State, Religion and Ethno-Regional Politics

Sign of the Times


On August 1, 2009, I happened to be in Washington DC, visiting a family friend who was in hospital following a serious surgery. As I was about to leave the hospital, a brother of the patient and a man I have known for many years and regarded as a friend as also leaving, and told me about a meeting being held at the Medhane Alem Orthodox Church in down town Washington. He is a member of the church and said that the meeting was an annual congregation of Orthodox Christians, which was being held in Washington DC this year. I was curious to know about the meeting because the church, and especially the Eritrean Orthodox Church, is fast becoming the center of opposition to the ruling regime in Eritrea, bringing together social forces critical of the policies and politics of the regime, including many individuals who had belonged to opposition political organizations. I expressed an interest to attend the meeting; so we went there together. When we arrived a young cleric was conducting a seminar on aspects of the Bible’s teaching to a congregation of over six hundred men and women. At the end of each segment of the seminar, simple hymns were sung in Tigrigna by the whole congregation, to the accompaniment of huge drums carried by two young men, beating traditional church rhythms on the drums, and going back and forth with women ululating when the drum beat reached a climactic point. It all took me back nostalgically to the good old days when I used to experience such sights and sounds during celebrations in my village of origin, in my youth and many times thereafter in my adult life. When the seminar was over, and before lunch was served in the basement of the church building, my friend introduced me to several young Orthodox clerics, some of whom held Ph.D. degrees in science subjects. I was impressed by their youth, dedication and eagerness to serve as priests and deacons, while working in their various fields of knowledge. I met a few people I had known during the struggle for independence, who were members of Eritreans for Liberation in North America, as well others who are new arrivals to the United States; in fact, the vast majority are people who left Eritrea in recent years, including the young priests and deacons, who belong to a new generation of Eritrean Orthodox Christians dedicated to modernize and revitalize the church. As we shall see later, these are representatives of a new breed of men with irresistible ideas who have collided with the resistance of the immovable object of hidebound traditionalists who felt insecure in the face of the dynamism, knowledge and enlightenment presented by the young priests. Again, as we shall see later, some of their fellow priests have been imprisoned, held incommunicado like the other prisoners of conscience, both Christians and Muslims, including a medical doctor and the only trained psychiatrist in the country.

Another seminar was conducted after lunch by Dr. Tseggai Isaac, who related the fascinating story of Saint Abranyos, an Eritrean mystic and religious leader, citing passages in Geez about his life and work. Dr. Tseggai is a professor of Political Science and I was surprised by his knowledge of Geez, which he read fairly well albeit dragging the course of the seminar somewhat to the annoyance of some members of the congregation because they did not know Geez. The seminar was in fact stopped before Tseggai could finish what he had started. Qeshi Gebremichael, a respected priest and community elder, stopped the seminar rather abruptly and decisively brushing aside some complaints from some women members of the congregation.

Another surprise came from Dr. Tseggai with his contrite statement apologizing to me for writing negatively about me in the past, siding with the government on some issues that I had forgotten. In fact before climbing to the podium to deliver his speech, he had personally apologized to me, and I had told him that I hold no grudges whatsoever: I don’t even remember what he had written about me. He was gracious in his confession of wrong-doing, and I was touched by the fact that he made his confession in public, asking me to stand up and identify myself to the congregation, which I did to a rather embarrassing, prolonged applause.

By and large, judging by the speeches and questions and answers following the speeches, the meeting exhibited a positive spirit, one that demonstrates a new vitality and an aroused social consciousness, with a clear political content. This meeting is one of many being held on Sundays throughout North America, both in the United States and Canada, wherever there are Eritrean communities. It is part of a new trend whose origin and impact on Eritrean society and politics we need to explore together with other religious movements, or at least expressions of religious grievances—both Muslim and other Christian denominations—leveled at the ruling regime.

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Nation-State and Nationalism: A Historical Perspective

There are three powerful forces driving modern politics—nationalism, religion, and the demands of constituent parts of a state in national politics, such demands being based on the shared values of democracy and justice. This truism applies to Eritrea; and in this chapter we will explore aspects of religion and regional politics in connection with the policies and politics of the present Eritrean government regarding these issues. Some aspects of the issues, and the forces aligned behind the issues, have been subsumed or even articulated in some of the preceding chapters. In addressing the issues concerning regional politics and the state, related issues like land will be considered.

As for nation and nationalism let it be said that the combined idea of nation and nationalism has been the primal force driving Eritrea’s quest for self determination and independence. Nationalism was the “melting pot” (to use a much abused phrase) that united the disparate groups making up the nation and mobilized them against an alien occupying army, eventually leading to the country’s independence.

To begin with the nation, let me first repeat the obvious about the idea of nation. Nations are born, grow and die; but the nation as a historical phenomenon, is an enduring fact of the constitution of human society. The modern imagination is hard put to think of the idea of a person without a nation. I well remember during the Eritrean war of independence a popular slogan was, bizei hager kibret yellen (There is no dignity without nation). Sometime back I read the story written by a Frenchman who lived as an exile in Germany during the Napoleonic period. The story was about a man who lost his shadow. [Can you imagine that!]. It is a parable about a man without a nation. There cannot be shadow without corporeal substance; a man without shadow has no substance. A man without a nation (an émigré) defies the ordinarily accepted categories and provokes at best pity, and at worst, revulsion. Perhaps in a nation of refugees like America this may not be applicable. Although having a nation is not an attribute of humanity, in our own time having a nationality is a human right. Consider the predicament of the Roma nation also known as Gypsies; they have at least a strong sense of nationhood, albeit handicapped by their lack of a state.

A distinction must be made between nation and nationalism. The latter can be and has been used in defense of the former; nationalism in fact holds that state and nation are meant for each other. One without the other is incomplete, as the tragic predicament of the Somali people demonstrates.

In connection with nationalism, it will help to put the idea of nation and state in context. In modern times—roughly in the last one hundred fifty years—with the demise of large empires, like the Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires (and later the European colonial empires), the nation became the only internationally legitimate state form. On the debris of the disappearing empires, nation-states appeared, many basing their sovereignties on ancient identities. In the case of the former European colonial empires of Africa, the sovereignties were defined in terms of the colonially fixed boundaries enclosing within them different ethno-linguistic entities. When the League of Nations assembled in 1920, in the aftermath of World War I, they inaugurated an era in which the nation became the legitimate unit of the international legal order. American President, Woodrow Wilson then championed self determination as the defining idea proclaiming that every nation has the right to determine its political future, thereby providing the philosophical/moral justification for the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the emergence of several new nations out of those empires, in the Balkan area and the Middle East.

 In more recent times, in the post-Cold War era, an explosion of new nationalisms broke out in Europe. In fact, the world seemed to be witnessing two diametrically opposed trends: one involving the creation of larger unities out of many nations typified by the European Union; the other witnessing the rise of national movements breaking out of larger, multi-ethnic nations. At the start of the 1990s, Yugoslavia had disintegrated, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had divided into independent states.

The power of nationalism has intrigued scholars who wondered why so many ordinary people were willing to lay down their lives for nations that their grandparents had never heard of, to say nothing of the ethnic cleansing and other atrocities that were committed in the name of nationalism. Some scholars explained the phenomenon of nationalism in terms of the dislocation caused by modern industrial society, which destroyed traditional rural communities and drove millions of people into wholly strange factories and urban centers, and defined by a new identity (See, for example, Earnest Gellner, Oxford, 1983). Presiding over and shaping the change is, of course, the modern state with its powerful institutions of coercion, and programs of standardized public education for everyone within its reach, aided by a mass market in communications—books, newspapers, radio and television. These factors combined to create a new sense of community, of “subjects” transformed into citizens.

To this “functionalist” analysis of nationalism must be added religious and cultural elements to explain its emotional appeal. These elements give nationalism a deeper historical grounding, or a longer attachment stretching to an antiquity, real or imagined. But, to reiterate, the most significant factor in the construction of nationalism is the rapid expansion of literacy and the development of mass newspaper readership, or radio listening audience. In all this, language assumes a critical role as a means of communication and a national leadership using it skillfully. Hence the importance of language in modern political discourse, and the fact that there is much debate on language in national politics, including the wisdom or otherwise of having an official national language designated under a constitutional provision.

Nationalism in Eritrea

Eritrean nationalism is based on the creation of the territory as an Italian colonial state. Like the rest of colonial Africa, its identity as a nation-state was defined by the boundaries created after Italy declared it as a colony in January 1890. This historical fact, reaffirmed by the post-colonial African legal order under the 1964 Cairo Resolution of the OAU, is buttressed by the factors discussed in the preceding paragraphs about the construction of nationalism. Italian industrial investment and the urbanization and consequent mixing of different ethnic groups in factories, plantations and shanty-towns created a sense of a community among the colonial subjects who were transformed into fellow citizens following the departure of their colonizers. The struggle against a common oppressor—first the Italians, then the British, and finally the Ethiopians—eventually culminated in the triumph of national independence.

