The Catholic Church is accusing the Eritrean government of shutting down all Catholic-run health care facilities, leaving thousands without access to medical care.
The Eritrean Catholic Church sent a letter to the ministry of health condemning the closure of its health centers in the East African nation, the BBC reports, as crackdowns against Christianity and other minority religions continue.
The Catholic Church, which operates as many as 22 health centers in Eritrea, accused the government of ordering patients to go home and deploying soldiers to monitor the facilities.
Additionally, the Catholic News Service has reported that government officials asked administrators at church facilities to sign documents approving the handover of properties before the closures. Many of the Catholic health facilities in Eritrea are located on the properties of monasteries.
“The government can say it doesn’t want the services of the Church but asking for the property is not right,” the letter reads.
According to the BBC’s Tigrinya's Teklemariam Bekit, analysts believe that the closure of the health centers is a retaliation for the church’s call for reform issued in April and could leave thousands of people in rural areas without the quality medical care they need.
Critics say that government-run health care is less accessible and of a lower standard.
Bekit also reports that the Catholic Church’s letter compared the Eritrean government, which has been led by President Isaias Afwerki since the country’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993, to a former Marxist regime that prevented access to convents, schools and health facilities in 1982.
Eritrea ranks as the seventh worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
The Eritrean government only recognizes four religious groups: Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islam, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, and the Catholic Church.
Open Doors reports that government security forces conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians during its 2019 World Watch List reporting period. But over the last decade, thousands of Christians have been imprisoned.
Even officially recognized religious groups and leaders face interference or arrest as the government tries to take full control.
In 2007, the government removed the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, after he refused to excommunicate 3,000 members who opposed the regime and called for the release of political prisoners of conscience. Antonios has spent years under house arrest.
According to Open Doors, Eritrea is often referred to as “Africa’s North Korea.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has criticized the Eritrean government for regulating religious practice so much that there is “little to no freedom of religion or belief for people outside the four officially recognized faith communities.”
Eritrea has been recognized by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for egregious violations of religious freedom since 2004.
A Catholic nun told the Catholic News Service in May that Catholics in Eritrea are “subjected to looking over our shoulders to serve the people,” because the Catholic Church lacks the freedom it enjoys in other countries.
In late May, at least 30 Pentecostal Christians were arrested while praying at three different locations in the nation’s capital of Asmara.
On May 10, it was reported that 141 Christians were arrested in the Mai Temenai area of Asmara after gathering for a meeting. According to Open Doors USA, 104 adult females, 23 men, and 14 minors were among those arrested.