Many Eritreans have been forced to seek refuge in Europe, but little is known about the dictatorial and oppressive regime behind the forced migration that has placed many of them outside their ancestral home. The current wave of draconian regulations has been targeted against the Catholic Church in a bid to silence her. Ostensibly, it is a policy to move her institutions to the direct control of the government control even though it has been observed that the government-run facilities are less accessible and of lower standards. However, the Catholic Church in Eritrea, only 4% of the population, has remained firm in its resistance to the unjust policy.

A little recap shows that Eritrea’s history is marked by centuries of fighting against foreign rule.

  • From the 4th century part of the Kingdom of Aksum
  • From the 16th century part of the Ottoman Empire
  • 1890 – An Italian colony
  • 1941 – A British protectorate
  • 1952 – A federation with Ethiopia
  • 1958 – Founding of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF)
  • 1962  – Official annexation by Ethiopia followed by years of fratricidal war
  • 1993 – Eritrea becomes independent after a UN referendum
    The ELF establishes a socialist, extremely repressive one-party system under the ascetic, autocratic President Isayas Afewerki. Tens of thousands of young Eritreans fled abroad to escape the endless national service.
  • 1998  – border disputes with Ethiopia culminate in a two-year war.
  • 2018 Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali makes peace with Eritrea and receives the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

Most Christians in Eritrea belong to the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church, which follows the Geez rite, is a small minority but is very active in the social field. The four eparchies (dioceses) count about 160,000 Catholics; nonetheless, it stands out as a courageous and resilient Church. The Catholic Church is the only institution in the country that has dared to criticise the regime. Already in 2014, the bishops denounced “the countless crimes of the Eritrean regime and the silence of the international community”.

The peace agreement with Ethiopia raised hopes for a new beginning in Eritrea. With their pastoral letter of Easter 2019, the bishops wanted to offer a constructive and concrete contribution to a fresh start in politics and society. For the regime, the relative independence of the Catholic Church has always been a thorn on the flesh. In July, 2019, all 29 Catholic clinics and hospitals, which served mainly the more impoverished rural population, and their medical equipment were confiscated by security officers. The Bishops responded by declaring the government’s action “illegitimate” and demanding a justification for the confiscation of her hospitals. The government merely stated that these measures were in line with a decree of 1995.

At the beginning of September, the government took another step and nationalised all 50 Catholic schools and educational institutions, even though they are among the best in the country. Again, the bishops unsuccessfully protested against the arbitrary and unfounded decision of the government. They described the seizure of Church schools as a move motivated by “hatred against the faith.”

Many observers see the brutal expropriation of church facilities as a reaction of an autocratic government against the courageous pastoral letters of the bishops of 2014 and 2018. Their positive proposals for a national new beginning after reconciliation with their neighbour Ethiopia were seen as an implicit critique of its previous policies. In the dictatorial regime – comparable to that of North Korea – any opposition is stifled, and critics muzzled. The Communist government does not tolerate any initiatives of the private sector and wants to restrict the influence of religious communities in public life. It had already brought the Orthodox Church under its control by removing the legitimate patriarch and replacing him with a candidate of its own choice. With these measures, it tries to weaken the influence of the Catholic Church, but the Church is still wielding the storm.

AEFJN stands in solidarity with the Church in Eritrea in its resilience, and we call on the Eritrean government to rescind its unjust policies. We beckon on all who operate the machinery of international justice to speak to the ugly situation in Eritrea. We stand with the Eritrean Church in its refusal to be silenced in the face of tyranny and oppression. Their steadfastness is a massive indictment of many Episcopal Conferences across the African continent that have been cowed by corrupt African leaders. The Church that does not stand vocally with the poor and the oppressed has lost its essence (Matthew 5:13). Being with the poor and oppressed is victory on its own. The unjust structures may not be dismantled at once, but the poor and the oppressed have the opportunity of recognising that there is an institution that stands with them in their struggle. In a world where the poor and marginalised suffer injustice and repression, what the Church in Eritrea is doing may be all the gospel that needs to be preached.

Wolfgang  Schonecke

Chika Onyejiuwa