A Pastoral Letter of the Catholic Bishops of Eritrea
The Spirit of the Lord Is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed to free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Lk 4: 18-19).
The mission of the Church is to proclaim and spread the salvific plan of Christ to humanity and, parallel to this, it has the duty of enlightening the earthly and temporal condition of humanity with the spirit of the Gospel (Apostolate of the Laity, art. 5). For this reason the joys and hopes, sadness and sorrows of today's world (male and female) are the joys and hopes, sadnesses and sorrows of the Church (The Church in the Modern World, art. 1).
As the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the independence of Eritrea takes place - at a time when we are coming out of a devastating three-year war and when we are preparing for important new elections - we are reminded that God still loves this nation. He takes care of its people and continues to work wonders in the present as in the past. We, therefore, feel that we have an obligation to share words of consolation, hope, guidance and encouragement given our current religious, economic and socio-political situation.
We, the Catholic Bishops of Eritrea, offer you anew the consoling Word of God as announced by the prophet Isaiah: "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated" (Is 40:1-2).
Gratitude to God
2.Ten years ago - when the thirty years of devastation and war were over and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation army entered the capital in triumph, an event which provoked an unprecedented sense of joy and consolation - we, your Bishops, published a pastoral letter as a means of helping the new nation focus and reflect upon this historic event. In that letter we wrote: "We give thanks to God with an open heart and a humbled spirit for he has brought us freedom: freedom from many years of war, freedom from unsuccessful peace deals and freedom from desperate living conditions" ("Peace and Development," 1991, p. 7). Since we had thanked God who had worked wonders on our behalf at that time ("Development and Peace", p.7) it is only right and proper that we do the same again now ten years on. Among the events for which we now give thanks is the successful outcome of the popular referendum which, through hard work and careful coordination, allowed Eritrea to poll its citizens on the question of national independence and thence to take its rightful place as a fully recognized state among the family of nations. Then, after thirty years of severe deprivation, came the reconstruction of the nation that, if not yet complete, began well promising success at home and admiration abroad. And thirdly, alongside these events, there was also the formulation and approval of the new national Constitution. Such positive developments took place in a context of peace and were indeed blessings from God (cf. Eph 1:3).
Over the past three years, however, Eritrea has been caught up in a number of serious difficulties with large numbers of her citizens killed, disabled, displaced, deported, unprotected or left to man border trenches. The consequences of these difficulties have been far reaching. Reflecting on this situation, and given that God has enabled us to weather the worst and to glimpse a new horizon of peace, our first task as spiritual leaders is to identify the lessons that must be learned and to thank God once again for not abandoning us. Our main message, therefore, is this: "you shall know that I am the Lord" (Ez 37:14), "praise the Lord, who is so good" (Ps 136:1) and to offer him worthy thanks.
Freedom Is God's Gift
3.From the outset of creation the human person has been marked with the gift of freedom. It is because of this gift that the individual aspires to a specific claim of dignity having been created in the image of God himself (cf. Gn 1:26-27; Wis 2:23; Sir 17:3-10). Freedom, then, is born with human persons and it becomes their portion forever. We use all the means at our disposal to protect this God-given gift and, if necessary, we may even resort to force to keep and protect it from those who may try to snatch it from us.
Human beings make sacrifices for and dedicate themselves to the cause of justice (coupled with peace) but we should not lose sight of the fact that it is God who, in his own mysterious way, ultimately guides history - with all its human endeavour - in its journey towards the supreme goal of true freedom (Development ofPeoples, p. 7). "For you were called for freedom., brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; serve one another through love" (Gal 5:13). Freedom, therefore, does not offer a licence to do as one pleases, nor does it offer an escape from one's duties and responsibilities. It is rather a decision to opt for and be committed to the good. God himself says: "I set before you here, this day, a blessing and a curse" (Dt 11:26). Freedom is intrinsically connected with our God-given potential of mind and will (The Church in the Modern World, art. 17).
