OAKLAND — The schism began the day police officers rushed to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church expecting to break up a fight.
What they found that Sunday morning was a group of priests and church members arguing about politics.
The Rev. Dibekulu Lenie infuriated the higher-ranking priests who were visiting the East Oakland church in October 2005, berating them as emissaries of a meddling dictatorship in Eritrea, the East African nation they all were from. The elder clerics, including Lenie’s uncle, viewed him as a rebellious young priest threatening their authority. The Oakland police just wanted to be sure no one was throwing punches.
“Verbal only, no fighting,” read a police sergeant’s perfunctory report. “We removed two ‘popes’ and cleared the church.”
Police intervention couldn’t mend a growing rift in the Eritrean-American community, one that has split an ancient faith tradition into rival factions and caused headaches and heartache for immigrant families. The church dispute is just one strand in a web of crisscrossing local fractures rooted in political turmoil on the other side of the globe. The impoverished nation’s first and only head of state, President Isaias Afewerki, is a polarizing figure whose regime depends on the financial support of Eritreans living abroad.
“The history that precedes us also follows us here,” said Nunu Kidane, who moved to Oakland more than three decades ago when she was 19, when Eritrea was still part of Ethiopia. “Many of us, because we live in the United States, have this need to be connected to our community. It’s the air you breathe. It’s your identity. But political division has brought it to the point where if you’re on one side or the other, you’ll be ostracized.”
Many Bay Area Eritreans would prefer to stay neutral, but decisions about what local Eritrean cafe to patronize, or which church to pray at, or whether to attend certain cultural events can be interpreted as taking sides on political affairs, Kidane and many others said.
In the Temescal district of Oakland, the Bay Area’s most concentrated hub of Eritrean and Ethiopian business and cuisine, streets separating businesses have become fault lines in a debate over the future of the Horn of Africa.
Patrons at the Red Sea Restaurant and Bar on Claremont Avenue openly criticize Afewerki’s 20-year reign.
Such talk is unwelcome, however, across the street at the Eritrean Community Cultural Civic Center.
“They are trying to destroy the image of Eritrea, the image of our president, the image of our economy,” said Berhane Kassa, the longtime director of the center. “Whatever is being said that’s bad about Eritrea is not true. We may not be the best country in the world, but we are trying to strive.”
A large banner inside the storefront office promotes the Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, which describes itself as the patriotic youth wing of Afewerki’s ruling party.
A countergroup, Eritrean Youth for Change, boycotts all events sponsored by the community center and holds its meetings a few blocks north inside the Good Hope Lodge, a haven for those who advocate an end to Afewerki’s rule.
“Back there (in Eritrea), there is no freedom, no democracy,” said Berkeley resident Taka Zeggai after a meeting at the lodge several weeks ago. “Literally, the country is an open-air prison.”
Informal gossip can have a chilling effect in a community tightly wound by family connections. Battles are also waged online in forums and on political websites, some that voice thinly sourced personal allegations about the most outspoken activists on either side.
Kidane worried her family when she penned a strident online essay a decade ago that criticized the Eritrean government.
“My auntie called me and said, ‘Why don’t you shut up?’ ” Kidane said. “If I speak out, it’s not just Nunu speaking out. They know my brother, my sister.”
Merhawie Woldezion, 27, agreed that Eritrean political divisions are pervasive in the Bay Area, but the engineer said older generations hold the sharpest loyalties and disagreements. Some of the discord goes back to the pre-independence years when rebel groups fought each other.
“With the younger folks, though, a lot of it is a respect thing, familial respect,” said Woldezion, who was born in Berkeley to parents who moved to the U.S. for college. “If parents aren’t talking to each other, typically the children won’t speak to each other.”
Twenty years ago, it seemed to Eritrean refugees that fewer divisions marked their thousands-strong community in the Bay Area. Census surveys show about 10 percent of all Eritrean immigrants in the U.S. live around San Francisco Bay, with many in Oakland, San Jose, San Leandro and Santa Rosa.
The mood here was euphoric in summer 1991. Refugees still adjusting to American life celebrated when rebels toppled Ethiopia’s dictatorship in May that year, paving the way for Eritrea’s independence. A 30-year armed struggle for Eritrean self-determination was over. Afewerki transitioned from a celebrated figure in the independence movement to Eritrea’s first president. Hundreds who had settled in the U.S. moved back to Asmara, the Eritrean capital, to take part in the building of a new nation. One prominent member of Oakland’s community center, Saleh Meki, joined Afewerki’s Cabinet.
Disillusionment with the founding fathers came gradually. The one-party government grew increasingly autocratic, triggering a border war with Ethiopia, indefinitely postponing presidential elections, arresting political critics, shutting down a free press and ignoring the new constitution it ratified. Still, many Eritrean-Americans remained proud of the independence movement and accepted undemocratic moves as necessary to protect a fragile nation.
