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from issue no. 11 - 2005

Not in war, not in peace

The conflict with Ethiopia has been over for years, but since then the population has remained under arms. Because the war could rekindle, with the alibi of the dispute about the borders. The Bishop of Asmara talks to us

Interview with Meghisteab Tesfamariam by Giovanni Cubeddu

Above a procession of Eritrean Catholics praying for peace in the streets of Asmara

Above a procession of Eritrean Catholics praying for peace in the streets of Asmara

Here people used to say that the Moslem has neither sky nor land because in a totally Christian country the Moslems were not allowed to own property.
That was in the old days. Now Islam and Christianity are on a par, and if there is a country where the struggle for liberation has brought everyone together, without distinction, it is precisely Eritrea. There is not a shadow of religious conflict among the Moslems, Copts, Catholics and Protestants who pack mosques and churches. Co-existence was warm and simple beforehand and everyone rejoiced at the end of the war and consoled those who had lost their loved ones.
Almost thirteen years after the referendum for independence, judging by relations with Addis Ababa described as “not war, not peace”, all the able-bodied men are under arms, and while the government continues the building of infrastructures, the family economy is mainly left to the women. The national education system, that should be training talents for the future of the country, is now instead required to do its part in providing skills relevant to warfare.
And then the rain... so important for a people devoted to agriculture and pasturage, comes so rarely.
The Eritrean Bishops’ Conference has already widely and frankly spoken (ten years after independence, in a pastoral letter of 2001, God Loves this country,) of what the people still expect from the government. The problems of the Eritrean Catholic minority are the same as everybody’s. Menghisteab Tesfamariam, the Combonian bishop of Asmara, tells us more.
MENGHISTEAB TESFAMARIAM: Eritrea is a small and young country. It’s been through thirty years of war for independence, and then another border war with Ethiopia. The economic crisis came out of that, and there is the persistent drought of the last five years. People have difficulty in finding their daily bread.
In fact more than half the population is dependent, at different levels, on international aid.
TESFAMARIAM: It’s difficult to provide statistics, I have no precise data, but I know for certain that many people need aid. The economy must be supported by agricultural production, by work. And for that peace is needed, and rain is needed. Otherwise it’s natural that we suffer.
But the war ended in 2000.
TESFAMARIAM: You say “ended”, but for us it’s a relative statement. It’s true, there’s been no fighting since 2000, but until the border dispute is settled the country will remain in a state of “almost war”. Let’s not forget that the men of working age are still at the front.
Immediately after Eritrean independence the Church was close to President Afeworki. Then the Eritrean Bishops’ Conference published a document containing criticisms. When did the attitude of the bishops change?
TESFAMARIAM: I have been in Asmara since 2001 and I haven’t seen any noticeable change in relations with the government. The Church has always backed what is right and necessary for the development of the country and the life of the people. The bishops’ document published in 2001 came out of an assessment of the progress made ten years after independence. There were some good things, while it had to be pointed out that others had not been achieved. Ours was a spontaneous and natural gesture prompted also by the celebrations for the ten years of independence organized by the government in those same days...
Were the demands that the Church made to the government for the good of society listened to?
TESFAMARIAM: Well, we seek dialogue, because fundamentally we are convinced that it is also the intention of the government to make our country grow. Of course, not all demands are met. But we are only a small percentage and we do what we can. We work for schools, hospitals, human, spiritual and pastoral development.
If all the able-bodied men are required for military service, who is going to build the country of tomorrow?
TESFAMARIAM: I couldn’t comment or say anything on that. The situation of tension isn’t over and it’s difficult to judge in this moment. Only those who go through certain experiences can grasp them.
The tension with Ethiopia is again very high …
TESFAMARIAM: The international community, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union, all worked together to find an accord between us and the Ethiopians, in Algiers, in 2000. And an international Commission to settle the borders, to work out a demarcation and a lasting peace between the two sister countries. The UN sent troops here to indicate its commitment. But the Commission made its pronouncement in 2002 and no progress has yet been made with the demarcation of borders. We are puzzled because the international community hasn’t kept its pledge to help the two countries make the accord effective. But it’s not up to me to comment on the foreign policy of my government.
Ethiopian soldiers patrol the border with Eritrea