When we consider the two defining factors that figure in the analysis of the construction of nationalism, discussed above, namely industrialism that destroys traditional communities on the one hand, and the emotional appeal of religious and cultural antecedents, on the other, in Eritrea’s case, the former prevailed over the latter. The claim of Ethiopia’s governments, from Emperor Haile Selassie to the Dergue, contending that Ethiopia had ancient religious and cultural ties to a major part of Eritrea proved to be untenable. Eritrean nationalism forged under Italian colonial rule and reinforced thereafter through a bitter struggle, triumphed over that claim.

In any case, even if the religious and cultural factor were to apply, it would only be relevant with respect to the Christian Highland populations; for Eritrean nationalism embraces both the Christian Highland and the Muslim Lowland populations, a fact conveniently ignored in the Ethiopian narrative when it suits the purpose of the moment. Nor was this limited to the imperial or Dergue ideologues; as the recent writing of Shaleqa Dawit Woldegiorgis illustrates. Christian Ethiopian identification of the Habesha as being inclusive of Eritrea, assumes that Eritrea is composed of the Christian Highland only. This is a serious error that glosses over a vital element of Eritrean nationalism—the fact of its being a composite of a Christian (highland) and Muslim (lowland) mix forged during the colonial era. It is important to remind writers like Shaleqa Dawit that the attempt to drive a wedge between the two in the form of the Bevin-Sforza Partition Plan failed owing to the united opposition of Eritreans under the leadership of the Muslim-Christian United Bloc.

In the remaining part of this chapter—the major portion—I will deal with religion and the state, divided into parts I and II. Part I will be about religion, and part II will deal with etno- regional politics.

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I. Religion and the State—a Delicate Dialectic Relation

Religion is a universally recognized fundamental human right, so fundamental that it is taken for granted by most people. Yet it has been the subject of violation even in this day and age; and the state—the supposed protector—has been a guilty perpetrator of, or accessory to the fact, in such violation.

What is, or what should be, the proper relation between religion and the state?

Historically, different countries have given different answers to this question; but the one constant factor is the ideal search for the autonomy of religion from the demands of parochial or national politics.

In 1996, in the midst of Eritrea’s constitution making exercise, I convened a meeting of the principal religious leaders of Eritrea—the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Mufti of Eritrean Muslims, the representative of the Catholic Church, and the head of the Protestant Church. The meeting was held in the assembly room of the headquarters of the Constitutional Commission of Eritrea. In opening the meeting, addressing the distinguished religious leaders I said that first of all we needed their prayers, and that as Chairman of the Commission, I asked them to pray for the success of our work because we were engaged in a historic national task. Next, I told them that my colleagues of the Commission and I believed that religion is a fundamental human right and that the future constitution that we were preparing would contain a provision to that effect. Finally, I told them that we believed in the separation of religion and state, and that this too would be provided for in the future constitution.

In the Commission’s preliminary set of ideas—the precursor to the constitutional draft, known as the Proposals—the concept of secularism was posited as an expression of our idea of the separation of religion and state. During the extensive public debate that followed the publication of the Proposals and of the actual draft constitution, many members of the public expressed concern that the use of the word Alemawinet, the Tigrigna word for secularism, might create misunderstanding. Alemawinet conveyed a different and potentially misleading sense, one that was associated with worldliness in the negative sense of the word. In this respect, it is worth noting that in earlier English usage, the word secular was interchangeable with profane. For example, the renowned scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, is reported to have said, “I find sure marks of authenticity in the Bible than in any profane (secular) history whatsoever.”

In my book, The Making of the Eritrean Constitution…(2003), I discussed the question of secularism in the context of the idea of separation of Church/Mosque and State, summarizing the public debate on the subject and the concerns expressed by some citizens. In the book I wrote the following:

“The Commission used the opportunity to ask itself some probing questions related to religion, state and society in a country like Eritrea. That there must be separation between state on the one hand and church and mosque on the other was a matter beyond dispute among the vast majority of Eritreans including the leaders of the two main religions. A theocratic state was neither desirable nor practicable; it would be a prescription for disaster.” (p. 107)

Following the public debate, the Constitution Commission decided not to include an article declaring secularism as a principle, leaving such matter to be handled extra-constitutionally. I went on to comment that the Commission recognized the dialectical relation between the sacred and the worldly, between spiritual well-being, and the Preamble to the constitution reflects this recognition. Indeed, such a dialectical relation was essential, a timeless and creative aspect of Eritrean society. The consensus was that the state and religion may have to be separated but, to borrow the language of the law of Domestic Relation, they could not be divorced from each other. There was too much at stake for the state not to be concerned with religious matters, and for religion to be aloof from all politics. As I put it in the concluding paragraph of the section of the book dealing with the issue, “Although the golden medium of their relationship was not amenable to a cut-and-dry formula, it was dialectics, and had to be worked out in the manner of all dialectics—with patience, caution and acumen.” (p.108)

What is then, the source of religion’s authority, and how does it tally with state power?

In primordial social organizations, in which there was no differentiation of functions, there was unity of faith and power. Indeed, in much of earlier human history, the religious leaders enjoyed near absolute power of life and death. Differentiation of functions in social organization marked degrees of higher evolution. Such specialization of functions involved, among other things, a type of control of religious bodies over those who exercised political power, with the use of commonly accepted principles or shared values. An example of such control is given in the Orthodox Christian mythology of the mysteries of the Virgin Mary (Te’amire Mariam). In that story, the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, is taking her son on a tour of hell where he saw people tied to columns of fire, suffering without respite. When he asks her who they were, she informs him they were princes who abused their power, doing injustice to people when they ruled over them in their earthly life.

There is a similar injunction in Islam attributed to the Prophet Mohamed (pbuh). “Pharaoh turned into a tyrant on earth, and discriminated against some people. He persecuted a helpless group of them, slaughtered their sons, while sparing their daughters. He was indeed wicked.” [Surah 28:4].

And from Hadith: “If anyone walks with an oppressor to strengthen him, knowing that he is an oppressor, he has gone forth from Islam. [Bukhari, Muslim].

And again: “I heard the Prophet (saaws) saying ‘Any man whom Allah has given the authority of ruling some people and he does not look after them in an honest manner, will never feel even the smell of Paradise.’” [Sahih Muslim – Volume 9, Book 89, Number 264, Narrated Ma’qil]

Thus was religious doctrine conceived by religious authorities in attempts to keep rulers in check by the threat of eternal punishment in the hereafter if they did harm to their subjects. Nor was this limited to religious authorities. Dante’s Divine Comedy contains passages in which rulers that he did not like were consigned to the Purgatory, like the Count Ugolino. [Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia].

It is open to question whether such injunctions deterred princely rulers from abusing their powers and doing harm. But it is conceivable that it might have had a restraining effect on at least some of them, some of the time.

Religion relates to politics in a number of ways. It interacts with the nation state, which, as mentioned before, is the standard political arrangement in modern times. Many religions are powerful forces with global impact that can play crucial roles in conflict situations either in intensifying or in helping resolve them. Religious institutions like churches and mosques themselves play roles within nations in different ways, either pacifying conflict situations or inflaming them. And often religious values are invoked to justify and legitimize political action. At times also the policies or actions of political leaders may be motivated by religious beliefs, even in countries like the United States of America that practice separation of church and state. As noted above, state and religion may be separated, but they cannot be divorced. To vary the metaphor, the spiritual and the material are two sides of the same coin.

State and Religion in Eritrea

Eritrea’s principal religions, embraced by the overwhelming majority of its population, are Christianity and Islam. A small minority of people (most Kunama) are followers of traditional African religion, also known as animism. The vast majority of Christians are adherents of the (Eastern) Orthodox religion, the remainder being Catholics and Protestants. The Muslims are adherents of the Sunni branch of Islam.

Christianity was introduced to Eritrea in the fourth century AD, when much of today’s Eritrea was an integral part of the Axumite kingdom. But the Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity were introduced for the most part in the middle of the 19th century, by European missionaries. Earlier attempts to introduce Catholicism in the region were made by Portuguese Jesuits by converting a reigning king during the Gondarine dynasty in the 16th century. The attempts were foiled by stalwarts of the Ethiopian Orthodox religion, being at the head of a public protest, and charging that the converted king had fallen prey to the influence of foreign powers. As a result, the converted monarch was overthrown and succeeded by his son, the renowned King Fasil. From then on Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Orthodox leaders and their followers, with the support of the monarch, as defender of the faith, have had to contend with the gradual encroachment of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. For over four centuries the “Mother Church” has thus been on the defensive, as the two other branches increased their membership, fielding a host of priests with modern education, in contrast to the Orthodox priests who were stuck with their old ways.

