Eritrean Catholics in London and those standing in solidarity with them, engaged in a 'day of witness and vigil for the Eritrea people and Catholic Church' on Saturday 2 November, in the Piazza of Westminster Cathedral.
Opening the rally with prayer and blessing, Fr Mark White CP of the Passionist Community and Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Herne Bay, Kent welcomed the gathering. Following Fr Mark's blessing and braving the rain, a choir from the Holy Redeemer of the Eritrean Catholic Gheez Rite Chaplaincy delighted the hearts of the people gathered by their song 'wereb', a traditional Gheez rite prayer, which further attracted many of the faithful that have been attending the All Souls Day Mass at the Cathedral to join the rally.
Bishop Declan Lang, addressing those gathered through his representative Fr Mark Odion MSP, expressed his 'deepest sadness' at news that the government in Eritrea had seized and closed a number of schools and healthcare facilities run by the Catholic Church and other faith communities in the country.
This year alone 21 healthcare centres have been confiscated in Eritrea. In previous years, a total of eight healthcare centres were nationalised, taking the total to 29 centres forcibly seized by the Eritrean government.
"These healthcare centres are almost exclusively established in rural areas and small towns to serve the needs of the poor and the needy in society," said Bishop Lang, Chair of the Bishops' International Affairs department. "The seizure of these facilities is, therefore, tantamount to a huge depravity of healthcare assistance to a large section of the population and certainly will have a lasting negative effect on the poor and may ultimately lead to the loss of innocent lives."
"Through the schools and health facilities, the Catholic Church in Eritrea serves the most vulnerable members of the society: the sick, the poor, the elderly, women and children. In addition, the Catholic Church runs orphanages and maternity wards in those rural communities. To confiscate these facilities and institutions translates to a denial of the fundamental inalienable human rights of the poor Eritreans to education and medical assistance, thus casting a bleak future for those poor and needy nationals."
Expressing solidarity with the Eritrean community in the UK and the entire Catholic family in Eritrea over the "unlawful and unconstitutional" confiscation of the schools and healthcare institutions, Bishop Lang praised the humanitarian mission of the Catholic Church in the east African country.
"We are aware of the great remarkable humanitarian service that the Church's healthcare centres provide to the to all the people of Eritrea and we were distressed to learn of the recent decision by the government to close the healthcare centre and the schools. The Church's witness in trying to provide the best healthcare to the people of your country, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, is a visible sign of its commitment to the good of Eritrea, and its fidelity to the Gospel."
The Bishop concluded his address with an appeal to the Eritrean government: "We join in solidarity with the Eritreans here in the UK to appeal to the Eritrea Government to reconsider their decisions and to return the Schools and healthcare facilities back to the Church."
Speaker after speaker from Eritrea's faith leaders of diverse religions, both Christians and Moslems, and civic society representatives, reiterated their solidarity with the catholic bishops. Deacon Yohannes (John) Ghebrehiwet of Eritrean Orthodox Church in Manchester, UK asked the organisers and gathered people of all faith and civic societies to ask their leaders to work together to expose the dire situation in Eritrea. Adding to what had been said by the main speakers Sheikh Saeed Mohamed Ahmed further enlightened the people of the intolerable religious persecution inflicted on Muslims from the outset of the country's independence. Dr Berhane Asmelash, representing Release Eritrea, also asked for prayers for those religious leaders who are in prison and asked all Eritreans around the world to speak loudly against human right abuse. Professor Gaim Kibreab, Director of Refugee Studies at South Bank University also shared his anger at the betrayed promises to the Eritrean people and sadness on the continued human right abuse by the government of Eritrea.
Addressing the rally, Dr Fessehaye W Zemichael, one of the organisers, reiterated the Eritrean bishops' brave call 'for peace and national reconciliation'. "We, who are lucky to be a voice of the voiceless from outside our country, he said, "are gathered here to demonstrate our support and solidarity with our Catholic bishops in Eritrea." He expressed the deep concern about the ongoing human right violations and the confiscations and nationalisation of the 29 Catholic Church health centres and 7 schools of different faiths that have been operating in the country for over 60 years. He said, 'the Eritrean people are under the yoke of human rights abuses and all their faith groups are victims of religious persecution.
Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, Parish Priest at the Immaculate Conception in the central London Church and head of Westminster Justice and Peace Commission encouraged the gathering to continue praying for Eritrea and its faith leaders and assured that he would be making a special mention of this gathering in his Mass at the parish and beyond. He also pledged the support of Aid to the Church in Need.
Another speaker who gave her witness and experience of the Catholic Church's missionary work in Eritrea was Sister Natalia Gomes of the Camboni Mission who expressed hope for the peace and reconciliation in Eritrea, and that her faith brothers and sisters in Eritrea will be allowed to continue serving the people again soon.
Watch a report on the day from the Eritrean News Channel: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHHRlpGWtWo
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