“THE PURPOSE of the brutal actions of the Eritrean government was to divest the Church of all services in the areas of education and health. Our work is to be restricted only to our places of worship,” an Eritrean priest told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). Father Mussie Zerai lives in Rome and coordinates pastoral work for Eritrea and Eritrean communities in Europe, which are steadily growing as thousands of people leave their homeland each year.
In mid-June, the Eritrean military forcibly closed down 21 Catholic hospitals and other medical facilities. Patients were more or less thrown out of their beds. The military smashed windows and doors and harassed staff, Father Zerai said. He reported that the director of a hospital in northern Eritrea, a Franciscan sister, was arrested when she resisted the closure.
“There is no justification for the actions of the regime. It punishes those who are taking care of the poorest of the poor,” Father Zerai said. More than 200,000 people received treatment each year at health-care facilities run by the Church. “Most of the patients weren’t Catholics, but Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and members of other religions. Many facilities are located in remote areas,” the priest explained.
Observers from outside of the country have suggested that, in the eyes of the government of President Isaias Aferwerki, the Church has become too self-confident in its efforts to further the peace process with Ethiopia, and they believe that the government wants to have sole control of the social sector. Said Father Zerai: “The government is obsessed with having control over everything and everyone. It sees the Catholic Church as a threat because we are part of an international network and ask questions.”
There are at most between120,000 and 160,000 Catholics in Eritrea. Half of its population is Christian. In addition to Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam, the Orthodox and Lutheran Churches are the only other religious denominations tolerated by the state. Unlike other countries in North Africa, Islam is not the state religion in Eritrea. The country has a “strong atheistic leaning. If it were up to the government, religion would not exist. Essentially, it follows the same school of thought as China,” said Father Zerai.
The priest is only able to speak freely because he lives outside of the country. He is no longer able to return to his homeland. The bishops in the country—there are four dioceses—are frequently pressured by the government. But this has not stopped them from vehemently protesting against the closure of the hospitals.
Meanwhile, thousands of Christians, but also Muslims, are held in Eritrean prisons, Father Zerai said, “often without even knowing why and their family members don’t know where they are or whether they are even still alive.”
The priest said it is impossible to carry out opposition efforts against these and other human rights violations. “Any form of opposition, even the slightest sign of it, is immediately nipped in the bud,” he said. Thus, most of the reports of human rights violations in Eritrea come from refugees. International organizations are either refused entry into the country or it is made extremely difficult for them to function.
“Young Eritreans are leaving the country in growing numbers because there is no rule of law,” Father Zerai said. The country’s constitution has still not been fully implemented: “This is why people can just be picked up from their homes without reason. Military service has become legalized slavery,” he said.
The possibility of a future is taken away from the young,” Father Zerai said. Attempts by the international community to put pressure on Eritrea’s government because of its human rights record have failed. The country has largely isolated itself.
According to Father Zerai, freedom of religion is severely restricted and at the mercy of capriciousness: “A few are permitted to freely practice their religion, but not all.” Despite the current crisis the priest is certain that “the Catholic Church will continue its pastoral work, but also its social work. After all, it says in the Bible: faith without works is dead. Taking away the ability of the Church to carry out charitable works is like amputating one of its arms.”
Since 2016, ACN has financially supported 44 projects in Eritrea for a total of about $1M. Support included aid to build chapels and Church facilities, funding for Mass stipends and vehicles to secure the mobility of priests, and subsistence aid for religious sisters.