NAIROBI, Kenya — Places of worship have become the latest target for the forced roundup of Eritrean teens to serve as soldiers, in what clerics describe as a deteriorating situation.
For two years, 15- and 16-year-olds have been taken from towns and villages. Some are ending up on the front lines in the war in Ethiopia’s northern state of Tigray, according to the sources.
“A few weeks ago (Eritrea) resumed the confiscation of schools run and owned by the Catholic Church. (As if) this was not enough, now there are roundups of young boys and girls aged 16 … for compulsory military service without end,” Father Mussie Zerai, a Catholic priest of Eritrean origin who works with migrants, told Catholic News Service Sept. 7.
“They do it in places of worship as happened last Sunday (Sept. 4) in the Eparchy of Segheneity, in the village in Akrur at the Catholic parish of Medhanie Alem,” he said.
The priest said the soldiers arrived during Mass and surrounded the church to prevent anyone from escaping. They proceeded to take the teens by force, including all the boys of the choir in their uniforms, said the priest, pointing at photographs widely circulated on social media.
“These young people who end up in military training camps and then (would) be sent as slaughter fodder in the wars underway in the region, particularly in neighboring Ethiopia,” said Zerai.
He warned that if the regime continues raiding places of worship, there was a risk that young people — fearing the forced recruitment — would abandon the churches.
“The sacred right of every believer to go to church to pray without being persecuted by the military or police in their country is a fundamental right of every human being,” said the priest.
For 20 years, the government of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has implemented a national service program for all citizens 17-55 years old.
According to Human Rights Watch, many Eritreans have spent their entire lives in the service of the government, in either military or civilian capacity. Many of these recruited are picked directly from secondary schools, according to the human rights organization.
The forced recruitments have resulted in many 18- to 24-year-olds fleeing the country, including making the dangerous journey across the desert and Mediterranean Sea toward Europe.
The Eritrean government has ignored pleas by the international community to respect human rights.
“On a daily basis, people continue to flee the government’s forced recruitment and take those journeys across the desert. The government doesn’t care. It has nothing to lose,” said an Eritrean church source who could not be named for security reasons.