“It is a tragedy that could well happen again. There are many other migrants in the hands of Isis.” The words are those of Don Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest, who was speaking to the Italian office of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the recent murder of around 30 Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians by the terrorists of these so-called Islamic State (IS) – a murder the terrorists themselves portrayed in a video they posted on 19 April.
Don Zerai is the founder and president of the agency Habeshia and is known for his work in defence of the asylum seekers and migrants who are trying to escape the wars, dictatorships, terrorism and persecution in their own countries. It is work that in recent months has brought him nomination as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The people who were murdered by the jihadists were hoping to be able to start a new life and receive protection in Europe”, he remarks. There are many other Christians like them, who are braving long and difficult journeys, often precisely to escape persecution. But during their journey they encounter yet more serious discrimination on account of their faith. “In the detention camps in Libya the Christians are always discriminated against and maltreated”, Father Zerai tells ACN. “Just a few days ago I was told how, in one centre in Misurata, the Christians are being forced to pray and fast during Ramadan along with the Muslims – but with this difference: when the sun sets, the Muslim detainees are given food, but the Christians are denied even this right.”
However, with regard to the tragic incident of the 12 Christians who were thrown into the sea in the straits of Sicily on 14th of April, Father Zerai urges caution. “The precise facts have not yet been established by the magistrates, and this is the first time that we have heard of religious discrimination among the migrants on the boats themselves. I hope that it is not true; otherwise it would be terrible.”
Among the Christian migrants murdered by the Islamic State there were at least three Eritreans, who were identified in the video published by the jihadists.Don Zerai also spoke about the persecution being suffered by Christians in his own country, which is sometimes called, not without reason, the “North Korea of Africa”. According to the most recent report by ACN on religious freedom, there are believed to be at least 1,200 Christians imprisoned for religious reasons. “Many Christian leaders, above all among the Pentecostals, have been arrested and tortured and several of them have died in prison. Even the canonically elected Orthodox patriarch is being held under house arrest and has been replaced by a ‘patriarch’ close to the regime. The strict government controls also affect the Catholic Church, and her publications have been banned for the past 10 years – having been judged “guilty” of denouncing injustices and abuses. “They have banned us from publishing translations of the social teachings of the Church in the Tigryna language. The censors claim that they contain political material.”Don Zerai also fears possible repercussions following the pastoral letter written by four Eritrean bishops in June 2014, which contained a clear denunciation of the difficult conditions faced by the local Church. “The regime has not yet acted, because it does not want to appear vindictive. But the bishops are still expecting a harsh reaction in the future.”
In Ethiopia the situation of the Christians is somewhat better. “Yet even here”, as Father Habtesilassie Haillemariam, a priest of the Pontifical Ethiopian College, tells ACN Italy, “we are starting to notice the pressure from the neighbouring majority Islamic countries, such as Sudan and Somalia.” There was great appreciation, however, for the message of sympathy sent by Pope Francis to the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Matthias. “The words of the Holy Father will have an important effect on ecumenical relations, which face an obstacle in the identification of the Catholic Church with the Italian invader – an attitude that is still widespread even today.”
Recently, the Pope has also called on Europe to make a greater effort on behalf of the thousands of migrants currently seeking a better life on the Old Continent. “It is important to attack the root of the problem and not to restrict ourselves to simply responding to the emergency”, DonMussie Zerai told ACN. “Every year the same tragedies are repeated, tragedies that are waiting to happen. In order to combat the people trafficking and to put an end to the deaths of so many innocent migrants, in the desert or in the Mediterranean, we have to provide them with a legal alternative, and above all to try and resolve the problems in their home countries, such as the dictatorships, wars, persecutions and the socio-economic contexts that deny them basic human dignity.”
Marta Petrosillo, firstname.lastname@example.org