Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel and his delegation were barred from entering neighboring Eritrea, a development that underlines the souring relations between the church and the Eritrean authorities.

Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam of Asmara had invited the delegation for the golden jubilee celebration of the Cathedral of Mary Kidane Mehret in the capital, Asmara, on Feb. 24, but on arrival Feb. 22, airport security officials said they had instructions to bar them. The delegation had gone through all the checks and had been issued a one-month visa.

"While they were expecting the final checkout ... the airport security officials approached them and told them a higher authority forbade them from entering Eritrea," said Father Gabriel Woldehanna, the deputy general secretary of the Ethiopian bishops' conference of Ethiopia.

In a statement Feb. 27, Father Woldehanna said the delegation was forced to spend the night at the airport, returning to Ethiopia the next day. He expressed the church's sadness at the incident.

"The Catholic Church of Ethiopia wants only the explanation of it," he said, adding that they were following up with people who knew diplomatic procedures. He added that the cardinal would continue to pray that both countries, which share the same faith and traditions, reach peace and reconciliation.

In 2018, Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a pact to end a prolonged border conflict, restore diplomatic relations and open borders to people, goods and services.

"It's a puzzle to us. We would expect after opening up their relations, people would move freely," Montfort Father Andrew Kaufa, head of social communications at the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, told Catholic News Service.

"It's a shock to us, but we think because of what has happened there recently, the cardinal was viewed with suspicion. We can say with confidence that the relationship between the Eritrean church and the state is not good."

Recently, the Eritrean church has struggled with the government over forceful seizure of church hospitals and some schools. Last June, the military closed 21 hospitals and other medical facilities, in a move in which patients were forced out of beds and windows smashed.