The Eritrean authorities have freed a Catholic bishop Bishop Fikremariam Hagos Tsalim and Father Mehereteab Stefanos after 75 days in prison.
The 52-year-old bishop heads the Eritrean Catholic Eparchy of Segheneity. Father Stefanos, before his imprisonment, was a parish priest at St. Michael’s Parish in the same eparchy. It is still unknown whether another priest, Capuchin Friar Abbot Abraham, has been released.
Security agents had arrested Bishop Tsalim and two priests Oct. 15 at Asmara International Airport upon the bishop’s arrival from Europe. The three clergymen were detained at Adi Abeto prison.
Authorities did not state a reason for the arrests of the three clergymen but reports says the three detained clergy were accused of criticizing human rights violations in their homilies. The objects of their criticism included the forced military enlistment of young people and evictions and confiscation of property of those who refused to go to war.
The release of the bishop and the priest comes amid agreements to end the civil war in Ethiopia, where the Eritrean government has sided with the Ethiopian government against the regional leaders of the Tigray province.
A video emerged on 28 December showing the prelate being greeted by priests and women religious in the cathedral in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam of Asmara was present at the meeting.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia and Eritrea offered no immediate comment on the release.
“I can confirm he is free, but I do not have any further details. My other concern is that we are dealing with a very toxic state,” said a Catholic priest from the neighbouring Ethiopian region of Tigray. He asked to remain unidentified because of safety concerns.
Earlier reports indicated that the Vatican had accelerated diplomatic efforts to gain his release.
Critics of the bishop’s arrest included the U.K.-based groups Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Human Rights Concern-Eritrea.
Catholics make up about 4% of Eritrea’s 6 million people. The Eritrean Catholic Church is one of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the Holy See. It has an estimated 168,000 members in the northwestern African country and in diaspora communities around the world.
Only four religious communities are legal in the country: the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Lutheran-affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
Even legal groups face persecution. The Eritrean government has periodically targeted Catholic and other religious institutions.
In August, the Eritrean government took over the Hagaz Agro-Technical School, a Catholic institution founded and run by the Lasallian Brothers. The school trains students in farm machinery, agriculture, soil conservation, and animal husbandry.
Government officials shut down several Catholic-run schools and hospitals in 2019, saying religious bodies could not run these institutions. Their legal pretext is a 1995 regulation that restricts social projects and welfare projects to the state. The regulation has been used intermittently to limit religious institutions’ activities and to pursue perceived critics of the government.
Eritrea’s Catholic bishops have opposed the application of the regulation, arguing that the Church’s social services are not in opposition to the government.
Recall that Eritrea has aligned with the Ethiopian government’s war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. This group’s leaders dominated Ethiopian politics for decades but the group now controls the Ethiopian region of Tigray, on the southern border of Eritrea. Since the war began in November 2020, the conflict has killed thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have been put at risk of famine and millions of people have been displaced from their homes.
On Nov. 2 the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan forces signed a peace agreement to permanently end hostilities. Both parties also signed a Nov. 12 agreement concerning disarmament, humanitarian access and the Ethiopian military’s entry, Reuters reports. They are now discussing the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray.
Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1991. Since then, the country has not held a national election. Its president, President Isaias Afwerki, has held office since independence.