Eritrean Catholic Church remains opposed to health facilities’ closure

Asmara, Eritrea, Jul 9, 2019 / 01:01 pm (CNA).- As the Eritrean government continues to seize and close Catholic healthcare sites throughout the country, the Church has denounced the intimidation used during the nationalization.

The government's action began in June, and by July 9 as many as 29 Catholic hospitals, health centers, and clinics had been shuttered.

Agenzia Fides reported that a group of nuns who ran a health facility in southern Eritrea were asked to leave their residence July 4, and that in Zager (Zaghir), about 20 miles north of Asmara, police forced nuns away from their health facility and sealed its doors July 5.

“Though the Catholic bishops have expressed their opposition to this measure, they have not yet received any response from the State authorities,” read a recent statement from the Eritrean Catholic Church.

“While in some locations actions of force were involved, in other centres the staff were ordered to ‘get out of the way,’ the premises were sealed, and the staff was placed in a position where they were unable to attend to patients … Threatening words and bullying were spoken in various (health) centres,” the Church continued.

Eritrea's bishops framed the problem as one of religious liberty, saying: “It is our firm belief that, with the recent requisition of our clinics, a specific right of our religion has been violated, which prescribes, ‘to love others and to do good to them.’ Any measure that prevents us from fulfilling … the obligations that come to us from the supreme commandment of brotherly love is and remains a violation of the fundamental right of religious freedom.”

Papal charity Aid to the Church in Need was told by a source in the Eritrean Catholic Church that “the staff at some of the clinics refused to hand over the keys so the soldiers broke into them.”

Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam of the Eritrean Archeparchy of Asmara has called for the Church's faithful to observe the Apostles' Fast, which lasts through July 11, in response to the nationalization of the health facilities.

A letter from the Church to the health ministry after the seizure said that “the government can say it doesn't want the services of the Church, but asking for the property is not right.” It added that the Church's social services cannot be characterized as opposition to the government.

Eritrea is a one-party state whose human rights record has frequently been deplored.

It is believed the seizures are retaliatory, after the Church in April called for reforms to reduce emigration. The bishops had also called for national reconciliation.

Government seizure of Church property is not new, however.

A 1995 decree restricting social and welfare projects to the state has been used intermittently since then to seize or close ecclesial services.

In July 2018, an Eritrean Catholic priest helping immigrants and refugees in Italy told EWTN that authorities had recently shut down eight free Catholic-run medical clinics. He said authorities claimed the clinics were unnecessary because of the presence of state clinics.

Christian and Muslim schools have also been closed under the 1995 decree, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2019 annual report.

Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern since 2004 for its religious freedom abuses by the US Department of State.

Many Eritreans, especially youth, emigrate, due to a military conscription, and a lack of opportunities, freedom, education, and health care.

A July 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended a conflict over their mutual border, led to an open border which has allowed for easier emigration.

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