Eritrea - A Peaceful
Country at War
Celebrates Its First Ever Synod (1)
Waking up in the early morning
in Asmara one has a strange sensation. The light shining through the window
seems purer and brighter than anywhere else. Is it the altitude of 2,200 metres
or the absence of pollution? Not only the brilliance of the sun is unusual.
There is an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity about the town. Traffic moves
at a slow pace and people feel so secure that they hardly lock their cars or
houses. Compared with the violence of most African cities, Eritrea looks a lost
But appearances are deceptive.
The country is once again on the brink of war. If you see only elderly people
and schoolchildren in town, it is because everybody else has been recruited
into the military and is waiting on the frontline for the third round of fighting
in a war that is hard to understand. Ten years earlier the Tigrean People's
Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), in
spite of ideological differences, joined together to overthrow the communist
regime of Menghistu.
After a referendum Eritrea
ained independence, and both countries cooperated in a remarkable effort to
rebuild their economies after thirty years of civil war. The people of Tigrai
and Eritrea share the same language and culture. The Presidents of both countries
are related through family ties. So why fight? Officially, it is a border dispute.
Eritrea considers the old Italian colonial borders as binding. But much of the
disputed areas were always administered by Ethiopia and the local population
consider themselves as Ethiopians. Both countries accuse each other to have
started the conflict. Eritrea started large scale military action, but accuses
Ethiopia to have provoked the conflict. In June, 1999, the Ethiopian army regained
some territory but at a staggering cost of human life. Could international arbitration
not settle a border dispute? Eritrea claims that more is at stake than borders.
They believe the people of Tigrai who presently control power in Addis Ababa
want to create a 'Greater Tigrai', incorporating parts of Eritrea, and gain
access to the port of Assab. And so a border conflict has escalated in a prolonged
trench war. Eritrea cannot afford to keep its whole workforce on the frontline
for ever. But should the fighting resume a whole generation of young people
may never return home.
The war is all the more
tragic, as both countries had engaged in an impressive development programme.
Contrary to most African countries, Eritrea had heavily invested in improving
its infra-structure. Roads have no potholes, telephones actually work and the
barren hills are being systematically reforested. There have been great investments
in agriculture to improve food sufficiency. Massawa, the picturesque Red Sea
port is being rebuilt. All gives the impression of a Government that is trying
to develop their people rather than filling their pockets. Most remarkably,
Eritreans want to do it by themselves and have refused to submit to IMF and
World Bank conditions, which have wrought so much havoc elsewhere.
But all is not glitter and
glory. One cannot help feeling that the EPLF has not quite shaken off its socialist
past. As for guerilla movements the world over, Marxism-Leninism provided the
ideology and the strategies during the successful liberation struggle. The Communist
rhetoric is gone, but totalitarian attitudes persist, visible in an exessive
desire to control everything, including people's minds. There is only one Government
T.V. and Radio and editors of private papers have to be careful what they write.
Ominous was a Government
request that the Catholic Church hand over its twenty-five schools and thirty-five
dispensaries, which was not carried out as war broke out. Equally disturbing
is a surprise announcement, never put into writing, to stop all religious teaching
in schools, although an ecumenical syllabus had been agreed upon earlier.
One explanation why the
Government wants to keep religion on a short leash is the fear of 'Islamic Fundamentalism'.
After independence Eritrea was infiltrated by Sudanese and Iranian 'Fundamentalists'
of the violent breed. The Government reacted swiftly and decisively, arrested
them and cut diplomatic ties with Khartoum. Although diplomatic relations have
been restored recently, fear remains that religious radicalism could undermine
the efforts of nation-building in a country that is half Christian and half
Muslim. But some measures to keep religion out of public life clearly infringe
on fundamental human rights, like preventing soldiers to have access to religious
services or refusing fallen freedom fighters to be buried according to their
Of The Global Culture
More challenging than any
political, nationalistic indoctrination of the youth is the growing influence
of the media culture. Videos of all sorts are available everywhere and Eritrea
will be connected to the internet this year. Some service providers explicitly
target the youth, which will be flooded with the best and the worst of Western
media culture. It already shows strongly in their way of dressing and their
choice of music. It also reflects on their religious practise. While most remain
rooted in their faith, the younger generation find the traditional Gheéz
(2) rite liturgies too long and
ask for Masses in Tigrinya (3) where they can sing
new songs to the accompaniment of a keyboard. Many are also strongly attracted
to Charismatic forms of prayer and influenced by the very active Pentecostal
churches. All these changes call for an open discussion to look for appropriate
Under Threat Of War
It was a courageous decision
by the Eparch of Asmara, Abune Zacharia, to hold the first Synod ever in the
history of the Eparchy at a time when the menace of renewed fighting seems imminent.
