Eritrea has for years been one of the countries of escape for most people: just for the year 2018, 42,000 Eritreans have applied for asylum, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR . The small country of the Horn of Africa is considered a repressive dictatorship and has been ruled since independence in 1993, under the sole reign of President Isayas Afewerki. The United Nations Human Rights Council regularly accuses the regime of serious violations of human rights.
A year ago, Eritrea concluded a historic peace agreement with its neighbor, Ethiopia, in which many hoped for reforms. In an interview with good-btp.com ONLINE, Eritrean priest Mussie Zerai explains why nothing has changed for the people of his country.
To the person
TIZIANA FABI / AFP
Mussie Zerai, 44, is a Roman Catholic priest of Eritrea living in Italy for many years. He helps the refugees there and denounces again and again the human rights violations in his native country. In 2016, he received the Human Rights Award from the Pro Asyl Foundation.
good-btp.com ONLINE: Mussie Zerai, the Eritrean government closed the 21 Catholic hospitals in the country last month. Why?
Mussie Zerai: The regime in Eritrea calls itself communist and fundamentally rejects religions. Only the state should have authority over all areas of society. Although the Catholic Church is tolerated, it is a thorn in the foot of the diet, especially when it begins to engage socially and to demand freedom.
good-btp.com ONLINE: What did the churches actually do?
Zerai: The Catholic Bishops of Eritrea issued an open letter at Easter describing violence and injustice in the country and demanding reforms. In fact, all publications in Eritrea must be published by the state censorship commission. But the bishops resisted this and simply spread the letter by email and via social media. It made the president very angry. The closing of hospitals was the revenge.
good-btp.com ONLINE: In Eritrea, only about 5% are Catholic. Why is the government afraid of the church?
Zerai: The Catholic Church is networked around the world and maintains relations that go as far as Rome. The dictator in Eritrea is afraid of this international influence. He also fears he has too little control over the church, which runs many social institutions in the country: hospitals and schools, for example. This is why Christians are exposed to repression several times. People are arrested simply because they pray in public or go to church. Abune Antonios, head of the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, has been under house arrest for 14 years.
good-btp.com ONLINE: A year ago, Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace treaty after decades of war. Many hoped that this would improve the situation of human rights in Eritrea. Nothing happened?
Zerai: Unfortunately no. For the inhabitants of Eritrea, nothing has changed. There is always a military service that forces people to work for the state for life without being properly paid. Political prisoners and imprisoned journalists have not been released. Our constitution has not yet come into force. In addition, poverty is increasing in the country because the regime stops any form of private enterprise. This is why so many Eritreans continue to flee, especially among young people. People are very angry.
good-btp.com ONLINE: Nevertheless, there are no demonstrations in the country?
Zerai: Public meetings are prohibited in Eritrea. As soon as several people gather in the street, the police arrive. There is also a lot of mistrust between people because state secret services are ubiquitous. Over the past 20 years, more than 10,000 people have disappeared. People are scared, nobody trusts the other. This makes the organization of events very difficult.
good-btp.com ONLINE: Are you worried that the plan will continue to fight the church in the future?
Zerai: Yes, we fear that the state then closes the Catholic educational institutions. There are about 50 schools and more than 100 children's gardens in Eritrea run by the church. Especially in rural areas, these are often the only existing educational institutions. If they drop out of school, many of the country's children will no longer be able to go to school.