Königstein, 10.07.2015. Seminarians forced to undergo military service, priests forbidden to leave the country, and Christians imprisoned for religious reasons… Such is the situation of religious freedom in Eritrea, as described to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) by a source close to the local Church, who for reasons of personal safety does not wish to be named.
As detailed in a report by the United Nations, the government in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, is responsible for grave violations of human rights. A broad section of the population is currently detained and subject to forced labour, while the rest of the population is subject to a strict system of supervision and control that does not spare the religious communities either.
The Catholic community in Eritrea is very active. In Asmara, for example, while Catholics represent barely 4% of the local population, the Church runs more than 50 schools and 30 health and welfare centres. The Church is likewise on the front line when it comes to speaking out against government abuses, and at Easter 2014 the Catholic bishops wrote a heartfelt pastoral letter, calling attention to the gravity of the situation in the country, which was forcing a large number of Eritreans to emigrate. “The pastoral letter was greatly appreciated by the faithful of all religions”, the source told ACN. “Many of them told us that we were their one hope. It was impossible not to speak out about what is happening in our country, even though the Church has to proceed with prudence, since otherwise the government might close down our structures.” Together with Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church is one of only four religious communities officially recognised by the state. However, this still does not mean full religious freedom for the Catholics. “On paper we are free to attend our liturgical celebrations, but in reality the government does everything it can to prevent us from doing so”, our source adds. Not infrequently, in fact, during Sunday Mass or on the occasion of other Christian festivals, the authorities organise political gatherings or sporting events which it is obligatory to attend. “It happened again this year, on Good Friday”, our source tells us, adding that many school courses are also held on Sundays.
Unfortunately, however, the control exercised by the government in Asmara goes well beyond even this. There have been numerous attempts to force the Catholic clergy to undergo military service, which is compulsory for all men aged 50 and under and for all women up to the age of 40. The source also maintains that tens of seminarians have disappeared and have never returned from the period of military call-up. “Today we do not allow this to happen any more, but the authorities do not allow anyone who has not done military service to leave the country, and consequently our priests cannot go abroad to study.” This has important repercussions on their religious formation, given that the academic staff cannot rely on having new members. “We have just one teacher of Sacred Scripture; if anything were to happen to him, we would not know how to replace him.” This strict control by the government is seen as an attempt to browbeat the Catholic Church into silence. “They would rather we were not properly trained, because then they could control us more easily”, our source concludes.
The source also confirms the tragic fate of thousands of Eritreans who have been detained for political and religious reasons. “They are shut up in underground prisons, forgotten by everyone. Not even their families know where they are.” As stated in the most recent report on Religious Freedom Worldwide by ACN, there are thought to be at least 1200 Christians in prison, often for purely religious reasons. Many prisoners are subjected to outright torture, and among them there are also believed to be many Christian leaders, above all Pentecostalists, some of whom have already died in prison. Even the Eritrean Orthodox patriarch, who was canonically elected, is currently believed to be under house arrest, having been replaced by another patriarch, close to the regime.
The authorities have even banned the publication of some of the documents of the Catholic Church, which in their eyes are “guilty” of denouncing injustices and abuses. Among these is the translation in the Tigrinya language of the volume on the Social Teaching of the Church, which according to the censors contains political topics.