“Brutal” Closures of Church Administered Health Centres
by Tobias Lehner, for ACN International
Adapted by Mario Bard Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Published on the website July 11, 2019
Beginning in mid-June, the Eritrean military forcibly and “brutally” occupied and closed 21 hospitals and medical facilities run by the Catholic Church in Eritrea. This was reported last week to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), by Father Mussie Zerai, himself of Eritrean origin and currently coordinating the pastoral work for the country in Rome. “The patients were more or less thrown out of their beds. The military smashed wa and doors and pressured the staff […] the director of a hospital in northern Eritrea, a Franciscan Sister, was even arrested when she resisted the closure.”
“There is no justification for the actions of the regime. It punishes those who are taking care of the poorest of the poor,” Father Zerai said, also pointing out that the more than 200,000 people who receive treatment year after year at health care facilities run by the Church will suffer as a result of these new measures, for which the government has not announced any kind of replacement. It is believed the government wishes to have sole control of the social sector in favour of the “separation of powers” —It is thus basing its actions on a law passed in 1995 which has never been applied in such a brutal manner to date. “Most of the patients weren’t Catholics, but Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and members of other religions. The facilities are often located in remote [and poor] areas,” the priest explained. In 2018, eight dispensaries were forced to close.
The reasons for these massive seizures remain unclear. According to the suggestions of outside observers, in the eyes of President Isaias Aferwerki’s government, the Church has become too self-confident in its efforts to further the peace process with Ethiopia. The situation is clear for Father Zerai: “The government is obsessed with having control over everything and everyone. It sees the Catholic Church as a threat because we are part of an international network and [we dare to] ask questions.”
All Religions Suffer in This State Marked by Atheism
Eritrea has at most 120,000 to 160,000 Catholics. Half of its population is Christian belonging to Orthodox Churches and Lutheran Evangelicals. In addition to Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam, the Orthodox and Lutheran churches are the only other religious denominations tolerated by the state. A situation reminiscent of the one observed in certain communist regimes, where official religious denominations cohabited parallel with those refusing interference from the state in their affairs. Or those who are held in contempt by the regime, though not prohibited, and thus become clandestine.
Moreover, unlike many other countries in North Africa, Islam is not the state religion in Eritrea. The country has a “strong atheistic leaning. If it were up to the government, religion would not exist. Essentially, it follows the same school of thought as China,” explained Father Zerai. In every case, all believers are suffering in similar situations.
No Constitution and No Fundamental Rights
“Young Eritreans are leaving the country in growing numbers because there is no rule of law,” Father Zerai explained. Moreover, the country has no constitution implemented to speak of, and this, despite the country declaring its independence in 1993. “This is why the people can just be picked up from their homes without reason. Military service has become legalized slavery. The possibility of a future is taken away from the young people,” Father Zerai said. Of course, at the present time, “the countries are trying to get Eritrea more involved on an international level in order to make it more open and democratic,” he explains. But despite its election in October 2018 to the Human Rights Council by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the human rights situation is still critical and the country remains isolated.
Special Rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights in Eritrea, Mrs. Daniela Kravetz, considers the seizures of the last weeks demonstrate “that despite the improved regional climate for peace and security, the human rights situation [in Eritrea] remains unchanged.”
According to Father Zerai, similar to the overall human rights situation, the freedom of religion is severely restricted and at the mercy of capriciousness: “A few are permitted to freely practise their religion, but not all. Sometimes the cooperation works better [with authorities], sometimes worse.”—a situation which also applies to the freedom of religion.
In spite of the current escalation in violence, the priest is certain about one thing, “The Catholic Church will continue its pastoral work, but also its social work. After all, it says in the Bible: faith without works is dead. Taking away the ability of the Church to carry out charitable works is like amputating one of its arms.”
Since 2016 alone, the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has financially supported 44 projects in Eritrea with a total of about $1.350 million dollars. This includes aid to build chapels and church facilities, funding for stipends and vehicles to secure the mobility of priests and subsistence aid for religious Sisters.