ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Standing Tall

The Eastern Catholic Church in Eritrea perseveres and progresses as it ministers to its people.

For a small country of three-and-a-half-million people, located along the Red Sea coast, Eritrea has often been in the news. Recently independent after 30 years of war with Ethiopia, Eritrea now finds itself facing enemies in Yemen and Sudan. Having risen from the ashes of a proud fight for its own identity, this valiant country now struggles to stand on its own two feet.

It is difficult to imagine the trauma inflicted on Eritrea by three decades of civil strife. In June 1992, one year after the cessation of hostilities, Abuna Zekarias Yohannes, Bishop of Asmara, reviewed the devastation of his country in an eloquent report to a consortium of Catholic funding agencies in Rome. In that year, an estimated 2,800,000 Eritreans faced the threat of famine, Abuna Zekarias said.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees, returning to their homeland, faced food shortages, lack of sanitary facilities and lack of shelter and clothing.

“Immediate steps need to be taken to facilitate their social, economic and psychological reintegration,” the Bishop stated in his report.

Returning war veterans, many maimed, most unskilled and unemployable, presented another urgent problem, as did the plight of the more than 50,000 children who had lost one or both parents during the conflict. The Catholic Church in Eritrea was turning to these funding agencies for help.

Catholics in Eritrea and Ethiopia – many of whom share in the ancient rites and traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – trace their origins to the French Lazarist, St. Justin de Jacobis, who worked among the people during the last century.

Half of the Eritrean population is Christian, but only 200,000 are Catholic. The majority of Christians are Eritrean Orthodox. The remaining half of the population is Muslim.

Until February 1996 there was only one Eastern Catholic eparchy, or jurisdiction, for the entire nation. This eparchy, which was led by Abuna Zekarias, stretched from the Red Sea port of Massawa to the Sudan border town of Tessene; from the northern village of Nagfa, the guerrilla stronghold during the civil war, to the Ethiopian-Eritrean border town of Senafe, famous in its own right for a rich archeological dig.

The distances front north to south, from east to west, are not great, but because of the mountainous terrain and the roads destroyed by war, travel from one place to another is not measured in kilometers or miles but by time. We don’t say, “It’s 100 kilometers from here to there.” We say, “It takes four hours to get from here to there.”

In February 1996, the Holy See divided this far-flung eparchy into three: the central Eparchy of Asmara, the northern Eparchy of Keren and the western lowland Eparchy of Barentu.

With the recent creation of these new Eritrean eparchies the Catholic Church is facing enormous growing pains. When there was only one eparchy only one chancery was needed; now there is need for a chancery in each eparchy, plus a national secretariat. Each chancery has an office for personnel, another for development and still others for women’s issues, medical issues and education.

Finding competent staff in these remote eparchies for these specialized fields has proven to be a challenge. To balance this challenge, the Spirit has blessed the Eritrean Catholic Church with vocations to the priesthood and to religious life. One has only to go to one of the three major seminaries, all funded by CNEWA, and see the beehive of activity to understand that this little church, with all its growing pains, will soon stand on its own.

Meanwhile, there is an urgent need for small churches and shelters for priests and sisters. Recently I visited eight villages in the Eparchy of Barentu and all the churches were grass huts. There were no permanent priests assigned to these parishes, no places for a visiting priest to stay and no potable water.

Catechists are also urgently needed. Of the three Eritrean eparchies only Barentu has catechists. This new eparchy boasts four catechists, all prepared for their calling, not in Eritrea, but at a catechetical training center in Kenya.

Most Eritreans are subsistent farmers. Because of the devastation of war, their farming methods are primitive. A tractor is but a dream. Many of the oxen, which were used to pull the plows, have died off, so the farmers turn the soil by hand. Most farmers grow staple grains for themselves and a bit to sell in the local market.

Recently the more enterprising began digging shallow wells in or near the dry river beds. Here these farmers find water they can pump out, either by hand or with small diesel pumps, to irrigate vegetable plots.