When we talk of the past ten years of independence and freedom in Eritrea we refer to a truly free nation whose freedom is the sum of the freedoms of its nationals. We, therefore, necessarily include freedom of conscience and creed, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of communication and freedom of association and assembly. Only when all the citizens of the nation own this kind of comprehensive freedom can we speak of a truly free nation. The State has the duty of guaranteeing freedom to all the citizens who live within it and who abide by its laws. For a valid assessment of our current situation, perhaps, we might usefully start by asking ourselves a couple of basic questions: What was our starting point? Where are we now? At the same time and as part of an individual and national effort, we might also make an honest examination of conscience. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Cor 5:10). So it is that we must ask ourselves some awkward questions: Have we always done what is right for all our citizens? Have we, or how have we, used/abused our freedom? Have we always respected the rights of others? How have we understood justice? Have we used that gift of freedom and independence - attained at such a high. price - worthily?
A Time of Peace and Development
4.In a previous Pastoral Letter (1991) we indicated that peace is not only the absence of war but that it is also a safeguard for the rights of others. It is an expression of a full human life and the development of human well-being in all of its dimensions: ".... as we speak of a new society and of development worthy of a human person there is a point that needs to be stressed. Without holistic and integral human development one cannot speak of authentic development. Development cannot be measured only in economic terms. For development to be just and right it has to be holistic and integral. This means that it has to be participatory - where all of its citizens have a share - and has to develop all the different dimensions of human life. Its goal, then, is to strive towards the fullness of the human condition ...." ("The Development of Peoples," art. 14 S2; cf. "Peace and Development," art. 14).
5.After Eritrea gained her independence the nation's attention was concentrated on the peace and development the country might now enjoy. Expectations were high - both inside and outside the country - and many people convinced themselves that these goals might well be achieved without having to overcome too many major obstacles. Indeed, at first, things went on well with significant progress being made in the fields of education, health, energy, infra-structure, and, most promisingly, rural development.
The Church, for its part, also contributed enthusiastically to rural development. The Church is not an NGO and should never be confused with one. The Church's efforts in the field of development, however, are not based on partiality, religious considerations, nor on any motive of proslitism. "By its nature and mission the Church is universal in that it is not committed to any one culture or to any political, economic or social system. It strives to consolidate the community of people according to the dignity and hope placed on them by Christ" (The Church in the Modern World, art. 42). Its place in society, as witnessed throughout history, comes not from any other source or authority than Christ.
Before Independence, the activities of the Church had been severely impeded by the oppressive regime of Menghistu Hailemariam, Ethiopia and some of its structures, properties and buildings had been illegally "nationalized." The Church is still waiting for this injustice to be redressed by the current government which set out in 1991 to right the wrongs of the past. We are more than a little surprised that our claims have not yet been dealt with. Since we are concerned with an important question of justice this is an issue that the Church does not intend to allow to simply disappear.
All projects of development - be they initiated by the government, the Church, NGOs or the private sector - need to encourage wide participation. Any partiality, favouritism, or privilege shown to one group against another will necessarily limit the potential for development and growth.
It is true that in the fields of economy and trade, many people held high hopes for accelerated economic growth. Leaving aside the growth figures recorded by the World Bank, where a different system of assessment pertains, some people believed that the level of growth actually achieved fell far short of the country's potential. However, granted that unbridled capitalism is not acceptable (Pope John Paul II, Hundred Years, art. 42) a participatory economic system run on a suitable scale might have met with more success especially at the poorer end of the private economic sector. Though we do not claim expertise in such matters we do feel it important to urge those most closely con¬cerned with this issue to broaden their horizons for the country's benefit.
Basing ourselves on our reflection and observation of the past ten years, we would like to offer some recommendations. Given that development should be holistic, integral and participatory - so that every dimension of human life may receive its due benefit - we would like to suggest that structures be found that allow the flow of information from the lower sectors of society to the higher. The policies made by government affect the lives of the ordinary populace (the so-called "broad masses") very directly. It is to be expected that people will complain about taxes (not to mention other measures) especially if they have no role in their establishment or control. It is not good enough for policies to be made at the higher level and then imposed by law on the people - who have means of redress - through administrators who are answerable only to their own superiors. It is to be noted with sadness that even before the latest war broke out, transparency and public accountability were not the most prominent features of the country's administration.