In Eritrea, as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there is a new awakening among Orthodox clerics led by a new blood of educated and conscientious clergy. This, as we shall see in more detail, has been part of the current problem facing the Eritrean Orthodox Church and its relation with the State.

In terms of Christian-Muslim relation, the two religions have interacted in complex ways for centuries, having been forced by circumstances to find ways of coexistence. In view of the role that religion seems to have played in recent conflicts in many African countries, it is crucial for students of the subject as well as for policy makers to devise ways of properly understanding the interaction of the adherents of the two religions. And it is especially the duty of scholars to think of how an objective study of their relationship might be conceptualized. One scholar of religion writing on the subject has suggested two methodologies for understanding interfaith relations in Africa:

1) Sociological and practical; and

2) Doctrinal and theoretical.

He explains:

From a sociological and practical analysis, we must inquire into what is taking place on the ground at the moment, as well as what the historical background might be for what we are now experiencing. We must address how members of the Christian and Muslim faith communities relate…The doctrinal and theoretical analysis will require, among other things, an inquiry into the teachings of Christianity and Islam in order to appreciate the religious principles that motivate the attitudes of the individuals or communities in question. (Laurenti Magesa, 2007, “Contemporary Catholic Perspectives on Christian-Muslim Relations in Sub-Saharan Africa:The case of Tanzania,” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol.18, No. 2)

I would emphasize the need for historical perspective; the writing of historians on the subject provides invaluable insight into inter-faith problems and methods of resolving them.

Historically, Christianity and Islam have coexisted in the Horn of Africa region, including Eritrea and Ethiopia for centuries, beginning shortly after the rise of Islam in the seventh century and following its gradual spread. Ethiopian kings being titular heads of the church viewed the spread of Islam with some trepidation, particularly following Islamic conquests or incursions into their kingdom. On a few occasions indeed, there have been religiously inspired wars of conquest and resistance. The most famous of such wars, and one that left a deep impact in inter-faith relation in the country, was the one conducted by Imam Ahmed bin Ibrahim, popularly known among Ethiopians as Ahmed Gragne (the left-handed) whose forces swept across much of the Ethiopian highland kingdom in 1529 converting thousands to Islam, until 1542. In that year, the Ethiopian king was able to defeat him and recover the lost ground, with the help of Portuguese troops. One of the significant consequences of the Ahmed Gragne conquest, and the void it left in south-eastern and central parts of Ethiopia, was a demographic change. The void left was filled with the advent of the Oromo from their southern strongholds to the south-eastern region and to central parts of Ethiopia, for ever changing Ethiopian politics and society.

Problematic Coexistence in Ethiopia

Until the emergence of Eritrea as an independent state, the Eritrean Orthodox Church was part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Hence an account of the life of Christians and Muslims of earlier times is relevant for our analysis. Eritrean Orthodox Christians looked up to their Ethiopian Christian brethren. Those with resources would go all the way to Axum to be ordained priests; for Axum was the original center of Christianity in Ethiopia. Even the creation of Eritrea as an Italian colonial state did not sever the link completely. In other words, there was a strong religious and cultural bond between Eritrean Christians and Ethiopia via Orthodox Christianity. Historically, the king was the head of the church, which means, among other things, that no one could ascend the throne unless and until he professed the Orthodox Christian faith. Church and State supported each other, with the State providing the security umbrella and material support for the church, while the church provided ideological support for the State. There is a tradition whereby the state is supposed to allocate one third of its land to the church (Siso le-qedash…)

At the micro level, relations between Christians and Muslims in Ethiopia were seemingly harmonious, with demonstrable friendly coexistence and mutual tolerance. Linguistic commonality (Amharic, etc) and geographic proximity helped: the fact of sharing a common language and living in the same locality enabled members of the two communities to participate in one another’s life-cycle rituals of birth, wedding, funerals and other social occasions. In Wollo, they even intermarried. On the other hand, in the wake of the Ahmed Gragne conquest, barriers emerged, the most notable being Christian avoidance of meat slaughtered by Muslims, and vice versa. It is interesting that such a barrier does not exist outside Ethiopia (and Eritrea).

But at the macro-level, the inter-faith relationship definitely shows Muslims relegated to a position of second class. They had no role in running the affairs of the Christian State. As a consequence, the policy and attitudes of the (Christian) ruling elite filtered down to all levels, creating a situation in which Muslims were perceived as inferior to Christians. The relationship of tolerance and co-existence was thus a façade hiding a divided society. Not even during Haile Selassie’s comparatively more liberal reign did Muslims gain equal rights with Christians. Apart from a few token appointments, Muslims were excluded from employment in public offices and from holding higher ranks in the army.

Things would change suddenly with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and its five-year occupation (1935-1941), which marked a break with the past. Italian policy of divide-and-rule aimed at devaluing the Christian ruling group and empowering Muslims by giving them equal status for the first time. The policy included financing of the construction of mosques and madrassas, employment of Muslims in administrative positions and subsidies in the propagation of Islam and pilgrimages (Hajj) to Mecca.

The next time Muslims found their voice was after the overthrow of the imperial regime. Some 100,000 Muslims conducted a massive demonstration in Addis Ababa in April 1974, and called for the recognition of Muslim festivals as public holidays, financial support for the construction of mosques and permission to establish a National Islamic Council. After the fall of the Dergue government, the new EPRDF government gave Muslims more rights lifting restrictions on Hajj and the ban on Islamic religious literature as well as restrictions on the construction of mosques. Newspapers and magazines began to appear published by Muslim groups. However, there was a reversal of some aspects of the new government’s liberal policy in the wake of violent incidents resulting in the death of some worshippers around the al-Anwar mosque in Addis Ababa.

The Church in Eritrea, under Italian rule, maintained a tenuous link with its Ethiopian counterpart. Italian policy sought to undermine the power of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church by encouraging autonomy, if not complete severance of ties between the two churches. At the same time, while taking care not to interfere in religious affairs, Italian policy aimed at encouraging the Catholic Church to spread its wings, and undermined the role of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But, to give the devil his due, so to speak, the Italians respected the office of priesthood, a fact demonstrated by their policy of exempting priests from being conscripted to the military.

Muslim-Christian Coexistence in Eritrea

As we saw, Ethiopian Muslims had found their voice during the brief period of Italian occupation, but had to wait another sixty years before they could gain equality. By contrast, in Eritrea, throughout the fifty-odd years of Italian colonization, Muslims had equal rights with Christians in all respects. Interestingly enough, Catholic evangelization aimed at converting Orthodox Christians to Catholicism, staying away from Muslim areas where the colonial government encouraged the building of mosques and madrassas. Moreover, Arabic was taught in the government-run schools where Muslims mixed with Christians as they also did in the plantations and factories as well as in the colonial army.

Muslim-Christian relations at the micro level have been peaceful, characterized by a neighborly spirit of live-and-let live and participation in social events like weddings and funerals. Friday prayers are festive affairs for Muslims, particularly in the cities, when one would see one’s neighbors dressed in their best and flocking to the mosque. In the villages of the central highlands of Akele Guzai and Seraie, though the inhabitants are predominantly Christian, there are significant numbers of Muslims—Saho in the one and Jeberti in the other. In Hamasien, there are pockets of Muslims in several villages. All of these are members of the farming communities tilling their plots of lands and living the life of the typical villager.

In the village where I was born there were some twenty families of Muslims, who organized their own Qur’anic school at the elementary level for their children. One of my childhood friends would repeat to me, after his class, the Arabic alphabets (Alif-ba-ta-…etc), and I would repeat to him the Tigrigna alphabets (Ha-hu-hi…etc). Since we did not have paper and pencils, we would write on the ground one another’s alphabets. To us children it was a kind of innocent game. That was before I left the village life and went to Asmara to continue my education, as I described in the First Volume of these memoirs. I saw my childhood friend a couple of times before I left to Ethiopia; I never saw him again.

My kinsman, Dr. Nerayo, narrated to me that when he was attending elementary school in our village, they had one teacher for the two grades—grades one and two. The teacher divided the class into morning and afternoon sessions, teaching first grade in the morning and the second grade in the afternoon. Nerayo, who was a precocious child, asked his mother if it was alright if he attended Arabic lessons in the village Qur’anic school when he was not attending his class. His mother, a devout Protestant, agreed, thus enabling Nerayo to study the Arabic alphabet; and he says he can still remember the first part of the Arabic recitation that Koranic students learn—“Bismi’Allahi Arrahman Arrahim…”etc.

