Asmara, Eritrea, Feb 27, 2020 / 11:14 am (CNA).- Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, the head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, was prohibited from leaving the Asmara airport Saturday. The move comes after tensions between the Church and government in Eritrea.
The BBC reported that Cardinal Berhaneyesus, Ethiopian Archbishop of Addis Abeba, had been issued a visa, but officials at the airport of the Eritrean capital said Feb. 22 they had been ordered by those “higher up” not to allow him into the country.
The cardinal intended to attend an event marking the 50th anniversary of the dedication of Kidane Mehret cathedral in Asmara.
Last year the Eritrean government seized and closed a number of Catholic healthcare sites. It is believed the seizures are retaliatory, after the Church in April 2019 called for reforms to reduce emigration. The bishops had also called for national reconciliation.
In June and July 2019 the government shuttered as many as 29 Catholic hospitals, health centers, and clinics.
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.”
Eritrea is a one-party state whose human rights record has frequently been deplored, and government seizure of Church property is not new.
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.
The Eritrean and Ethiopian Catholic Churches are closely linked. Both use the Alexandrian rite, and the Eritrean Catholic Church was separated from the Ethiopian Catholic Church only in 2015.