Standing Tall

by Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C.

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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.

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Tags: Ethiopia CNEWA War Catholic Eritrea