After two years of preparation with questionnaires and 'mini-Synods' in the
parishes, some eighty-five delegates, a third of them lay people, met for six
days to discuss how the Church could respond to these profound changes in society.
Liturgical change was one of the thorny questions. In a spirit of ecumenism
the tiny Catholic Church does not want to move too far away from the Orthodox
Church. Yet if the Church does not want to lose the youth, it has to give room
to new liturgical expressions and adapt some rites to modern urban conditions
Traditionally, the young
were initiated into the faith through the liturgy. How to transmit a more personally
reflected Biblical faith in a new secularised setting is one of the great challenges
to the Church. A catechetical centre and other diocesan structures will be set
up to study different pastoral challenges. As is the case in most Churches in
Africa, the Eparchy is still heavily dependent on outside funding, a heritage
of the missionary past. Financial self-reliance is as urgent as it is difficult
but not impossible. The Orthodox Church is able to run her own structures and
builds beautiful new churches with local contributions, even if it takes thirty
years to realise the projects.
How to evangelise
with courage and creativity a new secular culture without losing the depth of
faith and the riches of tradition, is a challenge, not only for Eritrea, but
for the whole Church at the start of this third millennium.
Evangelising a Changing Culture
is the Moto of the Synod
Synod of the Asmara Eparchy
Asmara seems one of the
most peaceful towns on the continent. People hardly lock their houses and cars.
Few people walk around and the traffic moves slowly. But these appearances are
deceptive. If only schoolchildren and elderly people are on the streets, it
is because all able-bodied men and most young girls and women are on the war
front waiting for a third round of fighting in the war with Ethiopia. It is
a sign of great courage that in such circumstances the Eparchy of Asmara decided
to go ahead with its first Synod in its 70 years of history, called in the Oriental
Rite (4), Eparchial Assembly. Some 86 delegates, one third
of them lay people, gathered in Decomhare around their Eparch, Abune Zacharias
Yahannes, for a week to work out a pastoral plan for the next five years. The
Synod was prepared over a long period by the pastoral co-ordinator Fr. Menghesteab
and a strong Synod committee. 'Mini-Synods' were held in all bigger parishes,
and with the youth and other groups. Based on the teaching of the Vatican Council
and the African Synod and the contribution of consultations, the pastoral team
proposed a basic text to be amended and approved by the Synod assembly. AMECEA
Pastoral Department (5) was invited to be present at the Synod
and Fr. Wolfgang Schonecke reports on the cultural and social background and
some of the decisions taken to respond to the challenges.
of Asmara as a United Family
This was the theme of the
Synod and its main aim. Inspired by the ideal of the African Synod to see the
Church as a family, the Synod makes the participants realise that the challenges
posed by the situation in their countries can only be met when clergy, religious
and laity work together. The Synod itself was a living experience of how fruitful
a true dialogue can be.
Evangelising a Changing Culture
Christianity in Eritrea
and Ethiopia dates from the fourth century and is the oldest and most inculturated
on the continent. Christian thought has penetrated the language and the daily
life of the people. But thirty years of liberation war, the influence of the
thousands of Eritreans returning from exile abroad and the radically secular
stand of the present Government is creating a new mentality.
It is estimated that by
now 10-15% of the population has no longer any concern for religion while another
10% are thoroughly westernised. The Government has recently taken out religious
instruction from schools and instils its own brand of nationalistic and secular
ideology into the youth during summer camps and military service. And so one
of the key questions was: 'how can the Church continue to evangelise a new generation
and make it feel at home in the Church?' Some of the resolutions taken were:
To start a youth association
in each parish
To make efforts to revitalise
To have a full time chaplain
to the university.
The long liturgies in the
Gheéz language are deeply moving and much more participatory than Latin
rite celebrations. But the young generation is changing fast. They no longer
feel at ease to pray in a language they do not understand and prefer to sing
modern hymns in Tigrinya to the rhythms of an electronic keyboard. In fact,
many parishes are already using Tigrinya and more texts are being translated.
They are also influenced by the different style of praying practised in the
Charismatic Movement and in the Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches. The great
discussion of the Synod was how to preserve the richness and beauty of the Gheéz
tradition and yet create a space for new liturgical expression to grow. The
clergy, particularly the married priests who have come from the Orthodox Church,
pleaded to teach the youth the traditional Gheéz songs. The young demanded
to be accepted with their own expressions. As the discussions about the liturgical
language, the age of confirmation and changes in the funeral rite were inconclusive
the Synod recommended:
To go on with current practise for the time being
To thoroughly study all necessary adaptations.