What was more surprising to many, Nerayo and my brother Elias (Nerayo’s childhood companion), frequently ate at the household of IndaBoy Ibrahim. The meals included meat, which meant they were crossing the barrier of taboo and defying the meat avoidance practiced by Orthodox Christians. As an important part of this barrier, at weddings, the hosts prepared separate dishes for Christians and Muslims. Clearly, the Protestant parents of Nerayo and Elias had shown their children the way of breaking a taboo—a taboo that Eritrea’s founding fathers, Ibrahim Sultan Ali and Woldeab Woldemariam, ritually broke as a gesture of political unity of Muslims and Christians.

As is well-known, in one historic meeting, Woldeab and his fellow Christians agreed to eat chicken meat slaughtered by a Muslim, and Ibrahim and his fellow Muslims agreed to eat chicken meat slaughtered by a Christian. It was indeed a moment of epiphany, if I may be forgiven for using a Christian concept (Is there an Arabic equivalent, I wonder?). In one symbolic gesture of unity, they broke an irrational taboo that had existed for some three hundred years, since the time of Ahmed Gragne. Eritrean freedom fighters both ELF and EPLF—Muslims and Christians—pushed the barrier-breaking practice one step forward, eating together goat meat similarly slaughtered. Incidentally, a few of the freedom fighters had lived in predominantly Muslim countries like Egypt and Sudan, where no such taboo existed.

Muslim-Christian relations during the years after Italian colonial rule followed a similar pattern of peaceful coexistence for some years. A point of divergence occurred during the years of political agitation concerning the future of Eritrea (1942-1950) with Muslims generally supporting independence and Christians for the most part supporting some form of association with Ethiopia. The divergence led to negative expression of mild forms of mutual animosity at the micro level with Christians referring to Muslims (as well as Christians who favored independence) as “RabiTa,” and Muslims and Christian independence supporters calling the union supporters as “Andinet. The words—RabiTa and Andinet—meaning League and Union, respectively, did not carry any stigma in themselves; but in time, when repeatedly and loudly hurled by one side at the other, became terms of abuse. Indeed, there were extreme expressions of hostility resulting in tragedy. A great independence leader, Abdulkadir Awate, was assassinated, and Woldeab was the target of seven assassination attempts forcing him to exile in Egypt. Both the Awate assassination and the attempts on Woldeab’s life were carried out by Andinet extremists and instigated by the Ethiopian government.

Leaving to historians the analysis of key events and the role of historic figures of the period, let me just note in passing that the federation period and especially what followed after Emperor Haile Selassies’s abolition of the federal arrangement, was marked by the gradual demolition of whatever autonomy Eritreans enjoyed. The period saw the subordination of Eritreans to Ethiopians, with an implicit diminution of the role of Muslims in a government presided over by a Christian Emperor. Nonetheless, the alienation of Eritrean youth and many among the generation of their fathers was accompanied by a common—Muslim-Christian—sense of grievance with different expressions of solidarity. Such solidarity was epitomized in the adoption of the underground project known as Mahber Shewate by Christian highlanders who knew its roots to be in Port Sudan created by Muslim Eritreans under the name of Haraka. This was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the declaration of the armed struggle led by Hamed Idris Awate. Awtae instantly became a national hero and the ELF that he led a potent expression of Eritrean nationalism.

Muslim-Christian Relation in the Armed Struggle

When it started, and for a few years afterward, the ELF was an all-Muslim organization. Its birth place was Barka and its leadership comprised Muslim lowlanders. One of the points of difference between the ELF and Haraka was that the latter was an all Eritrean (Muslim-Christian) organization. However, in deciding to eliminate Haraka from the Field, the ELF was not motivated by religious sentiments as much as by turf—territorial monopoly. Religion may have contributed to the crisis in the ELF; indeed, according to the principal leaders of the EPLF who had been members of the ELF, it was the principal cause. Nihnan Elamanan, the original manifesto of the core group of what would later become the EPLF, categorically claims that Christian members of the ELF were singled out for victimization and many were assassinated. To what extent this claim is true, and whether religion was the only, or the single most important reason, we will leave for historians to sort out together with other issues of dispute connected with the armed struggle. One thing is certain and worth reiteration—Isaias Afwerki, the principal author of Nihnan Elamanan, has himself much to answer for in what he did in the thirty years of his leadership of the EPLF, not to mention the post-independence period.

In conducting research for the purpose of writing this chapter, I prepared a simple questionnaire that I distributed to a selected target audience of twenty-five prominent Eritreans, both Christians and Muslims. One of the items in the questionnaire was the role of Nihnan Elamanan in the politics of Eritrea’s armed struggle. A majority of those I approached responded to my questions. One respondent, a former ELF member and critic of Isaias, said that Nihnan Elamanan is:

“a Christian message of agitation intended to control the struggle by rallying Christians as oppressed by Muslims…Its writers chose to go it alone when there were many progressive Eritreans risking their lives to achieve reformation of the ELF: Islah is the name of the first attempt for reforming the ELF which Isaias ignored to advance his wish to be seen as the only reformer by the sectors he was rallying.”

In support of his argument, the writer of this piece raises the question of veracity: such claims as the killing of hundreds of Addis Ababa University students were killed by the ELF, he avers, have not been substantiated. Admitting that “…some Christians were wrongly killed in the ELF,” the writer claims that dozens more Muslims were killed, and “Isaias made it look as if it was Muslims targeting Christians.”

In contrast to this respondent’s claims and arguments two other respondents (one Christian, and one Muslim) maintain that Nihnan Elamanan itself as a document is not a problem. We will call the two A and B. In fact, they both contend that it is one of the best political documents ever written in the history of the Eritrean struggle, articulating as it does the mission and vision and core values of the EPLF and the people who made it. On the other hand, both respondents point to the fact that the document made the cultural, religious and geographic divide a permanent fixture in Eritrean politics. In defense of EPLF’s split from ELF, respondent A contends that, rightly or wrongly, “the people that made the EPLF/PLF felt that they could not make a difference by staying within the ranks of the old ELF.” In the end, he says with a touch of pragmatism, that success is what counts, and that whereas the EPLF approach succeeded, that of the ELF did not. And Respondent B adds that, given its importance in shaping our history in one way or another, “the document should now be part of Eritrea’s heritage to help us understand our contemporary history.”

Another critical respondent gave a less strident and a rather nuanced analysis of the content and effect of Nihnan Elamanan. His summary of the document’s content is as follows:

The message reassured its target audience (Tigrigna highlanders) that its authors had no religious agenda, only nationalist aspirations. He cites one of the most memorable phrases of the document in which its writer(s) claim that they chose “sitting on the edge of a razor blade,” that is to say, between surrendering to Ethiopia or surrendering “to the bigotry of ELF leadership.” The “poison in the document” the respondent says was:

1. That the ELF leaders were jihadists and religious fanatics;

2. That they had no political agenda;

3. That they persecuted Christians and civilians, and butchered hundreds of fighters and civilians;

4. That they stole property from highlanders, and with the proceeds, took up multiple wives in Sudan.

Perhaps the most damaging and misleading message of Nihnan Elamanan was, according to the respondent, that it did not disclose that in the ELF there was a contest between traditionalists (reactionaries) and reformers (both Muslim and Christian). Instead it spoke of a contest between hardliners and Christians.

What emerges from the above narrative of mostly ELF-oriented commentators is that what EPLF supporters consider a historic document that was billed as justification for the split was in fact a fraud perpetrated by Isaias Afwerki in order to assure himself the support of Christians. And in doing so, he committed a crime against the Eritrean nation by causing a dangerous religiously-based division. [Emphasis added]

After I received these and other responses, Ismail Omar-Ali (whom I didn’t know and did not, therefore, ask for his views) has written a thoughtful piece in (September 19/2009). Ismail believes that, contrary to Ali Salim’s view, religion—not ethnicity and regionalism—is the most salient issue of division in Eritrea. He calls Nihnana Elamana an apocalyptic vision of a Christian leader. However, despite his belief that there has been a persistent pattern of inequality through regime changes, his conclusion is a positive and salutary one. He writes:

 “We find that Muslims and Christians have shared common struggles, dreams, and aspirations; that they lived side by side for centuries in peace and mutual respect (for the most part); that they fought side by side to rid themselves of occupation; and that even today, they are struggling together to bring about freedom and democracy to Eritrea.”

