Students are pictured in a file photo during class at Hagaz Agricultural and Technical Boarding School in Eritrea. The agricultural technical school was taken over by the government Aug. 23. CNS photo/CNEWA

Toronto Eritreans pray for jailed bishop

  • October 28, 2022

Mothers led the prayers for imprisoned Bishop Fikremariam Haghos Tsalim as 300 faithful of the Eritrean Catholic Community gathered in St. Nicholas of Bari Catholic Church after Mass Oct. 23.

“It was so emotional,” Eritrean parishioner Michael Araya told The Catholic Register.

Araya has known Fikremariam about 20 years, since the bishop was a parish priest in the Eritrean town of Segheneyti and Araya was a young Catholic school teacher. Araya now has no idea why his friend and spiritual mentor is sitting in the Adi Abeto prison in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.

On Oct. 15 police picked Fikremariam up at the Asmara airport as he returned from Europe. The government has given no reason for the bishop’s arrest, but the 52-year-old leader of nearly 40,000 Catholics an hour’s drive south of the capital has spoken out against the Eritrean army’s involvement in the Ethiopian civil war in Tigray. Government officials have been rounding up boys and girls to serve in the Eritrean armed forces.

Toronto’s Eritrean Catholics of the Gheez Rite Kidanemhret chaplaincy have determined that they will pray the Rosary and other prayers daily for the release of the imprisoned bishop.

“We pray a lot. We discuss a lot about it. Our whole discussion is about the bishop,” Araya said. “They (parishioners) are paralyzed. We are so devastated.”

Fikremariam is known as a man of prayer, famous for private prayer vigils that last all night, said Araya.

Since independence in 1993 the Eritrean government has arrested dozens of religious leaders, including the Orthodox Patriarch of the Alexandrian Rite Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The government deposed the patriarch in 2006, then arrested him. He died in prison.

“The government is not only against the Catholics. It’s against all,” explained Araya. “They are against all — against Muslims, against Catholics, against Protestants, against Orthodox. You cannot say that the government is only against Catholics.”

Earlier this year the one-party state began a series of forced seizures of Catholic schools, hospitals and associated social services. The LaSallian Christian Brothers lost the Hagaz Agricultural and Technical Boarding School to armed officials. The Salesian Brothers have been forced to abandon the Don Bosco Technical School in Dekembhare, Eritrea’s second largest city. In 2019 Catholic bishops called for a national truth and reconciliation commission, prompting the government to begin seizing Catholic health-care institutions.

There have been no elections since the conclusion of Eritrea’s war of liberation against Ethiopia. Freedom House, an independent American monitor of democratic governance, rates Eritrea as “not free” with a score of three out of 100.

The course Eritrea has taken since breaking away from Ethiopia has been tragic, Araya said.

“My father was a freedom fighter. He fought for Eritrean independence,” Araya said. “But what we can see is not the objective of my father. It’s very painful — the end result is very painful. We need help, prayer.”

The 30,000 Eritreans in Canada, most in Toronto, are almost entirely resettled refugees on the run from a regime which conscripts young people, some of them children, into the army with no end date to their national service. Araya points out that there are refugee camps full of Eritreans.

“We believe that the situation we are living is not understood by the world,” he said.

While Catholics make up less than five per cent of the population in Eritrea, they amount to about one-third of the Eritreans in Canada, Araya estimates.

Catholic Eritreans in Canada are hoping for help from the majority Roman Catholic Church with resettling refugees and advocating for refugees still in Africa.

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