Compared to other AMECEA
countries the availability of information is still quite limited. The options
are a dozen weekly papers that must be careful not to be too critical of the
status quo and only one state-run T.V. channel that is free from the excesses
of pornography and violence. But change is underfoot. Eritrea will be connected
to the Internet and some of the Service Providers are targeting explicitly the
youth. Eritrea's youth in towns will have to cope with an avalanche of information
that will reinforce a secular mentality. The Church has little to offer to counterbalance
the effects. Two Church papers are losing readers in a highly competitive market.
The Synod recommended:
To keep up to date and use different new media in a professional way
To use video and other visual aids in evangelising the illiterate part of the
and Participation of the Lay People
As the present
regime does not allow religion to hold an important place in the public arena,
effective evangelisation can only be done through the laity. According to Oriental
Canon Law lay participation is limited to one third of Synod members. After
some initial shyness the representatives of the laity and the youth expressed
clearly the changes they expect to see in the Church. To fulfil their role in
Church and society, the laity need formation in their faith. And so the Synod
Set up a diocesan or national catechetical centre
Make the laity council more representative and allow women and youth to participate.
Like most other
Churches in Africa, the Eparchy is still heavily dependent on outside funding.
Yet, the example of the Orthodox Church shows that self-reliance is possible.
The Synod recommended to actively pursue a policy of self-reliance through
Sensitising all Church
members of their responsibility to support their Church
A policy of transparency
Setting up financial committees at diocesan and at parish level.
Up Eparchy Structures
so far managed to live with minimal structures. To respond to the new pastoral
challenges of the times, the Synod recommended to set up the structures foreseen
in Canon Law and define the functions of:
The Vicar General and the Chancellor and the Deans
The Financial Administrator and the Eparchy Financial Council
The Pastoral Office
The Duties of Priests and Parish Teams and Parish Pastoral Councils
The Place of the Religious in the Eparchy
The Laity Council.
and Peace and Development
As in many
countries in Africa the Church has invested greatly in education and medical
services. Although the Government has done remarkable achievements in developing
the country since independence, it retains from its socialist past some totalitarian
tendencies. It requested the Church last year  to hand over all its social
institutions, as it had done with all NGOs earlier on, a move only interrupted
by the war. In spite of such threats and limitations, the Eritrean Church continues
to offer its co-operation with the Government and contributes substantially
to the relief efforts of some 350,000 people displaced by the war. The Synod
To form a Justice and Peace commission
To continue its co-operation with the respective Government ministries.
This first historical Synod
of the Eparchy of Asmara took place during the Jubilee Year and so it was decided
to give it in the form of a pilgrimage. It started on the day after most popular
Marian Feast to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the hall of the yet unfinished
Eparchical centre where the major seminarians expressed the major themes of
the Synod in a delightful play. The whole assembly in cars and buses followed
a two metre high new image of Our Lady through the streets of Asmara to Decamhare,
some forty kilometres out of town, where the working session took place. For
the closing session all delegates moved in the early morning through the rugged
mountains to the tomb of St. Justin de Jacobis in Hebo to pray to the founding
father of the Catholic Church in this region for a successful implementation
of the Synod and for peace, which is so desperately needed. During the Mass
a message to all the faithful in the diocese was read out to appeal to them
to take the implementation of the Synod at heart.
the Synod Message
The Synod delegates address
a message to Catholics in the Eparchy and all people of goodwill. In it they
thank God for allowing the Synod to take place and to be so successful in this
precarious situation and remembered those thousand of displaced people from
both countries and those in the trenches at the frontier. It summed up the inspiration
of the Synod in five points
That the youth are the backbone of the Church be given special attention, show
creativity and participation and yet stay true to the faith of their Foreparents.
That the laity participate fully in the liturgy and in the administrative structures
of the Church and contribute to self-reliance.
That the participation of women be strengthened and that they be given a space
in the liturgy.
That priests and religious increase the contribution to the pastoral work in
That all may pray and work for Peace. (6)
Eparchy is the equivalent of a Diocese. Return
Gheéz and (3)
Tigrinya are languages - see the 'Facts and Figures' on page 12. Gheéz
is the liturgical and literary language. Return
The Oriental Rite in this sense is the Catholic Church. Return
AMECEA = AMECEA is the 'Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern
Africa'. It consists of the Episcopal Conferences of Eritrea (1991), Ethiopia
(1979), Kenya (1961), Malawi (1961), Sudan (1979), Tanzania (1961), Uganda
(1961) and Zambia (1961). The Episcopal Conferences of the Seychelles (1979)
and Somalia (1995) are Affiliated Members. Return
This article is from ADS 5/2000
No: 514, 15th. March, 2000. AMECEA Documentation Service (ADS), P.O. Box 21400,
Nairobi, Kenya. Reproduction authorised with the usual acknowledgement. You
can access ADS on the Internet at: http://www.dex-netcom/cc478.
This article appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK),
issue 356, of February-March, 2001.
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