The familiar cadences of prayers of three faiths marked a Nov. 18 demonstration outside the State Department in support of Eritrean Bishop Fikremariam Hagos Tsalim.
Bishop Tsalim, ordained the first bishop of the Eparchy of Segheneity in 2012, was arrested by Eritrean security forces Oct. 15 at Asmara International Airport. Detained around the same time were a priest, Father Mihratab Stefanos, and a priest identified as Capuchin Abbot Abraham. Fides, the news agency of the Pontifical Mission Societies, reported that the three are being held in the Adi Abeto prison.
"We're their children, we're their voice," Frewoini Zerai, one of the demonstration organizers, told Catholic News Service. "So we have to speak up for them. As Catholics, we believe that anything is possible."
Eritrea, a nation in the Horn of Africa, gained its independence from neighboring Ethiopia in 1991. Isaias Afwerki has been president since 1993. The country has no functional constitution or national elections.
In 2019, the government closed all Catholic hospitals and schools there. Bishop Tsalim, 52, has been critical of the country's contributions to the ongoing war in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.
Demonstrators in Washington also presented a letter to be given to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken asking for his intervention to free the three clergy.
"We've had a brutal dictatorship, so we hope that with international attention, we'll reach our goals," Zerai said.
Public events have been held around the country in November. The Washington event drew nearly 200 protesters and was sponsored by Eritrean Catholics for Peace and Justice. The largest contingent was from St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Washington, but the service also included Muslim and Eritrean Orthodox participants.
Organizers worked on such short notice, they were unable to invite any members of Congress involved in religious liberty issues, said Adiam Desta, another coordinator.
She said they could have had more Eritreans at the demonstration, "but some do travel back home occasionally, and they didn't want to come out of fear (of being recognized)."
Most of the speakers spoke in Tigrinya, the predominant language of Eritrea. One statement was read in both Tigrinya and English.
"The church's social teaching for justice and peace stands in opposition to the totalitarian, militaristic, and secretive national security state of Eritrea," it read. "The Catholic Church in Eritrea has always and continues to stand for peace and justice as reflected in four pastoral letters released over the years.
"The government of Eritrea's interference, which started with confiscating (church) property, closing its schools, closing health centers, and closing orphan centers, has come to the point of arresting one of its bishops. We urge the Catholic Church in North America and across the globe, united by the bonds of communion and solidarity, to stand with us in prayer and advocacy."
Catholics make up about 4% of Eritrea's population of 6 million. The dominant Christian faith there is Eritrean Orthodox. About half the population is Muslim.
The State Department categorizes Eritrea as a "country of particular concern" as a result of the widespread religious persecution there.