by Erin Curry
June 21, 2002
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--In what many consider to be a crackdown on the growing evangelical movement among Eritrean Christians, the Eritrean government has ordered the close of all churches not belonging to the Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations.
Eritrea, a secular North African state born in 1993 after a 30-year war for independence from neighboring Ethiopia, had previously been tolerant of all religions except Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Eritrean decree, dated May 21, contradicts the nation's reputation as a model of democracy and religious tolerance in Africa, but sources suggest that the order may have come as a response to pressure from the dominant Orthodox Church and/or outside Muslim forces hoping to quench evangelical fires.
The young nation's population is approximately 50 percent Sunni Muslim and 40 percent Orthodox Christian, while the remaining 10 percent includes only 2 percent Protestant, according to a 2001 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"The growth of evangelicalism is resented both by some Muslims in the country, many of whom are increasingly influenced by Islamic militant teachings from neighboring Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, and by more traditional conservative elements among the dominant Orthodox Church," according to a news release from the Barnabas Fund, a Christian charity that channels aid to more than 40 countries.
A large number of Eritrean soldiers were converted to evangelical faith during the long war with Ethiopia, where it is estimated that as many as 15 percent of the Christians have embraced a more evangelical approach to their faith. Orthodox Christians in Eritrea are wary of the potential spread of evangelical faith from Ethiopia.
According to the World Evangelical Alliance, the evangelical movement emerged in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the 1970s when five Orthodox believers began meeting together to read the Bible. The movement grew swiftly and incorporated evangelical themes into Orthodox liturgy.
Eventually it grew so large that is was expelled from the Orthodox Church and took on the name Reform Orthodox Church, a 70,000-plus body of believers that exhibits an evangelical emphasis while maintaining a connection to Orthodox roots.
Orthodox church authorities have reportedly grown increasingly uncomfortable with the challenge to their ancient traditional beliefs and practices posed by evangelicals within the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, and perhaps Eritrea as well, according to the World Evangelical Alliance.
Yet another speculation is that the government may be moving to crack down on all "splinter groups," both Christian and Muslim, which could threaten the stability of the fragile democratic nation after a recent flare-up of the old war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.