Eritrea — June 2008

Sociopolitical Situation

The fears of renewed war between Eritrea and Ethiopia have effectively subsided and the withdrawal of the border-patrolling United Nations Mission served to corroborate that important development. The country has accepted the virtual demarcation (International Court Hague, November 2007) of the common border as permanent and final and has decided to move on.

Socioeconomic concerns, ignored for several years during the war, has now taken the frontline attention; Eritrea is struggling very hard to feed its people. Basic food supply is rationed at government set and managed “fair shops” and people routinely queue to buy these items. Fuel, too, is rationed and sometimes there is none. The war scared off small private businesses and government control of hard currency, imports and local business have worsened the situation. In spite of Eritrea’s relatively small population (about 4 million) and huge resources of fishery and mining, some key factors have caused the current socioeconomic crisis.

Traditional farming methods have failed to provide sufficient food and farmers prefer to live on remittances sent from the Eritrean Diaspora. With hundreds of thousands of countrymen not yet demobilized, no new generation may take on traditional farming for living. An agricultural revolution seems a necessity, challenging the government and not existing private entrepreneurship for immediate action. The global food crisis compounds the national food problem. Government policy against food aid in favor of cash for work is still experimental; its success is not yet proven.

Hard currency flow into the country mainly due to the remittances sent from the Eritrean Diaspora has dwindled to the lowest level; once robust national income is now exhausted. Exploiting the fish and mineral resources for export could not be effected in time due to the war. In the building of adequate infrastructure, the government continues to consider politic free international “equal” partnership in business. With global oil prices soaring, and no hard currency reserve, the nation’s economic development is at a stand still.

Religious Situation

The Ge’ez Catholic Church’s evangelization mission in Eritrea, responding to this socioeconomic situation, is quite admirably unique. As a beacon of hope, the Church stands to bring hope to a seemingly hopeless situation. The three eparchies, united in a Council of Eparchs, collaborate in an exemplary network involving about twenty other religious institutions. Increasingly, government censorship and seeking control of religious property, funds, personnel, mission and activity continues; on the other hand, such external adversity has fostered unity.

The Church’s growth and function is also adversely affected by its relation with the Ge’ez Catholic Church in Ethiopia. The Conference of Catholic Bishops of Ethiopia and Eritrea that meets once a year in Rome has not been successful in healing and uniting the two nations, brotherly people, with a shared history, culture and rite and yet journeying separately at present. The Church in Eritrea respectfully acknowledges the two separate journeys and works for ecclesiastical structures that foster growth and effective functioning. Most of the badly needed and long overdue reform of the Ge’ez liturgy remains largely pending. A sound pastoral program befitting the socioeconomic developments, including providing pastoral care to the ever growing number of Catholics in the Diaspora is also needed.

The Church continues to enjoy a growing number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life and constantly to improve formation programs for them. Similarly, the Church is currently seeking ways to improve the formation of the Catholic faithful. Currently, the major challenge to the Church’s pastoral programs is the growing number of Pentecostal sects and secularism. Traditional methods of evangelization such as reciting prayers and scriptures by heart, the deep and antique liturgy, external piety, and clericalism are losing ground. Challenged by the sects, the faithful, ignorant of the scripture, are questioning the basics of their faith.

Sociopastoral Services

The Catholic Secretariat in Eritrea (CSE), originally erected to respond to humanitarian crises in the b1980s and later expanded to include development projects, is undergoing transformation. A government proclamation in 1994 banned religious organizations from involvement in social and development programs, funding and activities. In 1996 the CSE was obliged to halt its developmental programs and continued relief operations at a much lower level. On the other hand, the CSE continued its sociopastoral support nationwide through its health and educational institutions; the purely pastoral is reorganized differently.

Pastoral Support. Although under the umbrella of the CSE, the Pastoral Sector works under the National Catholic Pastoral Commission, established in 2006, with a three-year National Pastoral Strategic Plan (2007-2009). Similarly, three-year eparchial Pastoral Strategic Plans are being executed in close collaboration, without overlapping and networked for integration.

The pastoral strategic planning followed the conventional methods of strategic planning: participatory approach, interactive sharing and brainstorming, reading pertinent materials and discussing as well as adopting similar models. Strategic issues are raised in the light of the renewed vision, mission, goals, and objectives of the Church in Eritrea vis-à-vis the current socio-economic situation.

In summary, eight goals discerned during the planning process are:

  1. Strengthening pastoral and communication resources.
  2. Revitalizing parish community life and management through small Christian Communities (MAADI SDRABETAT).
  3. Establishing Catholic laity associations at eparchial and national levels.
  4. Facilitating the establishment of National Catechetical Centre.
  5. Improving basic and ongoing formation of pastoral agents.
  6. Providing special pastoral care to Catholic youth.
  7. Organizing pastoral care for Catholics in the Diaspora.
  8. Promoting ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

CNEWA and MISSIO Aachen have shown interest in supporting the three-year national pastoral program of the Church and its eparchial counterparts. A major achievement was the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in Tigrinya, endorsed by all five eparchs in Eritrea (two emeritus). The ground work for the catechetical program is already laid, but the cost of print and audiovisual publications needs support. Many of the planned tasks to be accomplished are still pending due to lack of funding, the distraction of government censorship and requests for information (property, personnel, etc), and the change of the Secretary General and Pastoral Department head.

Sociopastoral Support. The coordination of sociopastoral support to health and educational institutions in view of sustainability has developed into an autonomous institution, the MAADI Association Eritrea, since 2004. Responding to the eparchs’ letter requesting support, CNEWA, through its Asmara Office, has offered constant assistance during its initial period (2005-06) to the MAADI Association and has directly subsidized many institutions ever since the program was begun.

The MAADI Association Eritrea is constituted by fifteen members, three eparchs and twelve religious institutions, and has its own statutes, last revised this year. The Association is governed by its members who assemble semiannually, managed by its executive board that meets quarterly, and runs its own MAADI Program Office headed by a Program Coordinator.

Support to Institutions

About 80 educational and health service institutions of the Ge’ez Catholic Church in Eritrea need support to cover their running costs. Currently, CNEWA’s Asmara Office, in collaboration with MISEREOR, is providing support to two technical institutes ($75,877), one religious institute ($10,000), three secondary schools ($35,000), two community hospitals ($24,974) and a number of primary schools ($79,978).

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