four religions: the Eritrean Tewahdo Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Sunni Islam and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. While Eritrea is a religiously pluralistic country, it has been governed only by the Party of People’s Front for Democracy and Justice since its independence from Ethiopia and remains the exclusive legal political party in the country. The US Department of State has re-designated Eritrea as a “country of particular concern” in 2022 for its violations of religious liberty. This list also includes North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.
Inclusion on this list entails sanctions on its export and import of defense equipment, which still apply to the present. All religious groups in the country require official registration with the administration of President Isaias Afwerki, which has hampered the abilities of churches to run independent schools and hospitals in Eritrea. While most of the dozen nations on this list hold notoriety in the American public consciousness, Eritrea has often been ignored.
The Eritrean Orthodox Church is one of the largest religious groups in the country and one of six independent Oriental Orthodox Churches, along with the Ethiopian and Coptic Orthodox Churches. Upon Eritrean political independence from Ethiopia, the Eritrean Orthodox Church gained autocephaly (self-rule) from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in 1993, and finalized a formal agreement with Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church in 1994 to consecrate new bishops for the Eritrean Church. The first two patriarchs, Abune Phillipos and Abune Yacob, reigned in relative harmony with the Eritrean government and the Oriental Orthodox Communion. The third Patriarch, Abune Antonios, was removed from his position in 2006 only two years into his reign. Despite government pressure, Abune Antonios refused to excommunicate three thousand members of the Medhane Alem movement, which runs Bible studies among Eritrean Orthodox Christians. Abune Antonios criticized the arrest of three Orthodox priests who held a Bible study without government approval. Fifteen women in the city of Keren were also arrested for membership in Medhane Alem. Authorities would only release them after signing paperwork renouncing their membership thereof.
The layman Yoftahe Dimetros deposed Abune Antonios, taking his patriarchal garments and placing him under house arrest in the capital, Asmara. He was appointed as General Secretary of the Holy Synod with government support. Dimetros then appointed Bishop Dioscoros as the fourth patriarch. Throughout the entire reign of Dioscoros as Patriarch of Eritrea (who died in 2015), Abune Antonios maintained that his removal from his office violated Eritrean canon law. In 2019, the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church even excommunicated Abune Antonios for heresy. From 2019 Abune Antonios lived under house arrest on church property until his death on February 9, 2022. Only after the death of Abune Antonios did the Coptic Orthodox Pope (now Pope Tawadros II) decide to recognize the fifth Patriarch of Eritrea, Abune Kerlos, on July 7 2022 in order to reintegrate the Eritrean Orthodox Church within the Oriental Orthodox Communion, now that the Church has only one undisputed head. Abune Kerlos had been elected over a year earlier by the Holy Synod, on May 12 2021 and consecrated a bishop on June 13. Abune Kerlos died on December 2, 2022, just shy of five months of rapprochement with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.
Despite Eritrea’s unfortunate nickname as “the North Korea of Africa”, a better comparison can be struck between Eritrea and the People’s Republic of China, another country of particular concern on the 2022 countries of particular concern list. While China does not have a universal recognition of freedom of religion, it does offer constitutional protections for five religions: Daoism, Confucianism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam. Both countries harbor active repressions of religious minorities not included in this list. This includes the jailing of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea who will not serve in the military or the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China. For totalitarian regimes, like the Chinese Communist Party, the national interests centered around an explicitly atheist ideology trump any considerations of personal religious conscience. Even government recognition does not spare religious communities whom the CCP views as subversive.
Recognition is not intended as a protection for those communities, but rather a means for states to control and monitor their citizens. In 2018, the Chinese government pressured the Vatican to sign an agreement to allow for the merger of the Chinese underground Church into the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). The CPCA does not hold to Catholic canon law– similar to the case of Abune Antonios- by appointing bishops without Vatican approval who are loyal to the communist party (although Pope Francis did allow for conscientious objectors to remain part of the underground Church despite the merger). Still, this introduces a crisis of spiritual authority for Eritrean Orthodox and Chinese Catholics alike.
The irony of the Eritrean Orthodox Church is that its independence was intended to safeguard the national ambitions of millions of patriotic Orthodox Christians, who won a bloody thirty-year long war of independence against Ethiopia. Just as Egypt had the Coptic Church, and the Ethiopians had the Ethiopian Church, the Eritreans wanted an Eritrean Church. The creation of a national church however invited government intervention, which believed it could dictate Church policy.