Isaias and Muslims in Independent Eritrea

Ever since the early days of independence, there have been reports of Muslims arrested by Eritrean security forces, and that no reason has been given for their arrest, nor was there a report on their fate. As recently as August 13, 2009,’s Gedab news reported that about 30 religious Eritrean Muslims, including teachers and students, were rounded up from Asmara by government security officers. Among those arrested is a 70-year old scholar, Shaikh Abdella, a graduate of Al Azhar University, who used to provide regular afternoon derse (short Islamic lectures) at the Masjid Khulafa Al Rashidin, (Asmara’s Grand Mosque), after the Asr prayers. Such lessons were banned by the government in 2002. That was the year when the government arrested many Muslim teachers whose fate is still unknown but are feared dead.

The Gedab news story offers a possible reason for the arrest; it says that the arrest may be related to an intra-Muslim feud that has been going on in the Maichehot neighborhood of Asmara between the traditional (Sufi) practitioners of Islam and the more strict (Selefi) proponents. Apparently, their differences had become so irreconcilable that the Selefists had splintered and founded their own mosque.

According to Gedab News, the deputy Mufti, Salem Ibrahim Al-Mukhtar, is reported to have played a role in the wave of arrests. It is stated in the same news account that when Eritrean Muslim elders petitioned the government to name Salem Ibrahim as a successor to the current Mufti, their hope and expectation was that he would emulate his father, the renowned Ibrahim Al-Mukhtar Ahmed Omer, Eritrea’s first Mufti (1939-1969), to show courage and compassion. Is Salem an enforcer of PFDJ’s policies, completely abdicating his religious (mediating) responsibilities, as the Gedab News seems to suggest, or are there other reasons why the arrests were made. If so what are the reasons. At times, it may boil down to questions of loyalty or allegiance, or conflicting loyalties, to be more exact. Are the followers of any sect, loyal to the country to which they belong first, or do they owe allegiance to the sect of which they are adherents? There are instances where a Talib, (pupil of a shaikh), or a deqe mezmur (Christian disciple) knows his master before his King or President. This fact led a French scholar of Senegalese society to remark, “In Senegal, one is often a Talib, disciple of a Marabou before being a citizen of a state.” (Coulon, 1981).

Whatever the reasons, whoever is responsible for arresting people has the responsibility of providing reasons, and the government has a constitutional duty of giving reasons for the arrest and of following the rule of law in bringing the detainees to an open court. If Salem has been just an instrument of the government enforcing its orders without ensuring that the legal rights of the detainees are observed, or at least requesting that they be observed, then he has indeed become a willing tool of the government.

This raises the question of the role of government in religious matters.

As previously stated, government institutions and religious bodies are different entities and should be separate. Unlike political organizations, religious bodies are not entities that can be formed or abolished at will like political organizations. Accordingly, The PFDJ government, even though it is led by atheists, has not deigned to order the closing of the generally recognized religious institutions. At the time of independence, the EPLF (later PFDJ) government did not have an institution to oversee the activities of religious institutions. The question was considered closely related to national security; and the responsibility for religious affairs was first given to Isaias loyalist, Naizghi Kiflu, who reported directly to the President. The first task was the election of a Mufti for Eritrean Muslims

The Mufti

I have been able to obtain information from a reliable source that had an intimate knowledge of the work of the government office on religious affairs, and on the relationship of the government and religious institutions, including the office of the Mufti. The following account and that of the Orthodox Church to be given later is based on this information.

In 1992, the security department under Naizghi was given an order to organize the election of the Mufti. All districts were required to present a candidate for the post of Mufti from among people who were learned Islamic clerics and who were known for their patriotic sentiments. The Security department then presented a list of people who were considered as potential candidates. Then suddenly, before a proper election was conducted from among the list of candidates, Shaikh Alamin was selected as Mufti of Eritrea. This was done because, in addition to his religious education, Shaikh Alamin was a supporter of the EPLF. His selection without a proper election procedure was obviously designed to ensure government control through a religious leader who saw eye to eye with the government.

According to my informant, the Mufti was under government control; a clear evidence of government control of the Mufti is the resources made available to his office. The government allocated an annual budget for administrative expenses and for the Mufti’s salary, as well as for other logistical support, including an office building together with office furniture and other facilities.

It is necessary to point out that obtaining government support should not, in and of itself, be regarded as a mark of compromising one’s religious autonomy, or religious duties. If the Mufti (or the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church for that matter) can maintain the integrity of his office in being a proper mediator between conflicting forces as “an honest broker” or a neutral reconciler in the case of feuding Islamic sects, he can conceivably redeem himself. After all, as Omar Jabir has reminded us recently, even the churches of some secular governments in Northern Europe obtain financial support from their governments. That does not mean they do the bidding of the governing party on any issue, even where the leaders of the government and of a given church in Europe may or may not agree on policy issues.

The fact that the Mufti is associated with the government has made him enemies from Eritrean Muslims some of whom have occasionally made threatening phone calls to his office. There have been repeated complaints by many Muslims about the manner by which Shaikh Alamin was selected Mufti of Eritrean Muslims who assert that his selection was contrary to accepted modes of election. Moreover, there are Muslims who are followers of the Ansar Alsunna sect who do not accept the present Mufti. Following the repeated threats made on Shaikh Alamin’s life, the government decided to move his residence from Akria to Tiravolo where most of government Ministers reside. The Mufti also receives constant protection through individual security detail.

The suspected makers of the threatening calls, presumably followers of the Ansar Alsunna Sect, are few in number live scattered in Keren, Ginda’E and in the sections of Akria and Maichehot in Asmara. According to my informed source, they also have ties with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East forces that have designs to extend their influence in Eritrea. Their world view and religious orientation is inimical to the worldview of PFDJ and its government.

A word on the composition of Eritrean Muslims will be helpful in understanding the conflict that might have led to the recent arrest of the Muslim teachers and students as well as to earlier arrests. As noted before, most Eritrean Muslims are Sunni. Muslim Sunni belong to four schools of thought following four jurors. The four jurors are:

1. Ibn Hambel whose followers are called Hanabla;

2. Abu Hanafi whose adherents are known as members of Hanafiyya;

3. Ashafi’e whose adherents are known as members of Shafe’eyya;

4. Ibn Maliki whose adherents are members of Malikyya

There are a few Qadiriyyah and other smaller sects within the Sunni of Eritrea, but the overwhelming majority in Eritrea and Easter Sudan are Khatmiyya Sufis. Khatmiyya is a Sufi denomination of Islam. It means the end, or the seal—Mohammed being the seal and believed to be the last prophet after Jesus. Khatmiyya’s founder is Al Mirghani and Khatmiyya and Mirghaniyya are used interchangeably. The Khatmiyya being Sufi are into spirituality and meditation and chanting. The (Saudi-based) Wahabi are strictly opposed to the Sufis.

My informant and guide on this subject wryly notes, “Now you know the Jehovah equivalent of Islam!” He also points out the fluidity in the adherence to the four schools. According to him, Eritrean Muslims follow the four schools of thought and one does not even see the difference. “Sometimes even Muslims do not see the difference,” he notes, “for one can follow one juror on one case and another in a different issue.”

It is worth stressing that as far as the PFDJ government is concerned, no organization, be it political or religious, Christian or Muslim, mainstream or sect, is tolerated if it cannot be controlled. The PFDJ (and EPLF before it) has never tolerated any view that is outside its own world view and that it cannot control. In this, as in other matters, the government of Isaias Afwerki is an equal opportunity oppressor.

The Christian Churches

From the outset, the government recognized four religious bodies: the mainstream Islam led by the Mufti, as described above, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Protestant Church. The Catholic and Protestant Churches depend on donations from their membership as well as from well known outside bodies with which they are associated. The government has devised ways and means of monitoring the activities of these churches including their external sources of finance. Infiltrating them is one such means. As for the Orthodox Church, the manner of exercising control over the activities of its leaders is not much different from that used in the office of the Mufti.

Just as the government has banned Islamic sects opposed to the Khatmiyya and the leadership of the Mufti, it has banned what it has branded as new Christian religions. Included in this category are the Pentecostals, Faith Mission, Presbyterian Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Seventh Day Adventist Mission. How some of these churches like the Seventh Day Adventist, that has been present in the country for a century, could be called new religions is beyond comprehension.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses were targeted for special exclusion not meted out to members of the other banned religions. Not only were they prohibited from practicing their faith; they were denied ordinary rights of citizens like practicing a trade or profession. They were driven out of their villas, which were distributed to high ranking members of the government. Their trade licenses were withdrawn, thus literally being deprived of a means of livelihood.

Why were the Jehovah’s Witnesses treated this way?

The reason advanced for these denials and prohibitions are two. First, adult members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to participate in the 1993 National referendum of Eritrea, on the ground that they believed that their kingdom is not of this earth. Secondly, they refused to participate in the national service, asking to be give social service type of tasks instead of military service. Unsubstantiated accusations were made that their motive was driven by Ethiopia politics, and that some of them participated in similar national service during the time of the Dergue. As for the first reason for their harsh treatment, it is an open question whether a citizen can be forced to participate in a national event like a referendum; in a nation of laws, this would be tested in a court of law. Eritrea has no such “luxury!”