In our courts and legal system this malaise is even more evident. There is an avalanche of complaint. Admittedly, the government has acknowledged this problem but its excuse of the lack of properly prepared personnel wears rather thin after ten years with little visible progress having been made. Fortunately, we do not have a law-less society; generally our people are law-abiding citizens who respect the law fully. This well-known fact does not, however, absolve the authorities from instituting legal provisions to keep corruption from blossoming or from addressing with justice those instances where corruption has already become an issue. We believe that the setting up such structures are of great urgency and importance.
No one denies that one of the fundamental issues in our world today is the right of workers to a pension and a proper living wage. The salary of workers administered in the name of our current "National Service," should take into account the situation of the worker and the condition of his family and other dependents. The rights of civil servants and public sector workers also have to be protected (On Human Work, John Paul II, art. 19). The extremely lengthy delay in land redistribution adds yet a further burden on our people. The cost of rental homes has sky-rocketed and the difference between what a worker must pay for his shelter and what he brings home in wages is grossly unfair. Though we do not fully understand the dynamics of price controls, it seems clear to us that the just resolution of the question of the redistribution of the land would go some way towards lessening the people's economic burdens since they could then construct shelters according to their means. The right to shelter is, after-all, one of the more basic human rights (Peace on Earth, art. 11).
Culture and Identity
It is normal - even after a social revolution such as we have experienced over the past ten years - that certain customs and traditions will resurface, especially those customs through which the people identify themselves and their ancient culture. The government's intentional programme of reculturation has sought to destroy the existing order out of hand. Why, for instance, should the traditional September feast of Meskel, which is rooted in the cycle of the seasons in this part of the world, be substituted with the New Year celebrations held during the western month of January? Why should the western feast of Christmas take precedence over the traditional feast of Lidet? How can this make Eritreans feel more united? Why should the Ghe'ez alphabet have been modified? How are the people supposed to be proud of their history, culture, heritage and their adherence to the principle of self-reliance if that very culture is in the process of being eroded by the government? In the same vein, why are people being alienated from their respective religious practices - Moslems as well as Christians - by the programming of national events at precisely those times when people would otherwise be about their religious duties? It would appear that there is perhaps some hidden agenda.
Wedding ceremonies today are another source of concern. While we fully accept the religious and cultural importance of these events they have none-the-less become much too expensive and indeed have become a kind of socio-economic competition - thus we heartily endorse a radical social and cultural change. Returning to the question of the alienation of people from their religious observances (e.g. the youth who have to practice on Good Friday in preparation for national celebrations that occur much later in the year), we emphasize that this seriously disrupts the formation of our youngsters' consciences and their understanding of their religious duties. Therefore, we strongly urge the government to reconsider its current practice.
9.Though the first few years of peace and development contained many good things, the overall social life of our people has been disfigured - particularly on the levels of morality and conscience. The principles of faith and fear of the Lord, the real foundation of our culture, have been painted over intentionally. Traditionally, freedom was always taken to include a range of concepts:
What always characterised our people in the past was their option to live by God's decrees and commandments. The knowledge of God's wisdom and law was at the heart of their sense of belonging. To throw away this gem is tantamount to throwing away our people's identity. The development of social life and the teaching of fear of the Lord are not contradictory values but complementary. To strengthen the latter is to secure lasting foundation for the former. Faith, therefore, is expressed in the here and now while its relevance is as valid in the heaven we are able to create on earth as it is in heaven above.
