The courage of four Catholic Bishops in speaking out in Eritrea has lifted the spirits of ordinary men and women. A member of the ‘Freedom Friday’ movement, which links the Eritrean public with the international Eritrean diaspora, says that there has been a tremendous response to the Bishop’s letter, which criticised the Eritrean government.

Eritrea discussion
Men discuss current affairs outside a church in Mai Jahjah, central Asmara. Source: Freedom Friday

The 38 page letter, written in Tigrinya, has been photocopied and distributed around the capital, Asmara, and beyond. This carries a high risk, since it can only be photocopied in stationery shops, where government spies might see what is being reproduced. Despite the danger, the letter is being widely copied. “The message is going around like wild-fire,” the Freedom Friday contact explained.

The letter was signed by Bishops Mengsteab Tesfamariam of Asmara, Tomas Osman of Barentu, Kidane Yeabio of Keren and Feqremariam Hagos of Segeneiti. The Bishops said: “If you own a peaceful country where there is justice and where you can work and loudly speak your mind, it is obvious that we will have youths flocking back from exile but not youths eager to leave their country, for nobody would look for honey which they already have.”

There was no-one left to look after the elderly, the Bishops said. They pointedly declared that: “all those who are arrested should first be handled humanely and sympathetically” and then be presented to court for trial.

When a priest was asked by a member of his congregation whether the Bishops did not run the risk of arrest, the Freedom Friday member was told: “did your eldest son not die in the war of liberation? Did another son of yours and your daughter’s son also die in the war against Ethiopia? So what are you afraid of?”

The priest continued: “We religious people and the elderly should be courageous enough to sacrifice our lives for the people and for our country. Jesus was crucified – and this should be a lesson to us all!”

This is not the first time the Catholic Church has spoken out. In 2002 it issued a paper describing God’s love for Eritrea, but the current message is the most explicit.  Priests are now saying that they know the letter could result in the government knocking on people’s doors, but called on their congregations to inform them if this took place.