The decision regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses was taken by Isaias himself who ordered the then Minister of Interior, Ali Said Abdella, to execute it. Ali then sent a circular to all Ministries and other organs of government requiring them all to do as they were told, including denying working and trading licenses. As it happened the circular was leaked and the American Embassy obtained a copy. President Clinton is reported to have mentioned this to Isaias in one of their meetings. When Clinton asked him Isaias is reported to have responded by saying that the Jehovahs believe their kingdom is in Heaven, so what are they doing coming to Clinton who leads an earthly government? Apparently, Clinton, who is known for his wit and linguistic prowess, was left speechless, and the matter ended in laughter!

With regard to the second reason, again in a nation of laws, there is such a thing as a conscientious objector who can decline performing military duties or service on religious or moral ground, opting for an alternative like performing medical service or other social services.

Members of other “new religions” have also been treated harshly in connection with the so called national service in Sawa. Clergymen of some of the other churches, including the Orthodox Church also protested on being forced to do military service; but to no avail.

Isaias and the Eritrean Orthodox Church

At first, religious affairs was run randomly with Isaias issuing orders to Naisghi and Ali Said. Then about 1995-1996 a Department of Religious Affairs was created within the Ministry of Interior. It was later transferred to the Ministry of Regional Administration until the abolition of that Ministry. Finally it was put under the direct control of the President’s Office, where it stays today. The Eritrean Orthodox Church, being the church whose adherents constitute the majority Christians in Eritrea, has received a special attention in a similar manner as the Mufti’s office.

The Orthodox Church has been administered under the office of the Patriarchate. Abune Philipos was the head of the office, with Abune Yacob as the principal administrator. Abune Philipos headed the Synod. Even though Abune Yacob was higher in rank as archbishop and was considered more learned in theology, Abune Philipos had the advantage of having returned to Eritrea earlier after independence and being a well known Eritrean patriot who stood up to the Dergue. When the Synod decided to change the office from a Bishpric to a Patriarchate, the issue of who will be the first Eritrean Patriarch became the number item of the agenda of the church. The head of the Egyptian Coptic Church, Pope Shinoda, was persuaded to send his envoy, Bishop Bishoy, to witness the anointing of the new Eritrean Patriarch.

It was a time when there was a keen competition for the post of the first Patriarch between the two contestants: Abune Philipos and Abune Yacob. The competition divided the Church into two camps, with regionalism rearing its ugly head. Abune Philipos rallied supporters from the Akele Guzai region, and Abune Yacom rallied supporters from the Hamasien region. One high cleric, Abune Makarios (whom Eritreans in America knew as Aba Petros), a younger and comparatively better educated cleric, was expected to play a mediating role. He made some half-hearted attempts at mediating but, according to some informants, he was overcome by vaulting ambition and apparently seemed to follow the maxim “between two contestants a third will win.” But he did not win; instead, Abune Yacob was persuaded to bow out on the understanding that he would be the next Patriarch. So Abune Philipos became the first Patriarch of Eritrea, at the ripe old age of 96.

A point worth emphasizing here is the fact of the historical link between Egypt and Ethiopia whereby the Archbishop of Ethiopia who was traditionally anointed by the Patriarch of Egypt. This was changed in the mid 1950’s when Abune Basilios became the first Patriarch of Ethiopia, thus altering the historic link. According some Ethiopian commentators of the time, this was considered one of Emperor Haile Selassie’s historic achievements, second only to his “recovery” of Eritrea when he abolished the UN-arranged federation in November 1962. The “Nile Question” being uppermost in Egyptian strategic thinking and policy priorities, despite their reluctance in ceding the prerogative of anointing Ethiopian bishops and thus maintaining a symbolic link with Ethiopia, Egyptian leaders settled to maintaining a cordial but watchful relationship with Ethiopia. The Nile being the life-blood of Egypt, and the major source of the Nile being Ethiopia, they cannot but remain cordial and watchful.

Similarly, even though one of the Nile’s tributaries flows from Eritrea, it is much smaller than either the Blue or White Nile. Nonetheless, Egypt’s interest in Eritrea is no less important for strategic and geo-political reasons; and its relation will be no less cordial and watchful. The link between Egypt and Eritrea continues in a somewhat altered state, with the elevation of the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church to the position of Patriarch, thus asserting full national autonomy in this matter.

It is regrettable to learn that the relationship of the two top clerics—Abune Philipos and Abune Yacob—after the latter’s elevation and anointment, was not one of cordiality. Abune Yacob retired to his home where he remained until the death of Abune Philipos and his own anointing as Patriarch. In all of this drama, Isaias did not relinquish his control; on the contrary one could see his hand in all the critical affairs of the church, including his approval of the elevation of Abune Philipos to be Patriarch, thus settling the dispute. He was also responsible for the decision to banish Abune Makarios to exile, rejecting the latter’s last-minute offer to be part of the Synod as a simple bishop, expressing remorse for his earlier plots campaigning to be the first Patriarch.

With regard to the finances of the Orthodox Church, the government plays a major role. The income from the faithful, such as its, does not go beyond covering the expenses of the church leaders; so the government makes annual budget allocation of over two million Nakfa. This is in addition to the provision of vehicles and other logistical support. Also the Egyptian Coptic Church had made a donation of some $100,000 for the purpose of building a theological college. This fund was supposed to take care of preliminary study and architect’s plan. The government knows of this, but no one knows where the money has gone and there is no college building in sight. Moreover, ten young students of theology were selected for training under the auspices of the Coptic Church. Among these one prominent priest, Keshi GebreMedhin is now in detention, together with Dr. Fitsum and others.

The arrest and indefinite detention of these two educated and dedicated priests is symptomatic of what ails the Eritrean Orthodox Church and religious life in Eritrea today. Many other young priests and other religious people have been arrested and remain in detention incommunicado. What we do know about Dr. Fitsum and his companion priests is that they are dedicated priests with a firm commitment to serve the Orthodox Church and revitalize and modernize some of its methods of management of its affairs. An example of the programs of change is a proposal made by the young priests that the sermon be given in Tigrigna instead of in Geez, so that the community of Faith can understand its message better. Secondly, they proposed that the church service be conducted at noon, instead of early in the morning, so that the young congregants could attend. The response of the older and tradition-bound priests was to accuse the young reformers as being Pentes (Pentecostals). They were thus accused of straying from the “correct line” of the Orthodox Church.

Clearly, in their commitment to modernization and revitalization, the young educated priests were engaged in the proverbial contest between the irresistible idea and the immovable object. The latter was in the form of older and tradition-bound priests who saw in this new approach a threat to their vested interests. What is intriguing is how the dispute led to the arrest and detention of the young priests, including Dr. Fitsum, a dedicated psychiatrist who performed commendable medical/psychiatric service to patients over and above his pastoral service. How and why did the dispute land at the President’s desk and why did he order their arrest? This question is connected with the dethronement of His Holiness Patriarch Antonios, Eritrea’s Third Patriarch. What Isaias did is comparable to the desperate acts of despotic kings of old like King Henry VIII of England.

The President and the Patriarch

Patriarch Antonios is a man of God whose primary pastoral concern has always been the wellbeing of his “flock.” Unlike some other high priests of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, he was not involved in the competition to ascend to the office of the Patriarch. That office was hoisted on him by virtue of his seniority as well as his well known piety and humility among his fellow priests. When Isaias began detaining the young progressive priests, Patriarch Antonios, who had seen the value of the young priests in modernizing the church, expressed strong disapproval of their detention and requested for their release. The President also removed the associates and sympathizers of the young priests thus leaving the church open for sycophants and yes-men who would do his bidding, under the leadership of Mr. Yoftahe Dimetros whom Isaias appointed to run the affairs of the Orthodox Church. In noting the irony of Yoftahe’s choice, one wonders what unknown relationship there might be between Isaias Afwerki and the son of Keshi Dimetros!

It is also obvious that that Isaias thought Antonios would be easy to manipulate. As the website, In Chain for Christ (ICFC) aptly put it, “Isaias mistook the piety and humility of the Patriarch for docility and thought he could walk all over him as he was accustomed to doing to so many others.”

(See Special Report:…)

He would discover that beneath the piety of a monk was “a defiant and unshakable granite of a man.” When he could not manipulate him, Isaias did something that no Temporal Authority should do with respect to a Spiritual Authority—dismissing an anointed Patriarch. According to tradition and canonical law, no political leader may intervene in church affairs and depose an anointed Patriarch. A Patriarch can only be deposed by a properly constituted ecclesiastical body on the grounds of proof that he was found in a compromising sex act, or if he became mentally unfit to hold the office.

