Hundreds of worshipers packed into a decrepit building on a side street in south Tel Aviv, most draped in white, many carrying young children in their arms. They bowed their heads at the red cross painted next to the door of the makeshift church before removing their shoes and taking their places on white plastic chairs in an open second-story room with a tilted tile ceiling, fluorescent overhead lighting, and images of Jesus and Christian paraphernalia lining the walls.
Members of the Eritrean Orthodox church have faced persecution in their native country, and most of the congregants’ status in Israel is uncertain, but the community marked Easter Saturday night as it always does, said the manager of the Mercy Church, the 28-year-old priest Morkos.
“Easter is our biggest holiday. People come with the [threat of] deportations, without — it doesn’t matter,” Morkos said.
The church serves Eritrean asylum seekers from south Tel Aviv and neighboring areas. Some 40,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants have made their way to Israel, many of them to south Tel Aviv. While nongovernmental organizations in Israel and Jewish and civil rights group abroad consider them refugees who fled persecution, opponents regard them as “infiltrators” who came to Israel for economic reasons.
Eritreans are subject to brutal, forced military conscription in their home country, where the government strictly controls freedom of assembly and speech. The country is ranked second to last, at 179th place, in the World Press Freedom Index, above only North Korea.
Although Christianity is one of the country’s main religions, along with Islam, the government severely restricts freedom of worship. Reliable statistics are not available, but the Pew Research Center estimates that about 63% of Eritrea’s 4.5 million citizens are Christian, with the majority being members of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. The government deposed the church’s patriarch, Abune Antonios, in 2007, reportedly for refusing to excommunicate 3,000 church members who opposed the government. The 90-year-old has been under house arrest at an undisclosed location since, and is reportedly denied medical treatment despite having severe diabetes.
A portrait of the patriarch adorns the wall of Morkos’s office at the Mercy Church. Although Antonios was replaced by the government, many of the church’s members still consider him the church’s rightful patriarch, and fled Eritrea because of their position.
“Every day we ask about the father of our church. There are reasons they say he’s in prison but they’re not true. No one speaks to him or sees him,” said Morkos, who has been in Israel for eight years and declined to give his last name out of concern for family members still in Eritrea. “If you ask about him they also send you to prison; that’s why some of the people left,” he said.
The Orthodox Church follows a different calendar from the Catholic Church and this year marked Easter one week later. At the Mercy Church, the ceremony began around 9:30 Saturday night. By 11 p.m., the entrance to the church was piled with shoes and worshipers spilled down the stairs onto the sidewalk outside.
The church is housed in a run-down building, with sheet metal covering the facade. A picture of Jesus on the door and a red cross at the entrance are the only signs that the unassuming building is a house of worship.
Inside, the solemn ceremony was led by the church’s priests standing in a line and facing forward at the front of the room, leaning on walking sticks, wearing turbans and leading prayers. Behind them, men stood quietly on the left, women on the right. Children played in the back, speaking Hebrew with each other. Some sat with their parents, some slept on the floor, others watched videos on cellphones. The service would continue until the early morning.
The church places a heavy emphasis on the Old Testament, and members feel a kinship with the Jews, said Morkos, speaking Hebrew. He receives no salary for his work at the church, and is employed at a food wholesaler preparing nuts and seeds for sale, he said.
“Christians care for Jews. Our Old Testament is the Tanach. Christians want peace with the Jews. We don’t understand why they want us to leave,” Morkos said. “Bibi Netanyahu forgets he was a refugee from Egypt. For 400 years they were in slavery. We are the same. We went to places all over the world, not just Israel. Everywhere accepted us, Israel doesn’t.”
Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced an agreement with the UN’s refugee agency that would have seen thousands of African migrants resettled in Western nations and thousands more given temporary status in Israel. In a dramatic about-face, the prime minister froze the deal mere hours after announcing the plan due to fierce criticism from parts of his right-wing base, including from many long-time residents of south Tel Aviv who blame the migrants for crime in the area and a deterioration of the neighborhood. The government is now in negotiations with a country, widely believed to be Uganda, to arrange deportations after a similar deal with Rwanda fell through.
“They’re always telling us to go, to work, don’t work. We’re always under pressure,” Morkos said. “But we have hope from God. If no one helps us, he will hear,” he said, before returning to the service.