Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Catholic church upsets group

-- Rented parish hall to Eritrean regime -- Locals warned officials of abuses

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A human rights group is disappointed in Winnipeg's Roman Catholic Church for allowing a regime notorious for religious persecution to rent a parish hall for a "festival."

"I feel sad at the way they handled the situation," said Bereket Yohannes, a member of the Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group of Manitoba.

Yohannes said St. Joseph's Roman Catholic church in the North End shouldn't have rented the hall for the event. "We told them these are the agents of a government who incarcerated the patriarch, closed the churches and won't allow freedom of worship," Yohannes said.

In 2002, the Eritrean government banned religious activities other than those administered by four registered organizations: Sunni Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea.

The Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch, Abune Antonios, has been under house arrest since he criticized the government for interfering in church activities and for persecuting evangelical churches. In May, demonstrators at the Eritrean Embassy in London marked the 10th anniversary of mass detentions of Eritrean Christians. In June, a United Nations report slammed the Eritrean regime for supporting groups that destabilize the Horn of Africa. The report said the regime finances groups linked to terror by staging cultural festivals throughout the diaspora.

This summer, festivals were staged in Canadian cities with the Eritrean consul to Canada, an Eritrean government official, and members of its military Walta Band. In Winnipeg, the human rights group learned about the festival a week before it was held Saturday at St. Joseph's parish hall. It contacted the Roman Catholic church and asked administrators to refuse to host the event.

"As a church, they should've made a decision based on the values of the church," said Yohannes. "We notified them and they had time to reverse the erroneous decision they made."

Under UN sanctions, members of Eritrea's ruling party are supposed to be refused entry into Canada.

"I feel very sad to see these people in Canada and right in front of me in Winnipeg, in my city," said Yohannes, whose group demonstrated outside the church and the hotel where the Eritrean military band and government official were registered. He said the Canada Border Services Agency was notified and said it would monitor the situation. The agency told the Free Press earlier it can't comment on complaints or investigations.

It's up to the federal government, not the church, to police inadmissible foreign visitors and their activities, said James Buchok, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg. "You'd wonder how such people got into the country," Buchok said.

The event's organizer, Yohannes Mehari, maintains it was a cultural festival and suggestions it was anything else are "lies." A reporter with a $35 ticket to the event, however, was not allowed inside.

Foreign Affairs recently issued a warning to Eritrean expatriates paying national taxes to Eritrea. It said payments made in support of military and similar activities, "whether called dues, contributions, donations or any other term," are prohibited.

The head of a non-profit organization that has sponsored hundreds of Eritrean refugees said many people are unaware of what's happening in Eritrea.

"I think what Eritrea has been doing flies under most people's radar," said Tom Denton, executive director of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry. "We generally think of it as a repressive state," he said, comparing Eritrea with North Korea. "The country is so closed... the news of the day doesn't get out."

Around 50 per cent of the Eritrean refugees sponsored by Hospitality House fled because of religious persecution, he said.

Churches that still operate in Eritrea have to be careful, said Denton.

"It's a very difficult challenge for the church to know how to position themselves. They can't take an easy position here when it might create difficulties for Christians there."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2012 B1

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