Ethiopian soldiers patrol the border with Eritrea

Do you think there will be war again?
TESFAMARIAM: I hope and pray not. But if the tension remains this high, well, then we’re afraid. I, however, truly hope not.
What are percentages of the various religions present in the country?
TESFAMARIAM: The population is half Christian and half Moslem. Among the Christians, the Catholics are perhaps 4%, while the rest are all Orthodox Copts, plus a small group of Protestants. Co-existence works, without problem, and we seek dialogue.
But we also have sects here and modern movements, that are by now everywhere in the world, and it’s hard to know their numbers and what they’re up to. Some of our faithful, Catholics and Orthodox Copts, are drawn to them. We instead have our worship, we pray, we perform our pastoral work always in mutual respect.
After 11 September, and because of international problems – the war in Iraq for instance – have your relations with the Moslems worsened?
TESFAMARIAM: No, no. It’s fine here and no problem has arisen recently. Because here our relations have a history of centuries, there’s a habit rooted in the people.
Are shared projects put forward to the government in looking for peace and to help the population?
TESFAMARIAM: When we see that the people are in need, we ask to meet the government and normally there are no obstacles. To encourage peace with Ethiopia, the religious leaders of both countries met regularly; no longer now, given that the border demarcation process has broken off and, as I’ve said, we lack help from the international community.
So you no longer have contact with the Ethiopian bishops? The Eritrean and Ethiopian prelates sit in the same Bishops’ Conference …
TESFAMARIAM: Yes, but we have to take account of the moment. We pray for peace and seek to do what we can; the situation is not easy, however, and we can’t make so eye-catching a gesture, one of such impact. Of course, when it’s possible, we talk with the Ethiopians, even if with difficulty: the border is closed, and telephonic and postal communications are not allowed.
And what do the faithful ask for most insistently?
TESFAMARIAM: Peace! Peace and rain! For us they are essential. Peace, so as to be able to live with everybody, so that those at the front can come home and work. Because, if the rain then comes, they’ll be needed to cultivate the land...! Rain is precious to us and the people pray hard for it, they ask God for it, and all the saints.
Menghisteab Tesfamariam

