ROME – As the world struggles to catch up with what victims and experts have known for a long time – to wit, that anti-Christian persecution is one of the world’s most pernicious human rights scourges in the early 21st century – one point steadily becoming more clear is that it’s a complicated problem with no single diagnosis and, for sure, no single cure.
An event hosted by the British embassy to the Vatican Monday at Rome’s Basilica of San Bartolomeo brought a reminder of the point, in this case from Eritrea.
Ambassador Sally Axworthy of the UK organized the event to present a new report commissioned by the British government on anti-Christian persecution around the world. San Bartolomeo was a natural setting, since the church was entrusted to the Community of Sant’Egidio in 1993 and today hosts chapels dedicated to the “new martyrs” of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, undersecretary for relations with states, was also on hand to demonstrate the Vatican’s concern.
To highlight the threats Christians face, Axworthy assembled a panel composed of Cardinal Raphael Louis Sako of Iraq, Father Boniface Mendes of Pakistan, and Sister Monica Chikwe of Nigeria. Each spoke about brutalities Christians have endured in their countries, mostly fueled by religious extremists and terrorist groups. All called on their governments to do more, and on the international community to exert pressure on those governments to act.
As the event drew to a close, a priest from Eritrea rose to pose a question to the panel, the gist of which was this: “You’ve all been talking about persecution by terrorists, but in my country the Church is under attack by the government itself. What do you do in a case like that?”
It was a telling question, because Eritrea neatly illustrates one of the new myths concerning anti-Christian persecution, which is that it’s all about terrorism (usually of an Islamic stripe).
A nation of just under 5 million people nestled in the horn of Africa, Eritrea is roughly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The government of President Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s lone head of state since national independence in 1991, does not have any particular religious affiliation.
For that matter, it doesn’t appear to have any clear ideological orientation either. Afwerki trained in China in preparation for the independence struggle with Ethiopia and his “Eritrean People’s Liberation Front” had a vaguely Marxist bent, but today it’s hard to identify any real convictions beyond the simple, and often brutal, maintenance of power. Eritrea’s human rights record is routinely ranked among the worst in the world.
In effect, Eritrea under Afwerki is an old-style secular police state that tolerates religion when it’s perceived to be socially useful, but that represses it if it ever becomes a threat.
Recently the Catholic Church has felt the sting of such repression, watching all 21 church-run hospitals and clinics in the country shut down by the police and military forces, in some cases with patients literally thrown out of their beds. The moves appear part of a broader campaign of harassment and intimidation directed at religious communities in the country, including the arrest in June of five Orthodox monks and supporters of Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios, who was forcibly deposed by the government in 2007 for opposing its interference in the church and held more or less incommunicado ever since.
In May, two different groups of Evangelical Christians were also arrested, and in June, a gathering of the Faith Missions Church in Keren, the country’s second largest city, was raided by police. According to reports, among the detained were an entire family and a pregnant woman.
Father Mussie Zerai, who lives in Rome and coordinates pastoral work for Eritrea and Eritrean communities in Europe, says the government is penalizing the Catholic Church for its independence.
“The government is obsessed with having control over everything and everyone,” Zerai said. “It sees the Catholic Church as a threat because we are part of an international network and ask questions.”
For the victims of persecution, it may not make much difference whether the perpetrator is a terrorist or a member of an elite military unit, since the net result is often the same. Strategies for engaging the threat, however, obviously have to be different.
While the Vatican has essentially no direct ways to influence terrorist groups, or even talk to them, it can at least engage state actors through diplomatic channels. It’s had formal relations with Eritrea since 1995 – one early Eritrean envoy to the Vatican, Beraki Ghebreselassie, was actually arrested in 2001 for pressing Afwerki for political reforms, and he hasn’t been heard from again.
In response to the Eritrean priest’s question Monday (and another on China), Camilleri gave a largely soothing reply claiming that the Vatican follows such situations on a “daily” basis, and that while its behind-the-scenes activity doesn’t always make headlines, that doesn’t mean Rome is idle. (For the record, I bumped into a senior Vatican diplomat at a reception earlier in the month who urged me to write on Eritrea. When I asked what the Vatican was doing to respond to the situation, his terse answer was precisely, “Nothing.”)
Time will tell, but the tenor of the Eritrean priest’s pleading remarks Monday suggested that whatever the Vatican may be doing right now, Eritrean Catholics wish they’d do a lot more of it – and soon.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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