In Eritrea the cost of speaking up may be nation’s Catholic health care network

Women walk along a street Feb. 20, 2016, in Asmara, Eritrea. The nation's bishops said that because of years of war and unrest, "young people, mothers, children and families have become victims of exile and of destabilization." (CNS photo/Thomas Mukoya, Reuters)Women walk along a street Feb. 20, 2016, in Asmara, Eritrea. The nation's bishops said that because of years of war and unrest, "young people, mothers, children and families have become victims of exile and of destabilization." (CNS photo/Thomas Mukoya, Reuters)

In a country with a reputation for authoritarianism, silence can be a tool for maintaining civil peace with the political establishment. But in recent months, Catholic bishops in Eritrea have chosen to break their silence, as they have at times of crisis in the past, and are now paying the cost, regional analysts say.

On June 12, Eritrean authorities closed all 22 of the nation’s church-run health care facilities days after government officials ordered the administrators of these facilities to sign documents acknowledging the transfer of their ownership to the government. The health care administrators declined and asked authorities to speak to church leaders.

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Soldiers, police and health ministry officials later carried out the government’s seizure order, expelling staff and in some cases patients from church institutions and shutting down facilities, most of which are located inside monasteries. The BBC reported that a nun and another worker were arrested by government forces after they declined to hand over the keys to a health facility in the northern Anseba region.

Angered by this action and by the presence of Eritrean security officers now standing guard at monasteries, the bishops of the Council of Catholic Hierarchs in Eritrea raised their voices in protest.

“Is this the manner in which the government wishes to break, without the slightest sign of recognition, a cooperation that the church has been offering in a variety of public sectors for decades, for the good of the people and of the nation?”

“How is it possible for such things to happen in a state where the rule of law should be abided by?” the bishops asked in a letter addressed to the health ministry on June 13. The bishops condemned the decision as “unfair and unlawful” and said it was synonymous with “persecution.”

“Is this the manner in which the government wishes to break, without the slightest sign of recognition, a cooperation that the church has been offering in a variety of public sectors for decades, for the good of the people and of the nation?”

Amid the standoff, the bishops called for 17 days of “prayer and fasting” throughout the country until July 12.

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“Catholic bishops have spoken more than once on current issues in the name of the people,” said Harnet Bokrezion, a senior member of One Nation Eritrea, a global grassroots movement for democracy in Eritrea. “They have truly proven that they are men of faith and principle, and hence I do not believe that this would deter them from speaking their truth in the future.”

“These actions show that, despite the improved regional climate for peace and security, the human rights situation in Eritrea remains unchanged,” Daniela Kravetz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, said in a statement.

“The seizure of these health facilities will negatively impact the right to health of the affected populations, in particular, those in remote rural areas.”

On June 27, after many days of silence, the government responded to its critics and said Ms. Kravetz’s statement amounted to “erroneous assertions.” Government officials argued that the East African country is a secular state where no approved religion enjoys preferential status. It defends the directive of the health ministry, which, it says, was in line with a regulation enacted in 1995.

“There is really no life for people in Eritrea. Eritrea is extremely secretive; everything is controlled by the government.”

“Religious institutions are not allowed to actually conduct developmental activities in areas of their choice as this is fraught with discrimination against non-adherents of the specific institution in question,” it said. “The directive requests relevant religious institutions to transfer operational/administrative authority of clinics under their control to the respective regional branches of the Ministry of Health in full compliance of Regulation 73/1995.”

Some analysts, however, believe the government closed the church’s health centers in retaliation for a critical pastoral letter issued by Eritrean Catholic bishops on April 29 in which they said a “change of direction and renewal” in the country was “undisputed, urgent and unavoidable.”

“The closure of the health centers has been the first very aggressive and retaliative act of the government against the Catholic Church, [and] it marks a clear sign of tension,” said Mr. Bokrezion.

In the 30-page letter, the bishops addressed issues plaguing the country and appealed for a national reconciliation process accompanied by respect for human rights and religious freedom.

“This is the message we would like to send with great conviction: if we do not want to perish as a nation and as a people, let us build this peace and reconciliation among us,” they wrote.

“Whether we want it or not, the judgment of history hangs over us: Either we learn to live in unity and harmony and in a serene fraternal coexistence, or we will go to swell the ranks of the foolish and, as we have already said, we will perish as a people and as a nation!”

Eritrea officially gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and since that time has been ruled by Isaias Afwerki. Mr. Afwerki’s authoritarian grip over the one-party country has created an atmosphere marked by fear and repression.

A 2016 report by a U.N. human rights commission of inquiry found that there were widespread crimes of “enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts” in the country’s detention facilities, military training camps and other places.

The goal, the report explained, was “part of a campaign to instill fear in, deter opposition from and ultimately to control the Eritrean civilian population” since 1991.

Catholics make up about 5 percent—some 163,000 people—of Eritrea’s population of almost six million people. In the past, state authorities have not interfered directly in its activities nor have Catholic clergy or religious been frequently arrested, imprisoned or placed under house arrest.

“The seizure of these health facilities will negatively impact the right to health of the affected populations, in particular, those in remote rural areas.”

The government only officially recognizes four faith groups in Eritrea: Sunni Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Lutheran churches. Starting in 2002, all other faith groups were required to register with the state, but activists and human rights advocates say such registration requests are rarely approved.

Members of minority or unrecognized faiths are often arrested and detained, according to Human Rights Watch. But even the approved religions are not completely free for persecution, as criticism of the establishment is frowned upon.

The Catholic Church in Eritrea runs a vast network of schools, health centers and children’s homes that assist people throughout the country regardless of their faith. Most of the church’s health centers provide free services and operate in remote areas where people have few health care options. Many church facilities have been in operation since 1995.

“There is really no life for people in Eritrea,” says Araya Yodit, an Eritrean-American from Washington, D.C. “Eritrea is extremely secretive; everything is controlled by the government.”

The fact that the Catholic bishops are speaking up is a bold move, Ms. Yodit says, as others have paid a heavy toll for such actions. She notes that Patriarch Abune Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been under house arrest since 2007 for speaking against the government.

Forced conscription into the country’s national service—either in civil or military service—continues to stymie progress in Eritrea. Many of its young people elect to leave the country to avoid it.

The refugee population from Eritrea was the ninth largest in the world in 2018, with 507,300 refugees—up from 486,200 the previous year—according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Global Trends Report. Around 57 percent of Eritrean refugees were accommodated by Ethiopia (174,000) and Sudan (114,500), though some have found refuge in Germany (55,300), Switzerland (34,100), Sweden (27,700) and other European countries.

New asylum claims from Eritreans declined from 49,900 in 2017 to 42,000 last year, with Israel (6,3000 claims) and Germany (5,600) receiving the most claims.

For now, Ms. Yodit is happy to see the Catholic clergy speaking up for democracy and human rights in Eritrea. Their letters are usually reconciliatory and preach peace and forgiveness, she says. “The April 29 letter by the bishops will go down in history as a guide to heal Eritrea,” she said.

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Oz Jewel
2 months 2 weeks ago

Simple solution - take the faith and leave culture change and social development and all the other civic issues to the locals after they become Christians.
No hospitals, no schools, no political interference; just evangelising is a task larger and more important than anything else.
It is the Great Commission.

This is perfectly illustrated by the priest who wrote:
Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai
by Vincent J. Donovan.
Found online here:
https://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/01_3_PDFs/1_3%20Christianity%20Rediscovered%20Buswell%20fixed.pdf

The point is "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, to God the things that are God's"
Other churches obeyed and have not been thrown out, is that a clue?

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2 months 1 week ago

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