by Doreen Ajiambo
As the Eritrean government continues to punish the Roman Catholic Church by closing down their hospitals and other medical facilities in the country, members of religious congregations are bearing the brunt.
Scores of nuns who live and work in the facilities have been forcefully evicted from their residences as the health centers have been seized. Global Sisters Report said authorities also have asked some of the remaining nuns to leave their residences immediately and look elsewhere for accommodations.
The Catholic Church, which makes up about 5 percent of Eritrea’s population of 6 million people, has come under attack from the government for criticizing President Isaias Afwerki’s dictatorial rule.
The conflict started June 12 when the health care administrators who are religious leaders declined to sign papers acknowledging the transfer of their medical facilities’ ownership to the government and, instead, asked authorities to speak to church leaders. Angered by their action, soldiers and officials from the Ministry of Health raided the facilities and ordered their closure. Patients and elderly people who were receiving treatment at the time were ordered to leave the facilities, and staff officials were expelled.
A few weeks later, soldiers dressed in military fatigues raided convents that run clinics within their complex and forcibly took over the facilities, including the convents. The nuns were ejected from their convents, their belongings thrown out during the evictions.
One sister was left homeless after the government evicted her from her residence in a church-run hospital in Zager, a village about 20 miles north of the capital, Asmara.
“The soldiers came and ordered us to leave our residence without carrying anything,” the nun told Global Sisters Report by phone from northern Eritrea. “I have been forced to stay with a friend as I plan to travel to Ethiopia where my family lives. We are afraid because soldiers are threatening to arrest anyone who doesn’t want to comply with the directions.”
The nun, who is from the Daughters of St. Ann, said the move by the government to close health centers was heartbreaking; she said there was growing fear that the authorities will also shut down the Catholic schools. The clinic she ran was providing maternity care and general services for needy and vulnerable people in the villages, she said.
“I have never seen such heartless people,” she said, referring to government officials who closed the facilities without considering the patients. “What the government has done hurts the patients who were receiving treatment [at the facilities] more than anyone else. This country needs prayers so that God can heal our leaders’ hearts.”
A Comboni Missionary sister told Global Sisters Report in a phone interview that the church was paying the cost for speaking out about national reconciliation, political reforms and justice in the country.
Eritrea, which was part of Ethiopia until it became an independent state in 1993, remains a one-party state under Afwerki’s rule. The country has undergone notoriously gruesome human rights violations. Human rights groups have accused the government of committing crimes such as enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape and murder.
The Eritrean government also has continued to suppress religious freedom by recognizing only four religions: Eritrean Orthodox; the Roman Catholic Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, representing some 50 percent of the population; and Sunni Islam, with around 48 percent of the population.
In recent years, dozens of Christians, especially from Pentecostal churches, have been arrested by security forces and detained without charges for operating unrecognized religions. The government has raided and arrested devotees who meet at their private homes to pray. Authorities have banned public activities for religious groups the government claims are instruments of foreign governments.
In April, Eritrean Catholic bishops angered the government by releasing a pastoral letter calling for a national reconciliation process to go along with respect for human rights and religious freedom.
“The problem of the church and the suffering of nuns began after the bishops petitioned the government to respect human rights and called for national reconciliation. The appeal by the bishops was a threat to this government, and I’m afraid that they might even close down the church,” said the Comboni sister, who runs an orphanage in southern Eritrea.
Still, the government has maintained that the officials were strictly following the country’s regulations, introduced in 1995, limiting any developmental activities of religious institutions, including schools, hospitals, agricultural projects, and sponsoring education for vulnerable children.
Religious leaders, including nuns around the continent, have condemned the government for the act, terming it unreasonable and unjustifiable since the facilities provide services to all Eritrean people, especially poor women and children from the villages who cannot afford to pay for services at the state-run hospitals.
“There is no justification for the actions of the regime,” Father Mussie Zerai said in a statement. Father Zerai, who estimates 200,000 patients a year seek treatment at Catholic medical centers in Eritrea, resides in Rome and coordinates pastoral work for the country and European Eritrean communities. The action “punishes those who are taking care of the poorest of the poor as most of the patients weren’t Catholics, but Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and members of other religions. The facilities are often located in remote areas.”
Meanwhile, the Daughter of St. Ann sister appealed for prayers, saying their lives were under threat and the government was following their activities after closing the clinics.
“All we need is prayers,” she said. “God can change impossible situations.”