Vatican City (Fides Service) – “Peace and reconciliation were our first concerns and so we discussed and reflected on the situations in our countries.” This was affirmed by the Catholic Bishops of Ethiopia and Eritrea with regard to the main themes of their Plenary Assembly held in Rome from 23 to 29 June. In a Pastoral Letter addressed to the Catholics and all people of goodwill in both countries, the Bishops confirm their commitment to “cooperate and work together for the good of both nations”.
From 1998 to 2000 Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody border conflict which left scars still to be healed and a crisis still to be settled between the countries. “Our respective governments are still not talking to each other”; Bishop Menghisteab Tesfamariam of Asmara (Eritrea) tells Fides Service. “As religious leaders we have held regular meetings and we are probably the only form of direct dialogue. When in 2002 the Ethiopian and Eritrean religious leaders exchanged visits in Asmara and Addis Ababa, people saw an important sign of a will for dialogue and peace”
Both countries face challenges which affect evangelisation. “In a country disrupted by war, disease and drought priority must be given to the families who find themselves in very serious difficulty” Bishop Tesfamariam said. “In Eritrea we have so many orphans and widows, too many children grow up without the presence of a father. In this situation, as bishops our first concern is to console the sorely tried people. We will never tire of telling the Eritrean people that God has not forsaken his people”.
“A major challenge – the Bishop of Asmara continues – is to build a culture and a language of peace because the war left deep scars on the hearts of the people.”
Another serious problem is widespread diffusion of AIDS. The Church is actively committed to teaching people how to avoid AIDS: with other religions and the government we organise special teaching sessions which emphasise the correct way to live human sexuality with respect for self and for others.
Although Eritrea is a mainly Muslim country, it is open to dialogue. Bishop Tesfamariam says: “We are very pleased with progress made in ecumenical and interreligious field. There is dialogue among all believers in Eritrea, ecumenical among Christians (Catholics, Orthodox and other Christians) and interreligious among Christian/Muslims.”
“A problem we must face all together” Bishop Tesfamariam said “is growing fundamentalism among Muslims and Christians. With regard to Christianity, we have trouble with spreading sects. We tackle the problem not attacking directly, but by ensuring adequate catechesis and pastoral care for our people.”
Collaboration from all sides is also indispensable to deal with the serious food shortage in Eritrea. The Catholic Church is in front line to assist people in the stricken areas, through Caritas, local, national but chiefly Caritas Internationalis. “The crisis caught us unprepared. Until 1995 the Church had a network for capillary assistance and distribution of aid to people in need. With the end of the war of Independence we thought the network would no longer be necessary. Unfortunately the war 1998-2000, totally unexpected, and the drought in recent years, put us before new emergencies” Bishop Tesfamariam said.
In November 2002 the Bishops of Eritrea launched an appeal to the international community, to Catholics in particular, to help the people of Eritrea. “The response was generous – said Bishop Tesfamariam - thanks to foreign aid we set up assistance projects in four areas: distribution of high vitamin content food for the weakest, children, pregnant mothers, old people: through 30 hospital centres all over the country we distributed food to as many as 40,000 children; healthcare assistance to treat and prevent infectious diseases; clean water supplies thanks to new wells and repair on existing pumps; distribution of seeds so that when the rains come the farmers are ready to sow.”
“But the emergency is by no means over, indeed this is the most critical time: between June and September there is no harvest and food supplies have been consumed. We need more help while waiting for October harvests”. LM (Fides Service 3/7/2003 EM lines 61 Words: 746)