After riot, police said to order closure of Tel Aviv Eritrean churches over weekend

Law enforcement meets with church leaders, temporarily shutters 4 houses of worship to head off further violence following clashes last week, report says

Eritrean protesters clash with Israeli riot police in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, September 2, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Eritrean protesters clash with Israeli riot police in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, September 2, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Police have ordered the temporary closure of four Eritrean churches in Tel Aviv due to security concerns, a Friday report said, after intense clashes last week between supporters of the Eritrean regime, its opponents, and police.

Police on Thursday issued the order to close the churches for the weekend after intelligence indicated the closure could lessen the chance of further violence. The churches, all located in south Tel Aviv, will not be allowed to host prayers during the closure, Haaretz reported.

The intelligence provided to the police in recent days indicated that Eritreans from around Israel were planning to return to Tel Aviv to continue the protests that devolved into a brawl last week, Haaretz reported, citing police sources.

During that incident, supporters of the Eritrean government wearing red shirts fought with the regime’s opponents, who wore blue. The police intelligence said that the two sides planned to return to south Tel Aviv this weekend, and attend church services wearing traditional white clothing to camouflage their movements, the report said.

Police officers on Thursday met with church leaders to discuss the issue, with the two sides cooperating, although not all community members were on board with the closure.

“We support the rule of law, but closing churches is first of all a violation of our freedom of worship,” one community member who attended the police meeting told Haaretz.

Police do not believe the church leaders hold sway over the combatants, and that the priests’ pleas for calm during the fighting last week did not affect the fighting.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv appealed to police on Friday to reverse the decision, the report said.

Illustrative: Eritreans mark Easter in a church in south Tel Aviv, April 7, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

At least 170 people were wounded, including police officers, in the hours-long clashes last weekend in south Tel Aviv between migrant supporters and opponents of Eritrea’s government. Police responded to the riots with batons and tear gas as well as live fire in some instances, leaving dozens hospitalized.

Police detained 53 people for suspected involvement in the fighting.

The fighting broke out during a demonstration against an official Eritrean government event marking the 30th anniversary of autocratic President Isaias Afwerki’s rise to power. Opponents of the regime arrived on the scene to demonstrate against supporters.

Similar incidents have taken place in recent months in other countries at events organized by regime supporters, underlining the bitter split outside Eritrea between supporters of the government and their children — often protected by foreign passports — and exiles who fear for their loved ones back home.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Eritrea over the years, many setting off into the deserts of Sudan and then North Africa in attempts to reach Europe. There are some 17,000 Eritreans in Israel, largely in southern Tel Aviv, part of an influx of African migrants in recent decades that has halted since the construction of a fence on the border with Egypt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was considering deporting 1,000 Eritreans who took part in the clashes, among other retaliatory measures, drawing fire from the UN.  Some right-wing Israelis in south Tel Aviv, longtime residents of the working-class area, have harshly opposed the migrants living in the neighborhood and called for the government to deport them.

Migrants and asylum-seekers in Israel face an uncertain future as the state has granted refugee status in only a minuscule number of cases and taken other measures that have made their lives more difficult.

Some 30,000 migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, are thought to be in Israel, with many of them contending they are refugees from war and oppression. Most African migrants arrived in Israel through Egypt between 2007 and 2012, before Israel built the barrier along the desert border. Few migrants have arrived since that time.

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