Eritrea - A Peaceful Country at War

By Fr. Wolfgang Schonecke W.F.

Some Facts and Figures on Eritrea

Map of Eritrea

Asmara Eparchy 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 paradise.
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.
A Remarkable Recovery
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.
The Downside
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 faith.
Invasion 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 pastoral solutions.
A Synod 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 of life.
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.

Eritrea - Evangelising a Changing Culture


Above is the Moto of the Synod

Map of the Dioceses (Eparchy) of Eritrea
The First 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.
The Eparchy 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.
Inculturation: 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 the family
* To have a full time chaplain to the university.
Liturgical Adaptation
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.
The Modern Media Culture
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 population.
Formation 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 decided to:
* 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 and accountability
* Setting up financial committees at diocesan and at parish level.
Setting Up Eparchy Structures
Asmara Eparchy 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.
Justice 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 [1999] 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 recommended:
* To form a Justice and Peace commission
* To continue its co-operation with the respective Government ministries.
A Synod as Pilgrimage
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.
From 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
1. 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.
2. That the laity participate fully in the liturgy and in the administrative structures of the Church and contribute to self-reliance.
3. That the participation of women be strengthened and that they be given a space in the liturgy.
4. That priests and religious increase the contribution to the pastoral work in the Eparchy.
5. That all may pray and work for Peace. (6)


(1) An Eparchy is the equivalent of a Diocese. Return

(2) Gheéz and (3) Tigrinya are languages - see the 'Facts and Figures' on page 12. Gheéz is the liturgical and literary language. Return

(4) The Oriental Rite in this sense is the Catholic Church. Return

(5) 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

(6) 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. Return

This article appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue 356, of February-March, 2001.

The article may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers - White Sisters" magazine.

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