An Eritrean Consulate in downtown Oakland was their chief voice in the Bay Area before the U.S. government ordered it shuttered in 2007 as the result of a diplomatic spat. Critics say the nonprofit community center has become its proxy, although the center denies that.
Among the sources of disagreement is the so-called “healing tax” that makes Eritrean-Americans a vital piggy bank for the regime. Eritreans living abroad are asked to pay the government a 2 percent tax on their income, and those who refuse risk losing their ability to get any business done back home. The tax is a chief revenue source for the Eritrean government, according to a July report by a United Nations monitoring group.
As more migrants flee Eritrea and settle in the Bay Area, some after escaping the country’s open-ended requirements for military service, their perspectives often differ from those held by previous waves of refugees. They find comfort discovering pockets of the Bay Area where East African food and coffee are celebrated and Tigrinya is the language of local cafes. But they must also navigate the complicated web of local alliances and rivalries, finding the organizations and faith groups that suit them.
“People are conflicted. They want to express their need to be Eritrean, to be part of these communal events,” Kidane said. “But people are afraid that if they speak out, they will be cut off — not from their country, but from their culture.”
The 2005 church dispute in East Oakland marked the end of Lenie’s involvement at his uncle’s church, caused a court battle and forced hundreds of faithful churchgoers to choose between competing interpreters of an identical religion. Depending on the account, it was either the Eritrean government or the nation’s Holy Synod — or both — that dismissed the Orthodox patriarch, Abune Antonios, in August 2005 and placed him under house arrest, forcing a split in the church that played out in Oakland a few months later.
“After I didn’t accept them, they excommunicated me,” Lenie said.
He found help and a place to officiate at an Egyptian Coptic church in Hayward before inaugurating a new Eritrean church in San Leandro early this year. The church now has hundreds of members, and is part of a movement — a kind of reformation — throughout North America’s Eritrean Orthodox community as more churches join Lenie in breaking away.
The Oakland congregation also picked up the pieces after Lenie’s departure, opening a new church late last year in a spacious North Oakland building that was once a Safeway supermarket. Lay leaders there say their place of worship, not Lenie’s, is the true Eritrean Orthodox church in the Bay Area, and they have the support of the new Eritrean patriarch to prove it.
“It looks like we’re the same, but we’re not really the same,” said board member Girmai Zeru Haile, declining to elaborate further.
On Easter weekend this year, hundreds of churchgoers packed the old supermarket building on Oakland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way, women draped in white netela cloth on one side, men on the other, and some peeking in from outside as a chorus of solemn chanting and the beat of goatskin drums marked the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The traditions are among the oldest in the Christian world, and the liturgical language, Ge’ez, is older than Christianity.
For followers of Eritrean Orthodoxy, belief in God transcends the political divisions in their church and among their people. So does the beauty of rituals passed down for centuries on the highland plateau of southern Eritrea.
“The other church, they believe that we changed our faith,” Lenie said. “There is no difference in our faith, our service. We believe church is church, politics is politics. We didn’t like for the government to interfere.”
Two decades after he helped Eritrea emerge victorious from its three-decade war of independence, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has frustrated much of the international community with his country’s poor human rights record and aggressive relationship with neighbors.
Eritrea formally separated from Ethiopia in 1993, but hostile relations between the two countries continues to unsettle the Horn of Africa. Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a two-year border war at the end of the last decade that left tens of thousands dead.
A July report by the United Nations Monitoring Group accused Eritrea of plotting a bomb attack that would have disrupted a diplomatic conference in the Ethiopian capital this year. The same report said Eritrea had bankrolled the al-Shabab militant rebel group in Somalia.
The U.S. ambassador to Eritrea has called Afewerki a dictator who controls nearly all aspects of Eritrean society and treats criticism as treason.
“Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant,” read a secret 2009 diplomatic cable by Ambassador Ron McMullen released by the WikiLeaks group last year.
About half of Eritreans are Muslim and half are Christian, with the largest group of Christians belonging to an ancient Oriental Orthodox tradition connected to the Coptic Church in Egypt. Christianity spread through the highlands of modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia after a local king converted to the faith in the fourth century.
The modern Eritrean Orthodox Church began to fracture in 2005 after the patriarch, Abune Antonios, was deposed and arrested. Breakaway churches in North America continue to recognize Antonios as the true patriarch and blame the Eritrean government for meddling in church affairs and handpicking his successor.
International organizations have also chastised Eritrea for infringing on religious freedom. Along with its strong influence over the Orthodox Church, the Eritrean government also chooses the country’s mufti, or chief Islamic leader; interferes with the hierarchy of other religious groups; and placed an outright ban on some Protestant groups, according to a report published last year by the U.S. State Department.
“Those who publicly protested such direct government management were branded as radicals and could be subject to indefinite imprisonment in harsh conditions, despite being members of recognized religious faiths,” read the U.S. report.