The Eritrea Orthodox Church in Sweden is divided
On one side stands opponents. On others who support the dictator. There is a drag fight about the refugee jungles from Eritrea. But on whose side are taxpayers?
It is May 1 and the sun shines over the square in Husby in northern Stockholm.
– Down, down dictator.
– Down, down dictator.
Outside the gathering room at the square there is a group of opposition Swedish-speaking people protesting against a meeting held here.
Inside the room it’s quiet, people have started to settle in front of the scene, where someone hung up the Eritrea flag.
But then something of a mess arises. One of those who sat down is obviously not welcome. His name is Nasser Nuru and belongs to the Eritrean opposition in Sweden.
A man in yellow reflective vest stands in front of him pointing at the exit.
Another grabs his jacket, picks him up and pushes him towards the exit.
They throw me out and I have not touched them. We will not touch anyone. We will not even say stupid words. All we want is to ask questions.
The dictatorship of Eritrea is known as one of the world’s most closed countries.
No opposition is allowed and freedom of opinion and opinion is severely limited. According to Amnesty, there are thousands of people detained because of their political or religious beliefs. Among them, the Swedish citizen Dawit Isaak, who has been detained since 2001 without trial.
Nevertheless, some dictators support.
What is happening on Husby Square reflects the situation in Sweden. Some Swedes are for the regime, others are against. Some think the country’s regime is freedom fighters who managed to get the country independent from Ethiopia, others think independence was taken from them by a brutal dictator.
In recent years, nearly 30,000 Eritreans have applied for asylum in Sweden. And there is a kind of drag fight about the new arrivals between the regime’s supporters and the opposition in Sweden.
Kaliber is today about the fight for the newly arrived eritreans. And how a church with links to the regime engages in refugee activities with the Swedish state’s support.
We are in Santa Maria Township. An Eritrean Orthodox Church, which hires in the Church of Sweden at Akalla in northern Stockholm.
The church here has received state support for receiving and integrating newly arrived eritreans in Swedish society. A total of SEK 300,000 since the refugee crisis in 2015 and beyond, the church this year gets closer to 800,000 for its religious activities.
Refugee activities are mainly aimed at newly arrived young people.
There are at least one hundred people here this evening. Many of them are new arrivals, we will know. Many have taken the dangerous road through Sudan and Libya and finally across the Mediterranean.
Once in Sweden, they seek security and fellowship to continue their efforts. One of them is Furtuna.
Translation: ”It took her a year and a few months to come here. Worst was in Libya where she did not have the spiritual contact or hope. Without it, it was only when she could come to church guidance as she felt alive and hopeful for the future. ”
It is common that Eritrean refugees, like Furtuna, are deeply religious and the Santa Maria parish visits refugee settlements to make them join their church.
The choir of about 15 people rocks from side to side in their white, footy, red-crossed skirts. The choir consists mainly of young women.
Many who left Eritrea have been involved in traumatic experiences – in their home country or on the way here.
The priest in the church wears a white cape over the shoulders. In his hand he holds a white cross.
Translation: ”He explains that first and foremost he is wearing the cross and has absolute confidentiality. It makes these youngsters fully entrust him and tells unharmed about both positive and negative experiences. ”
According to a UN report, the regime keeps the country’s people in terror through a comprehensive alert system, arbitrary detention and torture.
According to the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Foreign Ministry, no opposition is permitted in the country, freedom of opinion and opinion is limited and people are arrested arbitrarily.
And on Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Eritrea ended in 180th and last place last year.
But the priest does not want to say that Eritrea is a dictatorship:
Translation: ”What he says is that as he carries the cross and is a spiritual leader, it is not worthy of a priest to come and express political opinions. His policy is the Bible. ”
The people we meet here in the Church tell us about the difficult conditions that they recently lived after leaving the country on the road to Europe, but we meet no one talking about the cruelties in Eritrea.
Aman Russom, is in the board of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church in Sweden and he thinks the image of Eritrea needs to be nuanced.
”You usually say in the report that this is a dictatorship state – everything is rude. One should also emphasize: If so, one might compare the country with Cuba and other countries that run another socialist ideology. For example, in Eritrea, education is free, healthcare free and so on.
Aman Russom, is also responsible for refugee activities in the church. Every month several thousand are flying out of Eritrea according to the UN, but Aman Russom claims that it is not primarily because of the political oppression people choose to leave.