Menghisteab Tesfamariam

Those who aren’t Catholic are praying for the same things today?
TESFAMARIAM: Yes, I’m very sure of that, they’re the essentials for giving life back to this country. When we meet with the Moslems and the Orthodox, no matter what, we always end up talking of peace and rain.
So you often meet the Moslems and Orthodox Copts?
TESFAMARIAM: On the spontaneous level, in the villages, we live together the joy of a wedding, the sadness for someone’s death. There is interaction among all the religions, in daily life. Then, at the official level, we Eritrean religious leaders meet for the various feasts.
The co-existence among the faiths in Eritrea is an example to all.
TESFAMARIAM: I can confirm that. Different from other countries, here there is respect, collaboration, in particular among ordinary people, and everywhere you can find a Catholic church next to a Copt church, next to a Protestant or a mosque. Each worships and prays according to his faith, and for the rest we live together like fellow countrymen.
Have there recently been any acts of terrorism in the country?
TESFAMARIAM: No, not as far as I know.
Is there a crisis in Catholic charitable work, given the general difficulties of the country?
TESFAMARIAM: We seek to dialogue with the government, despite the laws sometimes being exigent. We don’t lose hope, we go on asking, talking. In our charities we work as before. But the western world has changed, or perhaps there are too many of us countries needing aid, and there’s less concern for us, for food and medicine. In the last five years our Catholic Church has worked, through the national and international Caritas agency, finding and distributing aid. It’s not true to say that now the law prevents us doing so. Yes, in the past there were government declarations against it, but in practice little has changed. We are free enough to do what we can, or rather, no longer a general distribution of food, which is the government’s task, but helping the people worst hit, children, the elderly and women, that certainly. And I think that, thanks be to God, we’re doing it well: I see that people are content.
But then what sort of collaboration can you have with the government? Already in the 2001 document you asked it to do its part. How did it reply?
TESFAMARIAM: There was no official declaration for or against, there were negative views from some individual members of the government, but on the personal level. Others appreciated the document, and they were astonished at how we were able to read the mood of the country at that moment. We keep our feet on the ground, we don’t waste time cavilling about a law, but we go to the office for Religious Affairs for anything that touches our Church and we ask them for explanation whenever we have a complaint. They listen to us, but… for an unjust law to get changed, well, that depends on the time and on the line that the government wants to take. At any event the lines of communication with the government are not closed.
Which of the religious organizations is most pro-government? And does the government show any religious favoritism?
TESFAMARIAM: It’s difficult to say. On the formal level there’s no complaint. The government recognizes four religious groups: Moslems, Copts, Catholics and Protestants. That’s the official position. I wouldn’t know which the government prefers. If then the majority faith gets more attention from the government... that’s normal. Among the religious leaders I wouldn’t say that one is more pro-government than another. We’re all agreed in the intention of keeping out of politics. This is an unwritten but firm pact among us. We are pastors and we do our work without meddling in politics. That said, each Church has its own identity, its own way of acting, there are those who feel freer and those more tied to the government. This depends not only on the group but also on individuals.
Has the landing of the American sects created problems?
TESFAMARIAM: Yes, the government has declared that they must be registered. As soon as they arrive they upset the resident Christian communities, because they take away their members, and the government is keeping a close eyes on the phenomenon because it creates divisions in a small country like ours. Those who cause divisions for religious or ethnic motives are not well looked on by the government, which is always ready to fight and means to defend the unity of a country that is not yet fifteen years old.
The President of Eritrea 
Isaias Afeworki with the Minister 
of Defense Sebhat Ephrem

The President of Eritrea Isaias Afeworki with the Minister of Defense Sebhat Ephrem

In May 2005 the United States included Eritrea in the list of countries that stifle human rights and religious freedom.
TESFAMARIAM: It was an extreme move by America, and unjustified as I see it, Here more than 90% of the population practice their own religion normally. It’s unfair to compare us with Saudi Arabia.
I don’t believe the American decision to level us downwards has helped the country. They would really help us if they grasped that governments come and go, whereas the people of Eritrea remain. I mean one has to look to the good of the people, not judge everything negatively. The current policy of the Eritrean government may or not please us or some other government, but looking at and acting on things should have a humanitarian character, that is should help the people. If the international community were to take that stance then, yes, one could work for peace to be restored, because the borders with Ethiopia might also get defined. United Nations troops there are, but the pressure is lacking for the decisions taken by the international border commission to become a reality. If not this will be a defeat for the United Nations and for all those countries – United States included – that were witness to the compromise. In short, we Eritreans feel betrayed.
Is it only a lack of political will or are there those who are against a solution to the problem between Ethiopia and Eritrea?
TESFAMARIAM: But why not make these two countries make peace? Peace is of the utmost importance. Three years ago, when the fifteen representatives of the UN Security Council came here and also wanted to meet us religious leaders, I made this comment to them: «Please, here we are talking of human lives, of whole peoples. Put politics aside for a moment and put the people in first place». There are difficulties between the two countries, agreed, but the war between them arose out of the fact of not having been able to resolve their problem in peaceful fashion.
Do you believe that this time also Afeworki and Zenawi will meet the demands of the international community?
TESFAMARIAM: I believe so. Given that the international community succeeded in getting them to sit down at the table in Algiers when the echoes of the war could still be heard, why can’t the same force of conviction be used now? As Christians we continue to pray, so that God, who holds history in his hands, and as He has resolved so many matters, may help us overcome this also. But God also has to make use of men.

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