News Analysis

Why on earth did Eritrea shut down Catholic health clinics?

The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Asmara (Hailu Wudineh TSEGAYE/Shutterstock)

The Eritrean government has seized and shut down all the country’s Catholic-run health centres in apparent retaliation for Eritrea’s bishops releasing a pastoral letter in April requesting “a national reconciliation process to guarantee social justice” for all Eritreans.

In early June, the authoritarian government, dominated by President Isaias Afewerki since 1993, ordered the 22 health centres to hand over ownership to the state. A previously unenforced 1995 law decreeing that all social institutions – including schools and clinics – be operated by the state provided the pretext for the closures. Administrators at the centres refused to comply, leading to the deployment of soldiers to enforce the ruling, with patients ordered to go home.

Although only about five per cent of the country’s 4.5 million population are Catholic, the Church wields significant influence and has a history of speaking out over injustices in the country. In 2014, four Eritrean Catholic bishops published a letter that described the country as “desolate” because so many people had either fled or were in prison or in the army through conscription.

“Catholics are few but have always had a good connection to Europe through Church networks,” says Milena Belloni, an anthropologist who has been studying Eritrean refugees for the past decade. “They are also among the most educated groups in the country and diaspora. In the past 20 years they have been quite vocal in their criticism of human rights abuses. They are the only group within Eritrea that still dares to criticise the government.”

It’s estimated that the closure of the centres, primarily located in remote rural areas, could leave thousands of the country’s poorest – including mothers with young children and the Afar people (who live along Eritrea’s southern border with Ethiopia) – without healthcare.

The Catholic Church is one of only four religious groups – the others being Eritrean Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran and Sunni Muslims – permitted to operate in Eritrea by the ever-distrustful government, which regards other religious groups as malign instruments of foreign governments.

“It’s all part of a steady pattern of encroaching government control,” says Michela Wrong, author of I Didn’t Do it For You, about Eritrea’s long fight for independence from Ethiopia. “We’ve seen the ruling party’s increasing antagonism towards any area of activity or institution where independent thought might find expression, from media to education to civil society to all forms of religion, even to music. It demands total control – anything that represents a potential challenge must be stifled and crushed.”

She also notes that the ruling party’s antecedent was a Marxist organisation and “Marxist ideologues rarely have any sympathy for religion”, hence “the government’s attitude to worshippers of any faith – even those it officially recognises – has been one of mounting suspicion and hostility.”

Eritrea is ranked the seventh worst country in the world for Christian persecution in the 2019 World Watch List compiled by Open Doors. At the same time, Belloni, who visited the country at the end of last year, says that the media’s popular description of Eritrea as the North Korea of Africa is unfair, and misses the nuances of how multiple international television channels are available in the country, as is the internet, while interactions with the outside world, especially through the diaspora, heavily influence Eritrean society.

She also says reports that the government-run health centres are worse than the Catholic ones are similarly problematic, and miss the reality of how government hospitals are much larger and tend to be located in urban areas, while the smaller religious-run clinics are too few and too small to fill the gaps.

“Cooperation is needed rather than competition,” Belloni says. “Resources are too few and the needs too huge.”