Eritrea’s Catholic schools are all boarded up. Catholic cardinals are barred from entering the East African country. Soldiers have shut down hospitals by kicking out patients and the religious sisters who nurse them, leaving thousands without health care.
Thousands of kilometres away, Eritrean expatriates in Edmonton can only watch as the government chips away at the future of the Church in their country. The government continues to seize property and deny the Church’s ability to educate, heal the sick, comfort the dying, and worship as a community.
“What is happening has paralysed the Catholic Church in Eritrea,” said Tsehaye Kefel. “We are banned from practising our mission.”
Kefel is one of 1,500 Eritrean Catholics who gather on Sunday evenings for Mass at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in downtown Edmonton.
The Eritrean community encourages individuals, parishes, and members of the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Women’s League to write their MP or the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. They hope this will create international pressure on the Eritrean government to return the clinics, schools and other properties seized the Church over the past 25 years.
Yohannes Hagos says the government forced out the Daughters of Charity sisters who ran the only clinic in Monoxieto, his home village in south Eritrea, late last year.
“Now my brother and his children do not get their vaccines on time. They don’t know if they will get emergency treatments,” said Hagos, who has lived in Edmonton since 2009.
“The government has replaced a small number of staff there, but the services do not compare to when the nuns were running it. The sisters delivered vaccines to the kids, provided emergency services, organized their own transportation, and the government does not do any of that. At most they will have one or two staff members on at a time.”
By September 2019, the Eritrean government confiscated five schools and 29 clinics operated by the Catholic Church after the country’s bishops published a pastoral letter last April critical of President Isiaias Afwerki. The letter calls for a truth and reconciliation plan following Eritrea’s two-decade war with Ethiopia, and a ban on hate speech.
“They are punishing the Catholic Church so they can shut them up and leave them without a voice,” said Kefel. “As a dictatorship, the government wants to curb whatever opposition comes its way – whether from individuals or religious institutions.”
“Catholics here in Edmonton, Catholics in Rome, and Catholics around the globe need to see this issue and take it as their own,” Kefel added. “We need all Catholics to be the voice of the Church in Eritrea, because attacking the Church in Eritrea is like attacking it everywhere.”
The Eritrean government began seizing Church schools, clinics and orphanages in 1995.
As a boy, Katela Okubamichael attended an elementary school run by the local Cistercian Monastery in his hometown of Keren. The Eritrean government denied the monastery an additional high school in the mid-1990s and now, the Cistercian priests are barred from teaching all together.
“This is how they make the Church powerless,” Okubamichael said. “The Church has no way to expand its mission if it cannot teach, and much of its ability to influence people will be gone.
“Historically the Church has been very vocal. They stand for the rights of oppressed people. So the government understands that people have an allegiance to the Church, and they want to void this allegiance as much as possible ̶ to crack down on that influence in a way that will hit the Church and ordinary people directly.”
Bahta Yohannes fears the situation could escalate further, possibly with the arrest of Eritrea’s bishops after Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew was banned from entering Eritrea.
“You don’t expect anything good to come out of this prejudiced government,” said Yohannes, a lay brother with the De La Salle missionary order, which has been banned from Eritrea.
“This president has imprisoned his ministers, some of whom were close friends and political allies. We expect this could also happen to our Catholic bishops.”
Whenever Eritrean expatriates in Edmonton speak with family, their fears grow.
“They are scared. They feel censored by the government,” said Kiflemariam Tesfahawarial.
“They will not talk openly about what’s happening, not in public or over the phone. You can sense in their voice that they’re scared. And we feel we cannot say to them what we want to, because we also fear they may be tracked.”
Yohannes Hagos said: “There’s always the fear of what will happen next, that the nightmare is always evolving. Prayer is the biggest thing we need so that this nightmare can end and people can regain their power, their freedom, and their right to worship and educate.”