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Catholic bishop, priest released after two months in Eritrea prison

December 29, 2022 Catholic News Agency 0
Bishop Fikremariam Hagos Tsalim of Eritrea’s Segheneity Eparchy / InfoVaticana

Denver, Colo., Dec 29, 2022 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

After more than two months in detention in Eritrea, Bishop Fikremariam Hagos Tsalim and Father Mehereteab Stefanos have been released, several sources reported Thursday.

The 52-year-old bishop heads the Eritrean Catholic Eparchy of Segheneity. Father Stefanos, before his imprisonment, was a parish priest at St. Michael’s Parish in the same eparchy. It is still unknown whether another priest, Capuchin Friar Abbot Abraham, has been released.

Security agents had arrested Bishop Tsalim and two priests Oct. 15 at Asmara International Airport upon the bishop’s arrival from Europe. The three clergymen were detained at Adi Abeto prison, according to Agenzia Fides.

The two released prisoners were welcomed by a group that included Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam of Asmara, head of the Eritrean Catholic Church, BBC News reports.

Catholics make up about 4% of Eritrea’s 6 million people. The Eritrean Catholic Church is one of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the Holy See. It has an estimated 168,000 members in the northwestern African country and in diaspora communities around the world.

Authorities did not state a reason for the arrests of the three clergymen, BBC News reports.

The three detained clergy were accused of criticizing human rights violations in their homilies, CNA’s sister agency ACI Africa reported in October, citing a source who did not want to be named for security reasons. The objects of their criticism included the forced military enlistment of young people and evictions and confiscation of property of those who refused to go to war.

The release of the bishop and the priest comes amid agreements to end the civil war in Ethiopia, where the Eritrean government has sided with the Ethiopian government against the regional leaders of the Tigray province.

Critics of the bishop’s arrest included the U.K.-based groups Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Human Rights Concern-Eritrea.

Eritrea has aligned with the Ethiopian government’s war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. This group’s leaders dominated Ethiopian politics for decades but the group now controls the Ethiopian region of Tigray, on the southern border of Eritrea. Since the war began in November 2020, the conflict has killed thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have been put at risk of famine and millions of people have been displaced from their homes.

On Nov. 2 the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces signed a peace agreement to permanently end hostilities. Both parties also signed a Nov. 12 agreement concerning disarmament, humanitarian access and the Ethiopian military’s entry, Reuters reports. They are now discussing the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray.

Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1991. Since then, the country has not held a national election. Its president, President Isaias Afwerki, has held office since independence.

Only four religious communities are legal in the country: the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Lutheran-affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea.

Even legal groups face persecution. The Eritrean government has periodically targeted Catholic and other religious institutions.

In August, the Eritrean government took over the Hagaz Agro-Technical School, a Catholic institution founded and run by the Lasallian Brothers. The school trains students in farm machinery, agriculture, soil conservation, and animal husbandry.

Government officials shut down several Catholic-run schools and hospitals in 2019, saying religious bodies could not run these institutions, BBC News reports. Their legal pretext is a 1995 regulation that restricts social projects and welfare projects to the state. The regulation has been used intermittently to limit religious institutions’ activities and to pursue perceived critics of the government.

Eritrea’s Catholic bishops have opposed the application of the regulation, arguing that the Church’s social services are not in opposition to the government.

The government has drawn international criticism, including a May letter sent to Estifanos Habtemariam Ghebreyesus, the Eritrean ambassador in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

In that letter, officials of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Church in Chains-Ireland, Release Eritrea, Human Rights Concern-Eritrea, and the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom highlighted multiple instances of human rights violations. These included forced conscription of minors and “unjust, arbitrary and indefinite detention” of tens of thousands of citizens who are imprisoned in “harsh conditions.” Hundreds of Christians are imprisoned “solely on account of their faith.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory body to the U.S. government, has said that Eritrea has “one of the worst religious freedom records in Africa.”

Since 2004 the U.S. State Department has designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern for its religious freedom abuses.


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Ethiopian bishops call for ceasefire in Tigray crisis

July 22, 2021 Catholic News Agency 0
Ethiopia’s bishops during their plenary assembly in Mojo, July 2021. Credit: Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat via Facebook.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jul 22, 2021 / 18:01 pm (CNA).

As the war over control of Ethiopia’s Tigray region expands into neighboring regions, the country’s bishops on Saturday urged an end to the violence.

“It saddens our hearts hearing about war while we all would like to hear about peace and reconciliation,” read a July 17 statement from the Ethiopian bishops’ conference. The conference had held its ordinary assembly July 13-16 in Mojo, about 50 miles southeast of Addis Ababa.

Fighting has been taking place in Tigray since November 2020 between the regional government of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and federal forces.

In the last week, the Tigray war has expanded into the neighboring Afar region; it had already crossed into the Amhara region.

Ethiopia’s bishops commented that “as Pastors, we cannot but feel the anguish and pain that the people are going through.”

The bishops “prayed for the peace of our country and the safety of our people,” making special mention of Bishop Tesfasilassie Medhin of the Ethiopian Eparchy of Adigrat.

The bishops said they “kindly urge” the parties in conflict to halt the violence and strive toward peaceful co-existence, saying, “War only destroys lives and properties and nothing more and the choice to be made should not be a war but peace and reconciliation.”

Violence, the bishops said, “is never a remedy for wrongs or a solution to a crisis.”

“It is never too late to stop the violence, to acknowledge that the only way forward, for the good of the people, is peace and reconciliation, to satisfy the demands of truth and justice, to ask for and grant forgiveness, to do what is necessary to restore mutual trust, to recognize others as our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are and how deep our disagreements are, and to settle any differences through dialogue and negotiation,” they stated.

The bishops also encouraged the people of God to put their hope in Christ, saying, “It is the only way that we can heal together as a country, as a society, and as a Church.”

They further urge Ethiopians to embrace one another regardless of their differences as “there are no ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, no ‘them’ and ‘us’; we are all brothers and sisters.”

“Living in peace and social harmony may seem like a dream but it is attainable if we stretch out our hands to God, the Father of all, in prayer and allow Him to mold our hearts and minds to think thoughts of peace and fraternity and act accordingly,” the Ethiopian bishops said.

It is their desire, the bishops added, to see a nation where “all Ethiopians embrace each other as brothers and sisters.”

“May The Almighty God who created all of us as brothers and sisters fill our hearts with wisdom to choose brotherhood and sisterhood than hatred and revenge and make us an instrument of peace,” the bishops concluded.

The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s long-ruling political coalition. That coalition was dissolved in 2018 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s after he took office. The coalition’s ethnicity-based regional parties were merged into a single party, the Prosperity Party, which the TPLF refused to join.

Tigrayan leaders have said they were unfairly targeted by political purges and allegations of corruption. They have argued that Abiy’s postponement of national elections due to coronavirus have ended his mandate as a legitimate leader.

On Nov. 4, 2020 Abiy announced a military offensive in response to an alleged attack on a military base in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. The prime minister aims to arrest the regional government heads and to destroy its military arsenal.

Thousands of people are estimated to have been killed on both sides of the conflict, some in massacres. Each side blames the other for the conflict. The war is also exacerbating famine and a water crisis.