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Report on Eritrea

Excerpts from a report by Abuna Zekarias Yohannes, Eparch of Asmara, Eritrea. The report was presented at the Vatican to the June meeting of ROACO, an organization of Catholic funding agencies concerned with the Eastern Catholic churches.

The following are excerpts from a report by Bishop Zekarias Yohannes, Eparch of Asmara, Eritrea. The report was presented at the Vatican to the June meeting of ROACO, an organization of Catholic funding agencies concerned with the Eastern Catholic churches.

This report was written at a time when preparations were being made to celebrate Eritrea’s first anniversary of peace.

The joy and enthusiasm that accompanied this event are easily understandable. However it is distressing that peace has been achieved after so much suffering – the virtual destruction of the country and the death of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

The fact that arms have been allowed to decide the outcome of the Eritrean problem should be considered a defeat for those international institutions that for 30 years practically ignored the issue. Today we have to deal with a country whose natural and human resources have been reduced to virtually nothing.

Now after more than one year of peace [following the downfall of the Mengistu regime and the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces], it is possible to make a preliminary assessment of the situation, the problems and plans that await the commitment of the nation, and the contribution of the church.

The General Situation. Our evaluation of the political orientation of the Provisional Government [of Eritrea] and its approach to current problems is basically positive.

We are in a transitional period, in view of the referendum that will be held in about one year [May 21, 1993]. Popular consultation has been considered necessary to formalize the independence achieved through armed struggle. The Provisional Government has declared that after the referendum, pre-existing fronts and movements will be allowed to form as legal parties.

In the meantime the government is attempting to offer leadership inspired by the principles of democracy; freedom of opinion is ensured, and the people are free to express views through the press.

A democratic orientation also prevails in the government’s religious policy. While the state intends to be a-confessional, all faiths are given freedom and equality. In its latest meeting the Central Political Committee announced that religious education will be allowed in public schools. Given the plurality of religions in our country, it is still not clear what form and content such an education will take.

The economic situation is extremely delicate and worrisome. The country is emerging from a long political and military crisis in which resources, structures, infrastructures and industrial plants have been dismantled or closed, bringing urban unemployment to the highest rates. War – with its destructive fury – has finished off the urban centers and countryside.

Drought has continued unabated for decades. Once again the rains have failed in most parts of the country. The countryside is just a barren and desolate desert; famine threatens thousands of lives.

Social Problems and Challenges. Reconstruction must start from scratch. The government is confronted with a double challenge: establishing a viable long-term economy build-up while facing the most pressing emergencies caused by the war and recurrent ecological crises.

Food Aid. An estimated 2,800,000 people are exposed to the threat of famine. An urgent appeal for intervention has been sent by the government to the international community, with the request of 500,000 metric tons of food and other aid.

The Catholic Church, through the Asmara Catholic Secretariat, has alerted Caritas and other humanitarian organizations since November 1991. To our greatest surprise and dismay and for reasons we still find difficult to understand, appeals have thus far gone unheeded. As a result only 60,000 metric tons of food have arrived – a drop in the bucket!

Water Emergency. The shortage of drinking water is extremely acute. Rivers, springs and wells are scorched. Water in many urban centers is rationed. In the countryside, most people have to walk more than 15 kilometers per day to receive 10 liters of water.

The state’s Water Resource Department has elaborated a plan for the completion of 2,000 wells and is to drill holes within the next three years. Upon the request of this department, the Catholic Secretariat has drilled more than 40 in the last six months. Our contribution is seriously hampered by the lack of funds for materials and administrative costs. Unless sufficient funding is provided, the suspension of the program is inevitable.

Refugees. Following the cessation of hostilities, hundreds of thousands of refugees are returning to Eritrea from Sudan. This movement is taking place amidst many hardships: transportation difficulties; food shortages; lack of sanitary assistance, shelter, clothing, etc.

The local church, in collaboration with the Commission for Eritrean Refugee Affairs, has provided emergency assistance and transportation for the refugees. More than 50,000 have since returned. Immediate steps need to be taken to facilitate their social, economic and psychological reintegration.

Victims of War. War has also victimized a very high number of the living. A great number of villages were destroyed, displacing thousands and forcing many to wander or to settle in overpopulated centers, thus exposing them to hunger, disease and crime.

Even more serious are the conditions of the war veterans, numbering more than 10,000. They are returning with head injuries, blindness, amputations, paraplegic impairments, paralysis, etc.

To expedite their social rehabilitation and avoid institutional dependency, attempts have been made to assign some to various departments and workshops. Success in this program has been limited because of severe physical handicaps and the lack of adequate educational and rehabilitation equipment. The church’s contribution is limited by the lack of experience, readiness and a lack of resources.

The orphaned represent another large section of our postwar society. It is estimated that more than 50,000 children have lost one or both parents. An attempt to develop an assistance plan by the Provisional Government includes a reunification program, in which an orphaned child is reared by relatives; a partial orphan program that provides all support to the child; and a foster home program.

The church maintains several orphanages, especially set up for the offspring of dead combatants. This emergency intervention has found us unprepared in terms of accommodation and operation costs.

Pastoral Problems and Challenges. Pastoral action is the first responsibility of the church. In “Peace and Progress,” our pastoral letter that was written immediately after the war, we clearly stated that “the primary and most explicit mission of the church is to preach conversion of hearts. Faithfulness to this mission is the best service that the church can render.” We have to be grateful to the Lord for the peace and the independence of our people, but also for the new opportunities and challenges that this “hour of grace” offers to the church.

Reconstruction of Churches. The physical structures of the church were not spared the fury of war. The most serious damages occurred during the last two years of the war. Aerial bombardments, rockets and ground attacks brought destruction to churches, parish houses, schools and other facilities in towns and villages throughout Eritrea.

The reconstruction of these damaged or ruined buildings is one of the major steps to be taken, if the church is to resume its normal pastoral and social services.

Personnel Resources. Our pastoral action presupposes the existence of a well-prepared clergy and religious personnel. The ongoing formation of this leadership is one of our foremost priorities.

Another is the formation of the laity. The success of the social and moral reconstruction of Eritrea will depend on the contribution of a mature Catholic laity.

Emphasis must be given to the formation of numerous and dedicated catechists. They are the “right arm” of the church both in existing Catholic communities and in areas first exposed to evangelization. They need appropriate training and a sufficient salary.

Finally, given the limited number of personnel and the scope of activities and communities, vehicles for transportation are essential.

Conclusion. Without the moral and material support of our brothers and sisters throughout the world, it would be impossible for us to meet the problems of the moment and respond to them effectively.

A sustained and timely support is crucial for the church’s efforts to resolve the urgent social and pastoral problems.

Our appeal for help is addressed to you during the most crucial moment in the history of Eritrea, a moment when this mission can make a lasting difference for the Eritrean people.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

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