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 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.
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.
Recently, Pope Francis in his address to the community of the Pontifical Ethiopian College on the centenary of its establishment in the Vatican recalled to mind the many people in Ethiopia and Eritrea who have “left their homelands at great cost”, many of whom have experienced “tragedies on land and at sea”. While thanking the priests for their commitment to the pastoral care of migrants, he said that much more can and must be done, “at home and abroad”, in humble and generous service, and “always on the basis of union with the Lord”.
Finally, the Pope expressed his hope that the Church in both Ethiopia and Eritrea “might be guaranteed the freedom to serve the common good… in the certainty that pastors and faithful alike want to contribute to the good and prosperity of your nations”.
The story of Ethiopians in the Vatican goes back to the 15th century, when Pope Sixtus IV granted Ethiopian pilgrims the use of the Church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini (St Stephen of the Abyssinians) in the Vatican Gardens. In the 20th century, Pope Benedict XV established the Pontifical Ethiopian College, which was enlarged by Pope Pius XI.