Eritrea's Catholic bishops, speaking out for the first time in five years, have called for a "peace and reconciliation" plan in the impoverished Horn of Africa country.
The UN's Refugee Agency, UNHCR, reported that more than a fifth of Eritrea's six million people have fled the one-party state, where all men are conscripted into indefinite military service. And, according to Human Rights Watch, thousands suspected of dissent are held in prison without trial, some ever since the country won independence in 1993. Large numbers have risked their lives to cross deserts and the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe.
In their pastoral letter the bishops "call to mind those in lands of exile, in prison and in the hands of ruthless traffickers and exploiters" as well as "victims of violent deaths". Living conditions are in a critical state, the letter warns. Since nothing has been done to heal the situation, "massive fleeing abroad" has continued, threatening "our people and our nation to the point of extinction".
Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991, after 30-years of war, but the country was left in a fragile state. Since gaining independence, Eritrea continues to face a challenging economic environment, as well as, a severe drought and ongoing border disputes.
The signing last year, of the 'Joint declaration of Peace and Friendship' with its neighbour Ethiopia, led to the lifting of UN sanctions, and raised hopes for a peaceful future. However, the recent closure of the border is concerning. The bishops' letter prays for the demarcation of borders as soon as possible, to the benefit of both peoples.
The Eritrean Catholic Bishops say a way out from what they call "this tragic state of affairs" will only be found if opponents are willing to sit round a table, despite their deep differences. They add: "This applies not only in relation to the people of our neighbouring country, but also within our national community."
Eritrea's people are divided roughly equally between Muslims and Christians, the majority of whom are Orthodox, with about 5 per cent of the population Catholic.
The pastoral letter calls for the establishment of a national truth and reconciliation commission, a concept pioneered in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Its main task, say the bishops, should be the removal of tension and the promotion of dialogue, building the foundations of a constitutional state system. Those responsible for violence and injustice would have to admit their responsibility, while victims would have to be ready to forgive.
"At a time like this, when the country goes through severe tests, it needs more than ever an intervention of God," the bishops conclude, to achieve "the fulfilment of our dream of an Eritrea united, reconciled and founded on peace and justice".
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