The Catholic Church arrived in this land with St Justin de Jacobis, (affectionately known as Abune Yacob by the local people). A native of Naples (Italy) and member of the Congregation of the Mission of St. Vincent de Paul, he reached Eritrea and northern Ethiopia in 1839. This was fifty years before the Italians established their colonial government in Eritrea. He tirelessly preached the Catholic faith, trained and ordained local clergy and established parishes.Since then, the Catholic Church in Eritrea has grown and spread around the country.
Until the end of 1995 the Ge’ez Rite Catholic Church in Eritrea was administered under one Eparchy, the Eparchy of Asmara. Since then three more Eparchies (Barentu and Keren in 1995 and Segheneity in 2012) have been created and the Eparchy of Asmara was elevated to an Archeparchy last year when Pope Francis created the Metropolitan Catholic Church sui iuris in Eritrea (19 January 2015).
The catholics represent only 2%, around 164,480, of a total population estimated at 4 millions. There are 5 eparchs, 101 parishes and 107 chapels, 121 diocesan priests, 107 religious men, 368 religious women. Most of the Catholic population belongs to the Tigrinya, Bilen and Kunama groups with a very small group from the Tigre speaking ethnic group.
The work of evangelization and liturgical worship has been among the top priorities. Many publications have been printed in the past few years and biblical, catechetical, liturgical and formative books can be mentioned among them. The Documents of Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church are now available in the local language, Tigrinya. The whole Bible also has just come out in the Kunama language (Bible Society) the one in Bilin is coming soon.
In the past twenty years Eparchial Assemblies (Synods), centenaries, and several anniversaries have been celebrated in each Eparchy. In the field of priestly and religious formation, there have been a great number of vocations to the Eparchial and Religious priesthood as well as many women who joined religious institutes of Eparchial and Pontifical Rite. The distribution of priestly ordinations is however not evenly spread. Last year the main focus was on the pastoral care of the family, the youth, migrants and the formation of pastoral agents (clergy and those in consecrated life).
One of the important offices is the catholic secretariat, which coordinates the pastoral, educational, medical, emergency and financial services, both at national and international levels. It is also through this office that the Catholic Church in Eritrea has her contacts with the Eritrean Government. Another important semi-autonomous department in the secretariat is the Maadi Solidarity. It was created in order to help more than 50 schools and almost 30 health facilities run by the Catholic Church in Eritrea.
Church-State relations have almost always been tense. In the ‘1995 proclamation’ the government described specific guidelines regarding the role of religion and religiously affiliated NGO’s. According to catholic leaders, this law was written in a clear and subtle way to control all the life and activities of the Churches. In different ways the government set plans to weaken the independence and influence of the church. First all to take the young pastoral agents (priests and religious) for an unlimited time of military service; to confiscate the fields of her activities such as the schools, clinics, kindergartens and women promotion centres; to control and limit the Church’s financial activities; to deny exit visas to young priests and nuns who need to leave the country for further studies. For the government it is better to keep the clergy and the religious less educated if not totally ignorant. Finally, to curtail the Catholicity or internationality of the Church by denying entry visas and working permits to the missionaries from other countries. In the past years, the bishops have tried to meet the president and other government officials several times. However most of the times the government has declined their requests.
Since independence, the Eparchs have written fourteen, short and long, pastoral letters in Tigrinya, Italian and in English. They have addressed issues of peace, social justice, religious freedom, unregulated prices, famine, military service, formation of seminarians and further education of the clergy, the situation of prisoners, those who are leaving the country, human trafficking and unemployment. In their latest pastoral letter, the bishops described the situation in Eritrea and appealed to the Eritrean people to find solutions to the economic crisis, excessive exile, and other limitless predicaments from which Eritreans are suffering and are caused by the ‘no peace, no war’ situation prevailing in Eritrea. The title of the Bishops’ letter, ‘Where Is Your Brother?’, was borrowed from the Holy Bible: it emphasizes sympathy and urges the faithful to find a solution for their problems. The letter was issued on the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of the independence of Eritrea which was celebrated on 25 May 2014. So far the government has also chosen to ignore the letter. (J.L.)