The showdown between the Eritrean government and the Catholic Church shows no sign of abating.
Four Catholic schools have been seized by the government this month. It follows the seizure and shutting down in June of the country’s 22 Catholic-run health centres.
That decision was widely seen as retaliation for Eritrea’s bishops speaking out in April over national reconciliation to achieve social justice for all Eritreans. But Awet Weldemichael, an Eritrean academic based in Canada, isn’t so sure. “I do not think that the Eritrean government has uniquely targeted the Catholic Church,” he says. “The Catholic Church’s capacity to give social services may make its targeting especially hurtful to the people, but conceptually what has been done to [it] is no different from what the other [religious orders] have faced or are facing.”
Three schools run by Protestant and Muslim groups were seized at the same time as the Catholic schools – all were nationalised to be run by the country’s education ministry.
Only about five per cent of Eritrea’s population are Catholic, but the Church plays an outsized role in society, especially when it comes to speaking truth to power, and openly criticising the authoritarian government.
“The Catholic Church has many advantages over the other [churches] in doing so,” Awet says. “The all-important backing of the Vatican – with all its materials, intelligence, diplomatic and moral clout – the highly educated and sophisticated Eritrean Catholic clergy whose training straddles spiritual and secular education, and the Catholic social teaching that uniquely imbues the Catholic priesthood in Eritrea with a sense of mission to grapple with the laity’s worldly struggles.”
The journalist Michela Wrong has vivid memories of one Italian priest-librarian, Fr Ezio, who exemplified the best of Church’s contribution to Eritrean society. He had “probably the best collection of old colonial papers and publications outside the national archives, which are government-controlled,” she recalls. “Every day, scores of school kids went to study inside the library and Fr Ezio ruled with a fist of iron – total silence in the room, total concentration. I’d be willing to bet that those kids got far higher marks in their exams than the children attending under-funded state schools.”
Eritrea continues to experience a massive emigration-related brain drain which the anthropologist Milena Belloni attributes to limited social and political freedoms – compounded by the burden of mandatory national service due to unresolved tensions with Ethiopia.
The Church, then faces a dilemma. “One might argue that the Church would have been better by avoiding conflict with the government,” says Michael Woldemariam, another Eritrean diaspora academic. “[But] there is a danger that if religious institutions fail to speak to the lived realities of their community, they become irrelevant, and perhaps even complicit in human suffering.”