Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix Calls Attention to Human Rights Violations
Aster Yohannes, forty-two year old mother of four, came to Phoenix, AZ, from Eritrea in 2000 after being awarded a United Nations funded scholarship. She planned to finish her college education in Phoenix and quickly return to her husband and four children in Eritrea. While living in Phoenix she became actively involved with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix (UUCP) and joined the church in 2001. In that same year Aster’s husband, Petros Solomon, was taken prisoner by the Eritrean government. Petros, former commanding general and intelligence chief during Eritrea’s struggle for freedom against Ethiopia and current high government minister, was arrested with other government ministers because they demanded democratic reform. Known as the G15, eleven have been detained incommunicado, in secret, without being charged for six years.
Members and friends of UUCP formed Friends of Aster, a committee which has worked with Amnesty International to assist Aster and her family. U.S. visas were obtained for the children, but the Eritrean government refused to allow them to leave Eritrea. Unable to face life here without her children, Aster decided to return to Eritrea at great personal risk. With assurance of her safety in writing from the Eritrean Ambassador to the U.S. to a U.S. Congressman, Aster returned to Asmara, Eritrea. On December 11, 2003, she landed at the Asmara airport and was taken into custody by Eritrean security. She has not been seen since.
The UUCP continues to advocate for Aster and her family, particularly through an Amnesty International (AI) Chapter that meets at the Church. In fact, the church’s involvement in the international work of AI extends to writing letters to seek freedom for prisoners of conscience all over the world. Aster’s presence continues to be felt in many aspects of congregation life. While she lived in Phoenix, Aster was a member of the UUCP’s women’s spirituality circle. Until her release and/or her return, her place in that circle is marked by an empty chair decorated with her pictures.
To call attention to human rights violations in Eritrea, members of the congregation and the Amnesty International Student Group from Arizona State University West campus produced a multimedia public art project based on a twenty foot metal shipping container. Eritrean prisons are full to overflowing, so container cars are commonly used to house prisoners. A documentary about this project was produced on DVD: One Heart Betrayed. Yearly since Aster's disappearance, her memory is invoked at a special service, and we renew our commitment to the work of bringing an end to the imprisonment of political prisoners.
Members of the congregation, Libby and Dave Walker, provided Aster with a home for six months before she returned to Eritrea in 2003. In 2005 and 2007 the Walkers sponsored other members of Aster's family. Aster's and Petros' four children have been orphaned by the Eritrean regime and remain trapped in Eritrea by the repressive government. Through this deeply meaningful relationship with the Yohannes family and the congregation’s advocacy work, Aster’s legacy is very much alive for the UUCP, and the congregation’s commitment to international engagement finds expression.
UUCP is also actively involved with Circulo de Amigas, a Nicaraguan organization founded by a UU from California. For 10 years the UUCP has provided sponsorship for school-aged girls and assisted in promoting a sewing machine distribution project and other cottage industries. The congregation has helped the organization purchase stoves and water barrels and provided for the completion of a plumbing project. Additionally, the founder of the organization—Pat McCully—has helped UUCP educate itself about circumstances in Nicaragua.
A third international project is a partnership with a Honduran organization called Hogar Materno. Founded by UUCP member Tony Banagas, Hogar Materno is a safe place for pregnant women to spend the last three month’s of their preganancy and to give birth to their children. The UUCP has held special services for Hogar Materno on Mother’s Day and taken a collection to support that organization's important work. In other years Tony has spoken at a Social Action Committee luncheon at which a collection has been dedicated to Hogar.
Also in Nicaragua, the congregation partners with "Doctors for Global Health" and its clinic in Barrio Edgard Lang in Managua. UUCP member Dr George Pauk, board member of DGH, advises our efforts which have included support for cottage industries and funding for chicken coops and educational opportunities. In 2001 members from UUCP brought computers to the clinic and installed them as a service project.
The newest on the congregation’s list of international engagement projects is the brain child of UUCP member Janice Brunson who travels and takes tours of people to visit emerging Unitarian churches in a several African countries. On two extended visits Janice has formed close relationships with Unitarian congregations and developed many successful projects. Individual members and the congregation as a whole through the Social Action committee support Janice’s projects. We collected tape recorders, tapes and batteries for blind people served by these congregations.
The UU Congregation of Phoenix is a 250 member congregation founded in 1946. Grateful thanks to Heather McLellan, UUCP Social Action Committee Chair, for providing the information in this profile.