”It is not a political commitment that drives the reason why they migrate out. There is pressure from leaving if you leave the country, if you leave asylum, you leave the country, you get one and the other so there is a false hope that the young people, the majority actually leave Eritrea without being politically active.
In recent years, the church has grown and formed parishes in several places in Sweden with the help of Swedish state financial support. A support that can only be paid to communities that help to maintain and strengthen the basic values on which society is based. Among other things, democracy.
We will come back to how the leaders in the church describe the regime in Eritrea. Because we have been told that the church here in Akalla is not the opolitical activity it claims to be. That it is governed by regime followers and has frequent contacts with Eritrea’s embassy.
But first we go to another Eritrea orthodox church.
Here you have broken the regime. But unlike the other church, no financial support is given by the Swedish state.
Two little girls will be baptized.
The priest holds up a girl and dips first the feet in the water, then the body and finally he poures water over her head according to orthodox tradition.
About ten years ago, a schism occurred in the Eritrea Orthodox Church.
The leader of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Eritrea was deposed and put in house arrest by the regime. He was replaced by a patriarch who was considered more regime-friendly. And many Eritreans outside Eritrea have since chosen to break with the church which they consider to be completely controlled by the regime. The new religious leadership has not been accepted by other orthodox churches outside of Eritrea.
According to those we meet here in the church of Lidingö, the second church is political and the Eritrean regime is close.
Yoseph Yohannes is a great regime critic – and a member of the congregation here. And he thinks it is wrong that the second church gets government support to accommodate young people who move from Eritrea because he believes that young people once again end up in the hands of the regime they are moving from.
”These poor young people fled the country for a variety of reasons. Instead of getting professional help in the form of therapy and such, they end up in Santa Maria’s youth business and I’m convinced that the Santa Maria parish is part of the dictator.
We have met several people telling them that in Sweden they have been exposed to harassment and harassment because of their involvement in the church that is distant from the regime. This is a smash campaign, where priests are accused of heresy. And several of the people we meet say they are afraid of bad luck.
For the extended arm of the regime, people also scare here in Sweden.
You have to obey the regime and it also means going to the regimental church, says Berhane Tesfazghi, a member of the church here in the Lidingo church and famous opposition in Sweden.
”The elongated arm from Eritrea comes even here to Sweden, to Europe and affects people. Is there anything someone needs, such as retrieving actions, or getting a relative from Eritrea, then you must be obedient to the regime.
We have talked to a number of famous opposition eliters in Sweden who all say that Santa Maria in Akalla and the churches under it are controlled and influenced by the Eritrean regime in different ways. We hear about spies, that there are people in the church who want to control Eritreans in exile and prevent them from changing side.
In recent years, many young Eritreans have come to Sweden, and there is a struggle between them between the regime and the opposition supporters. That says Meron Estefanos, a famous regime critic in Sweden.
– It is war because of these single children.
War of the single children?
– Yes exactly. On what side do they say
War of the single children?
– Yes exactly. On what side should they end up, who is getting them first?
And according to Meron Estefanos, in recent years, the church has become the most important venue in the struggle for new arrivals, as many of the unaccompanied who succeed in reaching Sweden go to church.
She thinks it is wrong that the church which, according to her, says the regime is close to receiving Swedish tax money for refugee activities.
– These people receive grants to recruit to the regime. Nothing else. So for me, it’s the wrong place to contribute.
– Can I just put on my own recording for my safety, I think …
– My name is Max Stockman and works at SST as a manager for contact with orthodox and Muslim communities.
The government for support for religious communities, SST, is responsible for distributing government grants to religious organizations.
Following the major asylum immigration in autumn 2015, the SST was commissioned by the government to allocate funds to appropriate communities for work on the establishment of new arrivals.
Here too, one is aware of the criticisms directed against the Eritrean Orthodox Church, which receives state aid for the reception of newly arrived young people.
– I would say that I also see that the church in Eritrea has difficulty in being free from the regime.
But he does not think it is possible to conclude that the church in Sweden is governed by the regime, even though he sees connections.
”We know and can confirm that there are relations between the embassy here in Sweden and representatives of this church we are talking about. So far our information has come. But then all this other, that they would act on the orders of the regime or that they would contribute in part to the will of the regime, we have not seen yet.
The law states that grants may only be given to communities that ”contribute to maintaining and strengthening the fundamental values on which society rests.”
