The head of the Eritrean Catholic Church has called for the Church's faithful to observe the current fasting season in response to the government's seizure and closing of 22 Church-run health clinics earlier this month.
Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam of the Eritrean Archeparchy of Asmara wrote in a June 22 letter that “only the Lord can console us and resolve our problems.”
The Eritrean Catholic Church observes the Apostles' Fast – a fasting season between Pentecost and the feast of Saints Peter and Paul – this year from June 25 through July 11. The Church uses the Alexandrian rite and the Coptic calendar, on which the feast of Saints Peter and Paul is not celebrated until the Gregorian calendar's July 12.
The Association of Member Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa has also condemned the clinics' seizure.
Bishop Charles Kasonde of Solwezi, chair of AMECEA, wrote to the Eritrean bishops saying, “I hereby extend my heart-felt message of solidarity to you and the entire Catholic family in Eritrea over the confiscation of the health institutions owned by the Catholic Church.”
“May the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ nurture you with the hope and give you the necessary courage and stamina to stand strong in defence of the rights of the Church and God’s people in Eritrea,” he added.
In June, military forces arrived at the Church's 22 clinics, telling patients to return to their homes, and subsequently guarding the buildings.
A letter from the Church to the health ministry after the seizure said that “the government can say it doesn't want the services of the Church, but asking for the property is not right.” It added that the Church's social services cannot be characterized as opposition to the government.
Eritrea is a one-party state whose human rights record has frequently been deplored.
According to the BBC, analysts believe the seizures were retaliatory, after the Church in April called for reforms to reduce emigration. The bishops had also called for national reconciliation.
Government seizure of Church property is not new, however.
A 1995 decree restricting social and welfare projects to the state has been used intermittently since then to seize or close ecclesial services.
In July 2018, an Eritrean Catholic priest helping immigrants and refugees in Italy told EWTN that authorities had recently shut down eight free Catholic-run medical clinics. He said authorities claimed the clinics were unnecessary because of the presence of state clinics.
Christian and Muslim schools have also been closed under the 1995 decree, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2019 annual report.
Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern since 2004 for its religious freedom abuses by the US Department of State.
Many Eritreans, especially youth, emigrate, due to a military conscription, and a lack of opportunities, freedom, education, and health care.
A July 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended a conflict over their mutual border, led to an open border which has allowed for easier emigration.