But the outrageous act of deposing the Patriarch did not go unchallenged; on the contrary there was a massive protest. Again, to cite ICFC, by the time of the deposing of the Patriarch, “the only orthodox body that could pose the threat of any organized resistance to this gross interference in the Eritrean Orthodox Church was the Diocese of North America.” And to counter that, the Isaias regime decided to send a bishop/cadre to America. The candidate for the job was bishop Sinoda, who was dispatched to Washington DC in October 2005. ICFC claims to have documents showing that Sinoda and his handlers at the Eritrean embassy launched a campaign of vilification against the leaders of the synod in North America, coupled with words of intimidation to the larger community of faith of the Orthodox Church. It was a campaign tactic lifted from the pages of PFDJ manual conducted against members of the political opposition.

With the active participation of heads of PFDJ cells in North America, the bishop was involved in these campaigns, which included attempts to sully the name of H.H. Patriarch Antonios, as well as many leading members of priests in North America. But the table was turned against the plotters. To begin with, Patriarch Antonios, who had not been deposed yet but was aware what was coming to him, wrote a letter informing the North American diocese and followers of the Eritrean Orthodox Church that bishop Sinoda had been sent to America without his knowledge and approval, and he denounced the appointment as illegal. (Ibid).

In a massive demonstration of solidarity with the deposed Patriarch, and in opposition to Sinoda, the North American diocese and the community of the faithful rose up in protest. They inundated the Eritrean embassy in Washington DC with letters of protest, making it impossible for him to succeed in the campaign. Eventually Sinoda saw that he was engaged in an impossible mission. He gave up on his assigned project, breaking with his masters and has reportedly applied for asylum in America. What else is new?!

The vast majority of Orthodox Christians are committed to deliver their church from the clutches of the regime. Their loyalty is to the one legitimate Patriarch and opposed to the illegitimate successor who is an appointee of the President. There is only one legitimate Patriarch and his name is Antonios.

The struggle continues.
* * * *
II. Ethno-Regional Politics

Eritrea’s Geographic Division

Eritrea’s geography is divided into the highland mountain region, and the lowland plains. We must distinguish this geographic divide from the administrative divisions that are man-made, and which have been changed from time to time according to the whim and caprice of whoever happened to be ruling the country. For example, there is an oral tradition that the Italians lopped off a southern portion of Hamasien and added it to Seraye. They did this to spite the Hamaisen traditional ruling elite that had apparently proved obdurate. And in our own time, Isaias, in his infinite wisdom, chopped up Hamasien, distributing pieces of it to various “Zobas.” The reason advanced for changing the structure of the historic administrative division was geo-economic and environmental—I heard, for the first time, the expression Mai-ko’O (watershed) used in the government’s explanation to justify the decision.

Also subjected to the merciless scythe of the grim ripper are the historic names of Eritrea that were unceremoniously disposed of and buried. They were abolished by a presidential (or rather royal) decree and substituted with neutral sounding geographical expressions—Maekel, Debub, Anseba, Semenawi Qeyih Bahri, Debubawi Qeyih Bahri. The abolition of the historic names was explained by some well-meaning government supporters in terms of the EPLF’s commitment to a progressive, national (nation-building) agenda transcending ethnic and “sub-regional” sentiments. Such sentiments were associated with feudal mentality and condemned as unfit for a progressive organization. In fact in the EPLF vocabulary of vilification, “sub-regional” replaced “feudal” as a term of abuse.

The only region that was allowed to keep its name is Gash-Barka. This is a region rich in agricultural and other resources, which the government has designated for development. As such, it has become a subject of a great deal of contention, with far-reaching political implications, as we shall see.

The highland geographic land mass is predominantly inhabited by Christians, while the eastern and western lowlands are inhabited by Muslims. There are Muslims in the highlands, of course—Saho in Akeleguzai, and Jeberti in Seraye; and the majority of the inhabitants of Senhit and Sahel are Muslims, with Christian communities among the Bilen and the Mensa’e. The inhabitants of the highlands are predominantly farmers, while those in the lowlands are pastoralists. In the eastern lowlands, along the Red Sea Coast, particularly among the Afar, fishing is also a way of life. The recent attempts to promote fishing and the consumption of fish as an important component of nutrition for Eritreans may have persuaded some non-Afar Eritreans to be interested in fishing; but it is a far cry from what needs to be done. This question is related to the different modes of production and of ways of life of Eritreans living in the different regions, and how it is linked to the national interest.

Tigres and Tigrignas

Once more I will shift gear to inject a personal note before I resume the academic, analytical mode, hoping that the reason for this temporary shift will be clear later. In the recent cyber space discourse among Eritreans, to which I will return, my name was mentioned a few times by one particular writer, in a context that was distorted, presumably with the aim of drawing me to a cyber warfare. I did not think that would advance our common cause of democracy and justice, but would rather please the enemies of that cause, especially those who are ruling over our people. I thought it better for our common cause to wait for an opportune moment and treat the subject dispassionately. My shift to a personal narrative is aimed at demonstrating that there is more that unites highland and lowland Eritreans as a people than divides us. Our recent history of struggle is a living testimony of this fact.

I begin with reference to my childhood perceptions of people who seemed to me the same as myself and my kind, though they spoke a different language. Tigres and Tigrignas are related peoples as can be seen in the closeness of their two languages, with Geez as their common pedigree; and of the two, Tigre is closer to Geez. I have pleasant childhood memories of Tigre-speaking people visiting us from nearby Ad’Shuma or distant Habab, with their camels or flock of goats. I loved to hear their language though I never had the opportunity to learn it. My paternal grandmother, Iteghe Sebene, was the one who spoke volubly with the occasional visitors, sipping coffee and eating qolo, or qiCha..

In terms of the relationship of the two peoples, historically, there developed a distance between them, a distance that was both physical and cultural, bridged by occasional interaction in the form of exchange of goods and services. I’ll offer some personal anecdotes to help provide a comparative perspective and human dimension to the relation of the two peoples.

In the area where I grew up until the age of twelve, the occasional arrival of lowlanders with their camels and goats was greeted with excitement by us children, as the men stopped in the villages for respite and coffee. We were fascinated by the sight of camels let loose by their owners, foraging on the acacia trees. Those villagers with a smattering knowledge of Tigre showed off their knowledge by addressing the guests in Tigre and chatting with them over coffee. Some of the Tigre-speaking Muslims from nearby Ad-Shuma frequently exchanged salt for grains. There was one man in particular from Ad’Shuma whom I remember with fondness; his name was Omar Hussein, and he was a frequent visitor to our household. He was a builder and spoke fluent Tigrigna; he often stayed in our house for a few days, proudly telling us young ones that he built the mereba’e part of our compound where I slept. I loved talking to Omar Hussein (or Merhishen, as we called him).

The other group that came once a year were Asgedes from Sahel. These were distant relatives of the inhabitants of my village, Adi Nifas, which was founded by our common ancestor, Asgede.

The next time I came in contact with Tigre-speaking people was at a mature age, decades later when I joined the Eritrean struggle in 1975. Actually before I linked up with the liberation fighters in the highlands around Asmara, I came in contact with Saho-speaking ELF fighters in Akeleguzai; but my contact there lasted only a few days. It was in Sahel that I finally came in contact with Tigre-speaking people. Only, it was among smaller groups during resting time that I heard Tigre spoken by some fighters from Semhar, or when the fighters were addressing the Sahel “ghebar,” a term that I resented. The fighters spoke among themselves either in Tigrigna or Arabic.

On the whole, I found the Tigre-speaking fighters a more open and relaxed lot, compared to the highlanders. Comparing Isaias Afwerki with Romodan Mohamed Nur, for example, I found that the latter spoke more openly even in the Sahel context that I would later discover to be a repressive milieu. Later, when I met wounded fighters in Aden and Beirut, where they were sent for medical treatment, the same openness and candor characterized the lowlanders. For example, the veteran fighter (and martyr) Shaikh Omer of blessed memory with whom I spent some time in Beirut, in the summer of 1975, spoke more openly and taught me much of the history of the struggle from the early days when it started. In contrast, earlier in the highlands, when I had tried to learn the same history from some of the highlanders, including leaders like Mesfin Hagos, getting it out of them was like extracting teeth with the associated pain. Ibrahim Afa, a Semhar Tigre, responded to my questions without hesitation or reservation; even the prevailing culture of silence of the EPLF did not restrain him. In retrospect, it is not hard to imagine that Ibrahim’s candor and openness, in addition to his heroic status and popularity among the tegadelti, earned him the hatred of Isaias.