And the money for refugees may only be paid to ”activities that respect the ideas of democracy.”
However, the SST Support Agency does not have the task of controlling what people in leadership positions for democracy have said, Max Stockman at SST.
– You can have undemocratic minded people in the lead. The important thing is that society as such is positive and that the messages you say say preaching stand out are fundamentally positive democratically.
Max Stockman thus says that a church can receive state aid, although there are undemocratic minded people in the leadership. The most important thing is the message you stand out for.
We will return to the State Aid for Religious Communities, but first, it will be about the Eritrean Orthodox Church.
One of the few researchers who studied how the regime controls eritreans in exile is Mirjam van Reisen. She is a professor of international relations at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.
She is one of the people behind a government report interviewing eritreans. The report describes how the Eritrean government party infiltrated or controlled a number of organizations, including orthodox churches in the Netherlands.
– The main church in the Netherlands, the Orthodox Church in Rotterdam, is functioning under direct instruction from the PFDJ.
Mirjam van Reisen reports that their research shows that the largest Eritrean Orthodox Church in the Netherlands is controlled by the PFDJ, People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, the only approved party in Eritrea – and that the church works closely with Eritrea’s embassy in the Netherlands and with the Eritrea regime.
The aim is to make sure that Eritreans in exile are loyal to Eritrea, paying two percent in taxes, which the Eritrean government demands of Eritreans in exile.
And the result is that they get hard to integrate into Dutch society, ”says Mirjam van Reisen.
– The most important consequence is that it really holds Eritrean refugees back from integrating.
Mirjam van Reisen has not studied how the situation looks specifically in Sweden, but she says that her research shows that the church is organized at a global level and that the structure looks more or less the same everywhere. And she warns that the churches in fact can be political organizations in the hidden – and she thinks you have to be very careful about giving them money.
– If I was to give advice I would look very, very closely at how that money is used. I would be quite concerned about that.
The Eritrean Embassy in the Netherlands has protested against the picture in the report. They say that the churches are not in any way ruled by the Eritrean state.
During the work of this report, we have talked to many people who have had the church to do in different ways. It’s all about open opposition who felt unwelcome in the congregation of young new arrivals as a discovery that the church was not what they believed.
But we have also met people with a good understanding of how the church works.
We have checked our data lenders and they are credible. But they take a big risk by talking to us. Therefore, we must keep them completely anonymous.
Our counselors tell us how the church is used by the regime to control eritrons in Sweden and to spread information and propaganda. And that the cooperation with the Eritrean embassy is tight.
Regardless of each other, they describe how regime lovers through the church are spying on and recruiting new arrivals. According to our sources, regime friends, for example, send information to the embassy about those who are critical of the so-called 2 percent tax, which Eritrea wants from eritreans abroad.
We have thus obtained credible evidence that there is a form of refugee pioneering in which the church plays an important role.
The church describes the organization as unofficially ruled by the only approved party in Eritrea, PFDJ.
And there are also representatives of the Church who are completely open with their support for the regime.
– Down, down dictator.
– Down, down dictator
We are back at the meeting in Husby, Stockholm, as we heard about at the beginning of the program.
Inside the meeting room there are Swedish-speaking people who sympathize with the regime. Outside stands opposition and scans against the dictatorship of Eritrea.
At the entrance to the room there are boys with red hooded sweaters, with YPFDJ on the chest and back. YPFDJ – It’s Eritrea’s only approved party youth federation.
”Now, it’s a little clinging outside with security personnel to this meeting and police.
There is also a well-trained man in a cap and jacket with his arms crossed. On the cap is Eri Blood.
May I ask you … Eri Blood what does that mean?
– I do not think I can answer but … Eri Blood is eritrean blood, we are guards.
Eri Blood means eritrean blood and we are guards, says the man in a bomber jacket.
Eri Blood is a group that has been referred to outside regimental meetings in recent years. In the Dutch government report, it is described as the government party’s militia outside of Eritrea, which threatens terrorism in exile terrorists. Only the knowledge that they exist can scare people into silence according to the report.
Suddenly, one can see a man we recognize in the crowd that flows into the room. He was with us when we visited the church of Santa Maria in Akalla, the one described as the regime faith. He is the deputy chairman of that assembly.
He takes care of the Eri Blood guard with a bomb jacket and goes into the meeting for the regime-troubled.
When he comes out again we go forward.
You did not recognize me?