14."Even though apparently war seems to resolve them [disagreements], to choose the ways of violence and conflict always exacerbates the problem; for this reason the Holy See has continuously encouraged peoples and governments to reject the spirit of violence and power, terrorism and armed conflict" (John Paul II, Address to the Eritrean Ambassador, Dec. 14, 2000). So it is that, we, the religious leaders of both countries have tried to encourage a peaceful solution to the crisis. On June 18, 2000 an agreement "on the cessation of hostilities" was finally reached and duly signed. Our hearts were filled with joy and we gave the agreement our full support. We thanked God for softening people's hearts and for providing us with a forum for peace. We applaud our peace-loving people, always ready to pray; we thank all those governments and associations who worked so tirelessly to drag the conflict towards a peaceful end and we applaud both governments for accepting the peace deal and facilitating the peace process.
Seek Peace and Follow It
15.We implore the giver of peace, our Lord and God, to make the signed peace deal truly beneficial for our people and country. Peace, if it comes from God, is everlasting but if it is purely human it will be short-lived. The God who loves this country is again offering his peace to us: "Peace be with you" (Jn. 20:19). It is our duty to prepare hearts worthy of his peace. It is good that we ask ourselves why the peace of the past faded so quickly. Perhaps we did not prepare our hearts for it. Perhaps we did not thank God sincerely enough for it. Oh! People of Eritrea, seek Peace and follow its path!
We truly believe that neither the people nor the government of Eritrea wanted this devastating war. If there is anything we want to tell our people and the government it is this: let us use and choose words and deeds that invite and stimulate peace.
16.Following the end of this war there will be a need to develop a universal spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. Our Christian tradition tells us that only the person who forgives will eventually triumph. In other words, the winner is the one who is capable of mercy/forgiveness (cf. Mt 5:7). In the mass media and in all our dealings we now need to portray messages of reconciliation and forgiveness. Further expressions of threat and intimidation will only destroy the progress so far made during the current peace process. Our people have the right not only to desire but also to hear words of hope and messages of solace. We are conscious that the people who live near the border are those most affected by this war. If things go as expected they should soon be able to return to their homes. The words of President Isaias Afewerki are appropriate if we are to be in a position to dress and heal the deep wounds caused by so much destruction and hate, and to see through the formal process of the demarcation of the border successfully: "This closes the chapter of the conflict and war (hate)... forgetting the past, we look to a future of peace with hope for our two peoples" (At Algiers, Dec. 13, 2001). To make this practicable, a tangible programme of cross-border reconciliation initiatives should be set up and should mediate between the peoples most immediately involved. This is the responsibility the government, religious leaders and elders of both countries should carry out. We encourage all involved to do their best so that the peace process may reach ultimate success the sooner. As St Paul puts it: "Finally, brothers, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you" (2 Cor 13:11).
17.The reconciliation which we have spoken about extends not only to our enemies but also to ourselves. We will need to evaluate how we have used our opportunities. Since human nature is flawed we need to strike the right balance.
Our society needs to coordinate a thorough-going programme of reconciliation and forgiveness - no effort should be spared in this enterprise and every view-point should be represented. If the slogan "one people - one heart" is to become a reality, we must reject intentionally divisive terminology along with an "us and them" mentality. Again we insist on the importance for our society of internal reconciliation and unity. To ignore this call is for the country to court disaster: "Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house" (Lk 11:17; cf. Mt 12:25)
18.As we enter the antechamber of peace we are faced with many fresh challenges and much hard work. In effect no-one in the country has been left untouched by the socio-economic crisis. The Church pledges its support to those who will be working to reconstitute our people's lives. At the same time we appeal to and encourage the world humanitarian community to offer and accelerate their support even more generously so that the people may sooner be able to stand on their own two feet and life may begin again. Today many NGOs and UN peacekeeping missions are making their way into the country. We appeal to our people and government to offer their full support so that the peace plan may speedily achieve its aims. We also appeal to all the NGOs and humanitarian relief agencies to do their best to help the needy of the country. At this moment in time - and given the grave humanitarian emergency that faces us - it would be senseless to adhere blindly to the albeit admirable principle of self-reliance. The clock is running and the country's needs are many and great. If both "giver" and "receiver" act with due sensitivity, there is no reason why "dependency" should ever become an issue in Eritrea.