In general I came to the conclusion, as I have mentioned in the first volume of these memoirs, that the lowlanders are a more open and sincere people than we highlanders; we tend to be secretive for the most part. We may possess other qualities, but in this respect the Tigres are definitely better than us. A necessary conclusion is that such openness and sincerity is a valuable asset in our national ethos and can contribute to transparency and democratic health. It follows that we have a duty to preserve and promote it. Above all, lowlanders are a vital and constituent part of our Eritrean national heritage, particularly the generation of freedom fighters who have been through thick and thin together and fought shoulder to shoulder, finally bringing about an independent Eritrea. No particular segment of Eritrea, highland or lowland, can claim the lion’s share in that glorious history; it is a common heritage, a shared patrimony. Accordingly, no one side can or should be allowed to claim a monopoly of power or control of resources. Eritrea belongs to all its citizens, and the government is the government of all the people. To the extent that any government disputes or deviates from this, it is not fit to govern.

And WE THE PEOPLE bear a responsibility to prevent this from happening. The question is: how do we do this? This is a topic for another day. At this point it is enough for us to take stock of what ails our country and at the very least try to reach a common understanding of the emerging tragic reality in all its manifestations.

When Things Fall Apart

It is time to face up to the grim reality. Eritrea is in crisis. To borrow a line from the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats’ Second Coming, “Things Fall apart; the center cannot hold…” A great Nigerian novelist has written a novel under this title. The theme of “Things Fall Apart” was the destruction of traditional Igbo values under the onslaught of European colonial rule. In essence, what we are facing in Eritrea today is similar—our liberationist ideology of freedom, justice and democracy are under attack of a system led by people who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. In short, people with whom we do not share a common value, thought they pretended, tricking us with what I have called an immaculate deception.

We must now look deep into our national soul, as it were, and reexamine what has held us together. What was the glue that held things together in Eritrea’s case? What principles underlay the relation of the “center” and the “periphery”? Will the center hold, or is “mere anarchy…loosed” upon our nation, again to paraphrase Yeats?

In the recent past a vigorous debate has been raging in cyber space concerning the right of ethno-linguistic groups and minorities within a nation, including their land rights and legitimate representation in national power sharing. Some Eritrean lowlanders have argued that the Eritrean government as presently constituted does not represent them: that it has launched an evil scheme whereby it will expropriate lands historically belonging to people in one part of the country—the lowlands—and settle people from another part—the highlands. The writers contend that the PFDJ regime has used (or rather abused) the Land Proclamation, and the 1997 Constitution that undergirds it, to launch this dangerous program of wholesale expropriation of lands of lowlanders. They further contend that the program of forcible settlement of highlanders in the lowlands is part of a long-term strategy of a massive resettlement of highlanders on lands that should be reserved for lowlanders who are wasting away in Sudanese refugee camps. Moreover, the writers also accuse the government of deliberately delaying or even blocking the repatriation of the refugees to their ancestral lands. This, they contend, is in order to settle highlanders there under a strategic scheme that one of the writers calls demographic engineering by “Tigrigna supremacists and neo-Nazis.”

Leaving aside the strident nature of the writing with its tendency to brand people with extreme epithets, an appropriate response is, first to find out whether what is being said is well-founded: is there incontrovertible evidence to support these charges? Secondly, what is our duty as concerned citizens: what should we do if it is found that the charges are well-founded? Clearly, these statements raise some serious questions concerning rights and responsibilities, equitable sharing of resources, power sharing, highland-lowland, or “center-periphery” relation, and generally the future health of our nation. These are questions that must be faced squarely by all Eritreans.

Now, in terms of fundamental principles and mechanisms of resolving issues of contention, and to answer the kind of questions we are addressing, the universally recognized basic framework for settling such issues is a national constitution. In Eritrea’s case, there are two problems in this regard. First, the Isaias regime has trashed a constitution that its parliament approved, and a Constituent Assembly ratified. Isaias is on record for calling the constitution “just a piece of paper.” Secondly, many Eritreans, including the lowland writers mentioned above, do not accept a constitution made under the aegis of the EPLF. Therefore, in the circumstances, we cannot expect a resolution of the issues at hand in the framework of the 1997 Eritrean constitution, despite its potential for achieving the objective. When one side charges that the constitution is “a manual for land grabbers”, and the culprit regime will not hear of any constitutional dispensation, it is futile to insist on the point. We are talking about a moot question; so we need to look elsewhere for resolution.

What is to be done?

Let us start with the facts. First, there is the announcement by the government that it will settle highland villagers from Akeleguzai and Seraie in some parts of Barka. This is a matter of record. The government has even taken the first steps to implement the scheme. My reaction to this government folly was and is, to begin with, forcible resettlement of people is contrary to generally recognized human rights law. Secondly, such a policy has historically proven a disaster. We don’t have to go far to prove this point. The Dergue’s attempts in neighboring Ethiopia ended up in failure with collateral harm to thousands of people. Last but not least, the policy constitutes double jeopardy: lowlanders are being dispossessed of their land and highland villagers are being forced out of their ancestral lands and being placed in harm’s way by such forced imposition.

Let us examine this further by separating the issues. Can the government uproot people against their will? The answer is that it has the power to do so, because it has a monopoly of the instruments of violence. And it is forcing people against their will and taking them to the lowlands. But that does not mean it is right; it is not, in fact it is a crime, as mentioned already. At the other end, can the government take other people’s land against their will and give it to other people? Here we need to introduce the subject of state ownership of land, a matter that has also been the subject of considerable debate.

Those of us who had been under the spell of socialist ideology during the revolutionary era thought that state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange (the standard definition of socialism) was the best prescription for Eritrea. We are suffering from the hangover of that belief, as witness article 23(2) of the 1997 constitution, which provides: “All land and all natural resources below and above the surface of the territory of Eritrea belong to the State. The interests citizens shall have in land shall be determined by law.”

Not that public ownership of some key elements of what they now call the commanding heights of the economy is a bad thing; even in capitalist America, there have been government interventions in times of need. Moreover, as the next sub-article of Article 23 of the constitution provides, the state may “in the national or public interest take property, subject to the payment of just compensation and in accordance with due process of law.

The problem is that a predatory state owning key economic resources like land can do more harm than good, as we have learned in Eritrea. As one of the founders of the Eritrean Democratic party and a member of its top leadership, until I resigned, I became convinced of the need to reverse the mistake we made by declaring that the article 23(2) of the constitution should be amended to restore land to its rightful owners—the members of the village community. However, I still believe in the right of the government to own land for development purposes, different from wholesale unrestricted ownership. In this respect, the Isaias government’s abuse of the constitution and the Land Proclamation has taught us an expensive lesson.

Another amendment we agreed upon was to make Arabic and Tigrigna official languages of Eritrea. [I hope that Idris Aba Are will survive his imprisonment and live to see this change].

Another issue concerns the belief by some highly-educated lowlanders that a Tigrigna-based (exclusionist) government is determined to create facts on the ground that cannot be reversed—facts that are bound to have adverse (perhaps tragic) effects for people and the nation as a whole. If the government scheme of mass resettlement from the highlands in the lowlands goes forward, and there is every reason to believe that it will, this scheme is an invitation to some serious consequences. We are talking about a tragedy in the making. Hence the introductory rather dramatic words—will the center hold, or will things fall apart?

What are the requirements for the center to hold and to avoid a meltdown or collapse? Does the Eritrean nation need to be reconstituted so that all regions and ethnic minorities—those in the periphery—can be secure in their respective regions with a constitutionally guaranteed and equitable share of power and control of their resources? In what way can the 1997 constitution be adjusted to provide for such an accommodation? The issue of land ownership and the policy of the Isaias regime to pursue a strategy of massive settlement of highlanders in the lowland raises some serious questions pertaining to law and politics. The related question of state ownership of land, ordained under the Constitution of 1997 and a Land Proclamation that preceded the constitution, has been cited by some in these debates as a source of the problem. Indeed, one writer contends that the Constitution and the Land Proclamation were designed by the government with the aim of dispossessing lowlanders and settling highlanders. (See, for example, Ali Salim,, July 17, 2009, Aug.24, 2009, and Sep.03, 2009 ). The writer also accuses the government of deliberately blocking the resettlement of lowlanders who are still living as refugees in Sudan.

This accusation as well as the policy of forced resettlement by the Isaias regime cannot be taken lightly. If there is truth in the charge of deliberately blocking Eritrean refugees from returning to their homeland is well-founded, it is tantamount to a crime against humanity, if not genocide. Even an egregious neglect of helping the refugees to return to their homeland amounts to the same thing in the context of a deliberate policy of demographic restructuring, assuming the charges are true.

Are these charges true?

Editor’s Note: A short concluding paragraph from Dr. Bereket will follow


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