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Vatican Ready for “constructive, respectful dialogue” with Eritrean Government to End Woes

The Secretary of the Holy See Delegation to the U.N. Geneva, Msgr. Mauro Cionini

Delegates of the Holy See have, during the recent 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, Switzerland, called for an amicable solution to the challenges that the Catholic Church in Eritrea is facing and expressed readiness for “a constructive and respectful dialogue” to end the tense relations pitting the government against the Church in the Northeast African country.

In his presentation at the February forum, the Secretary of the Holy See Delegation to the U.N. Geneva, Msgr. Mauro Cionini said that while the Catholic Church has always sought to detach itself from the politics of any country, it has nonetheless the mandate to reach out to all people of God and to foster “integral development of all.”

“The Holy See reiterates that the Catholic Church, in accord with its own nature and universal mission, carries out charitable and social activities for the whole population, with a special attention to the most in need, without discrimination,” Msgr. Cionini said.

The Catholic Church, Msgr. Cionini clarified, “pursues humanitarian and not political aims, seeking to offer its own contribution to the promotion of justice, peace, reconciliation and dialogue.”

“We, therefore, encourage the Eritrean Government to enter into a constructive and respectful dialogue with the Holy See, in view of building a prosperous and peaceful future, where the rights of freedom of religion or belief are respected in the context of international law, for the integral development of all.”

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The conflict between the Church and the Eritrean government has been aggravated by the state seizure of some 22 health clinics that were run by the Catholic Church in June last year, followed by the nationalization of a section of Catholic-run schools last September.

The latest episode that demonstrated tense relations between the Eritrean government and the Church was the February 22 refusal to allow the Ethiopian Cardinal-led delegation entry into the country, a move the Church leaders in Eritrea have protested against in writing.

Berhaneyesus Cardinal Souraphiel and his Ethiopian delegation comprising Bishop Musie Ghebereghiorghis of Emdibir and the Secretary General of the Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia, Fr. Teshome Fikre were held overnight at Asmara Airport and eventually denied entry.

“While they were expecting the final check out from the Airport to meet the official welcome organized by the Eritrean Church leaders and the faithful, the Airport Security Officials approached them and told them that Higher Authority forbade them the entrance to Eritrea,” read the statement from the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat (ECS) send to ACI Africa.   

Referencing the nationalized institutions during his presentation in Geneva, Vatican-based Msgr. Cionini expressed optimism that the Church in Eritrea can be granted freedom to continue providing health and educational services to the people of God in the Northeast African nation.

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“My Delegation hopes that the Catholic Church in Eritrea will enjoy the freedom to serve the common good through its health care and educational institutions, with the conviction that the only aspiration of the Catholic community in Eritrea is, along with all the others, to contribute to the good and the prosperity of the country,” the Holy See official said.

On her part, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, Ms. Daniela Kravetz denounced the lack of progress in addressing the issues related to abuse of human rights in the country found in the Horn of Africa.

“Since my last update, I have seen no concrete evidence of progress,” Ms. Kravetz said in her address to the U.N. Council in Geneva.

She added, “While Eritrea has increased its engagement with regional and international actors, this engagement has so far not led to an actual improvement in the human rights situation in the country.”

According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur, the increasing violation of human rights had led to Eritreans fleeing the country in large numbers.

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The Human Rights Official further denounced the arrests and detentions of Christians which, she confirmed, were on the rise in the Northeast African country. According to Ms. Kravetz, the arrests were not just unique to Christians, but targeted Muslims as well.

“Since my last update, the arrest of Christians who worship without government approval have continued. Many of those arrested remain in jail,” she said, adding, “The Muslim community has also recently been targeted.”

She explained that those arrested in Eritrea include local businessmen, religious teachers, and community leaders.

“Church based organizations have also experienced restrictions. Turning to the issue of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, here again there has been no progress,” Ms. Kravetz reported.

She went on to lament about the lack of cooperation of the Eritrean authorities adding that “since March 2019 her various requests to meet with Eritrean officials have gone unanswered.”

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Pleading with the Eritrean government to respect human rights, she said, “A year on from joining the Human Rights Council, it is time for Eritrea to show that it is willing to take concrete steps towards upholding its international commitments.”

Responding on the allegations, representative of the Eritrean delegation Mr. Tesfamicael Gerahtu said that Eritrea's position deserved objective considerations in the context of what he termed “Eritrea's, resilient progress… the emerging transformation of peace and security in the whole republic, and region, as well as the continuing unfair and unjust treatment that Eritrea faces under the international human rights architecture.”

He added, “After two decades of the unfavorable international and regional situation that affected Eritrea's development, the Eritrea's peace and friendship agreement was signed, revitalizing the regional dynamics of peace and security in the whole Republican Region.”

Mr. Gerahtu asked the UN Human Rights Council to terminate what he described as politically motivated, ill intent towards Eritrea, and instead to move forward in a fair and just way, “far from political considerations, interests and status.” 

Ignatius Takura Mugwagwa, the UN Geneva Correspondent for EWTN Deutschland and Christian Peschken (EWTN Deutschland) contributed to the reporting of this story