In Eritrean villages people tend to be all of one religion. In describing these villages one might say, “That is a Catholic village; that is a Muslim village.” Despite these divisions, Eritreans live in harmony, and there is not the xenophobic fear of “the other” that one may find elsewhere.

Indeed, when Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches, visited Eritrea (and Ethiopia) earlier this year, he was struck by the good relationships between Catholics and Orthodox. “The ecumenical relations there are a beautiful thing in the sense that there are good relations between Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox,” he commented in a Vatican Radio interview on his return to Rome.

In a Catholic village, with or without a priest, the rhythm of the day is set by the parish church. For example, in Wesben, a small Eritrean Catholic village outside Keren, an elder rings the church bell at 4:30 A.M. and the people gather in the church for morning prayer. At noon the church bell peals again and all stand in place for the recitation of the Angelus. Finally, as dusk falls, the bell again tolls to invite the villagers to gather for the recitation of the rosary. All prayer services are led by the laity as there is no resident priest. The priest might come monthly to celebrate the Keddase, or Eucharistic liturgy.

From the nation’s first years of peace, Eritrea’s tiny Catholic population has played a significant role in helping this phoenix to rise from the ashes. As early as 1991, when Eritrea faced the threat of overwhelming famine, Eritrean Catholic church leaders were among the first to sound the alarm. One year later, at the request of the state’s Water Resource Department, the Eritrean Catholic Secretariat helped to meet an acute water emergency by drilling wells – more than 40 in the first six months of 1992. As refugees streamed back into their homeland, the church, in collaboration with the Commission for Eritrean Refugee Affairs, provided emergency assistance and transportation for these suffering people.

Today, with the assistance of CNEWA and other Western funding agencies, the Catholic Church maintains a substantial network of social and pastoral services.

“These are Christians who want to develop and want to contribute to the development of their country and make it grow,” Cardinal Silvestrini told Vatican Radio.

These Christians aid development through their schools, their health services and their social service programs. CNEWA is there to help. More than 607 Eritrean children enrolled in our Needy Child Program are cared for by religious who administer three orphanages, four schools and a number of child care programs. Catholic schools receive CNEWA support; so do pastoral and humanitarian projects ranging from church construction to programs for street children.

Despite these advances, the needs remain great. Most Catholics live in remote villages. Many are uneducated and unchurched; those who are not often leave Eritrea for better opportunities abroad. Poor rural Catholics are moving to the cities in search of jobs. Often they are unprepared for the stress of urban life; however, Catholic schools are providing the education that may help these migrants lift themselves up.

Traditional rural Catholic families are producing the vocations now filling the seminaries and novitiates after the long drought of vocations caused by the war.

More young priests and religious are moving out to rural parishes that may not have had priests or sisters to serve them for several generations. Increasingly, Eritrean Catholics have priests to celebrate liturgies, to hear confessions, to marry their parishioners’ sons and daughters and to bury their fathers and mothers. In addition, many Eritrean Catholic villages now have new elementary schools and new clinics run by the young religious sisters.

Moreover, the Eritrean Catholic Church does not restrict itself to serving Catholics.

Consider, for example, the village of Mogolo on the western road between Agordat and Barentu. This Muslim village is built on the foundations of a village destroyed in the war and populated by destitute refugees returning from years of exile in the Sudan. In Mogolo there is still no school, but thanks to the initiative of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and the generosity of CNEWA benefactors and European donors, the Catholic Church has been able to build and staff a brand new major health center.

The Eritrean Catholic Church will continue to build churches, clinics, schools and other facilities. It will continue to provide social services for Eritreans, be they Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim. It will continue to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick. It will continue to bring the sacraments to the Catholic faithful. It will continue to spread the “Good News” of the Gospel throughout this tiny nation, and in so doing it will help give the faithful a sense of Catholic identity.

The Eritrean Catholic Church will help the citizens of this poor, proud, fledgling nation develop and grow. It will help Eritrea stand tall.

Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., is Director of our Addis Ababa office.

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