– Yes, I recognize you. I have been to meeting yes.
Was it good?
– Yes, I’m very happy.
How was that good meeting?
”My young people have done a seminar in the Netherlands. They have told you about the situation.
What young people?
– Young PFDJ
Vice-chairman of the Assembly receiving state aid for receiving young people moving the dictatorship, then talks about the youth youth federation Young PFDJ as ”their youth”.
And in social media it becomes clear that he sympathizes with the regime. He shares party material and tribute to the dictator Isaias Afewerki.
When we call him later, he says that his opinion is personal and not the church, but that he is positive to the regime and the president of Eritrea:
– Yes, for me, is he a good president, do you know why? He fought and Eritrea was free from colonialism.
– I have met him several times. Not at a meeting. I’ve met him in Asmara where he walks like ordinary people.
Okay. But you know each other so that you talk to each other or?
– No, not really, but he’s good. Not only me, we were several.
The Vice-President of Santa Maria is thus open with his support for the dictator. And we find more church representatives that are seen in regimental contexts.
A person who, according to the Authority, has support for religious communities has a leading position within the church, shares in social media tribute to the dictator Isaias Afewerki. Among other things, he appears to be posing with portrait on the president. We also call him, but he does not want to answer our questions.
We also find pictures of the priest who is president of the Santa Maria parish. When we met him, he would not answer if Eritrea is a dictatorship because he wanted to be politically neutral. But on the pictures we see him at the inauguration of the regime-friendly Eritrean Festival in Stockholm together with representatives of the regime – among other things, on one occasion with Eritrea’s Foreign Minister, and in another he was photographed with the President’s closest advisor.
The church, which thus tells us it is politically neutral, is represented by people who are in a context that is anything but neutral and shares regimental propaganda in social media.
We will return to Aman Russom, who is then on the board of the Orthodox Orthodox Church’s NGO and responsible for the refugee activities in the Santa Maria Township.
I show him the picture where their priest stands together with representatives of the regime at the Eritrean Festival.
– A picture says more than a thousand words are usually said – here it is the opposite. You must understand that the priests are honors when you invite them to festivals. It is a respect for the priests it is about. They are guiding in our society and invited into official contexts. I can rob a number of other priests and other countries who do the same thing.
If you want to be an opolitical church, why are you at your place? Why are you mostly on the picture with representatives of the government? It’s a one-party state.
– The Eritrean Orthodox Church is not subordinated to the government. In any case, as we act in Sweden, what I can answer to hundreds of percent is that we are not subordinated to the government.
That people who represent the Church openly take a stand for the regime are, in his view, no problem because they make it private. There are no political messages in the church and opposition parties are welcome, he says.
He also rejects all the information that there is some form of refugee espionage. And he says that the Church is not in any way ruled by the regime or the embassy.
– There is mutual respect with the Eritrean state. We do not do any activities that the embassy guides us. We do not. And we have no communication with the embassy that would indicate that they have an interest in us either. We are not politically active.
We also contact the embassy who say they support the churches in their work, but they do not control them in any way.
Back at SST, the authority that allocates the money to refugee activities. Money to be distributed only to activities that respect the ideas of democracy.
We show the manager Max Stockman what we learned about the church fellow’s sympathies for Eritrea’s regime. And he is not very surprised.
”Yes, it is clear that there are people in the church who – and it is well known before – that they have relations with the embassy in Sweden and with Eritrea in different ways.
”I also see that they seem to support the regime. As private individuals. I think it’s problematic. It is problematic that senior representatives support that regime. But, as I said before, it is above all … what we look at what organizations here in Sweden stand for and what they are doing and preaching. And is it that this comes into the church then it’s a serious thing and then we have to look at it.
Is it reasonable for anyone who is openly in support of the regime in Eritrea to receive money to receive refugees from there?
– No, that’s not fair. But I would like to point out that this is probably the first time I hear senior representatives openly take a stand for the regime. That information has not come to me before.
Is it reasonable that you do not review this society more than you do?
– The answer is that there are reasons to look at this again.
On Husby square, the regime critic Nasser Nuru – who was just expelled from the political meeting – finished his picture. He does not think that the Eritrean Orthodox Church should receive state aid for receiving refugees.
– Once you know that these people support the regime and you throw them into their hands and give them an approval and give them a contribution. We should be ashamed. I like Sweden ashamed. This is so insulting so there are no words that can describe it. You can not do that.