19.If all goes well we should soon be looking forward to the start of military demobilization when thousands of soldiers will be returning to society and to employment as well as to the bosoms of their families and friends. We offer them our warmest welcome. We are aware of the conditions under which they have had to live over the past few years. We cannot ignore the human and spiritual wounds inflicted upon them. Their successful reinsertion into civil society will require much in the way of patience and hard work. It goes without saying that specific rehabilitation programmes along with secure financial assistance packages will become necessary. To accompany these we also foresee a need for complimentary programmes to encourage spiritual and moral wholeness and psychological integrity.
Those children of ours who, because of this war, have been crippled or maimed will require particular help if they are once again to become confident members of society.
As with the physically challenged, special care will be required for the families of those who have been killed during the war. Such help should also take into account the social, economic and political changes that have occurred since these events took place and they should be continued for as long as they may be needed.
20.The war deaths constitute an unfillable gap in the lives of those they have left behind. We understand that pain and empathise with it but empathy and sympathy are not enough. We are duty bound to back up our words of consolation with practical help which most usefully might take the form of financial security on the one hand and social stability on the other i.e. by doing our utmost to ensure that we shall never go to war again. The death of these precious children of ours must not be seen to have been in vain.
21.In line with the peace accord, troops are re-deploying at some distance from the front line. This move impacts directly on the towns and villages that take them in and has caused a serious decline in moral standards: the engendering of a "military ethic" among civilians, the increased incidence of HIV/AIDS among both populations, the decline in general moral behaviour and the overall breakdown of traditional social structures. To ignore this alarming state of affairs would be to delude ourselves. We, therefore, recommend that intensive seminars on "social behaviour" be offered to troops and people alike. If a solution is to be found, it is clear that all sectors of society must be included in the process.
22.It is in family life that the most dramatic effects of the war are felt. Loved ones stay away for lengthy periods of time, have huge distances to travel and have little chance to influence family affairs. More frequent and lengthier visits should be encouraged. The need for proper and on-going guidance in moral matters and the option of counselling for problems of loneliness, isolation and other personal challenges also require viable solutions. We abhor certain methods of military discipline because in the long run ruthlessness can only breed ruthlessness. As far as religion is concerned we recommend that troops be allowed freedom of conscience and worship in line with military regulations and respectful of the sensibilities of other soldiers. We are convinced that the adoption of military chaplains - of all faiths - would go a long way towards the solving of many of the above problems as well as checking the alarming spread of sects among the military.
Our Future Plans
23.The teaching of the Church and, more specifically, the documents of Vatican II maintain that the human person is not only the pivot of creation but also the lens through which our world should be viewed (Gaudium et Spes, art. 12). we have been created in God's image (cf. Gn 1:26) and have been chosen as the head and steward of creation (The Church in the Modern World, art. 12). The main consequence of this view is the belief that creation exists for our benefit. This belief may then be further extended to include the existence of the nation, including the Eritrean nation. The nation exists to serve people, not people to serve the nation. To ignore this truth is to risk making people slaves of economic institutions and social structures instead of the other way round.
24.How, then, are we to avoid making ourselves slaves? We must build a just society based on a fair constitution. This is no easy task. It is a process that has a beginning but whose end is unclear because it is a process that must be subjected to constant change.
A Constitution embodies the law of the nation. It is a covenant entered into by both the people and the government that is to administer it. It is also a device by means of which the people are able to control the administrative authorities. Such a Constitution does not exist for its own sake but rather as a structure to promote the just and truthful administration of society and to ensure unity and equality within that same society. By extension it also provides a solid base for true development.
What, then, are the key criteria upon which we may seek to establish a just society based on a fair constitution?
a.Plenary humanism in development: the term development refers to more than economic growth. Just and transparent development involves all the people and touches upon all aspects of human life. It sometimes appears that self-contained humanism (i.e. where the Divine is of no account) succeeds in its aims, even that it is able to guide the world and foster its development. This, however, is just a temporary gain since in the long run people will, having no outside standard to measure themselves against, turn against other people. Ultimately a world without God makes humanity inhumane ("The Development of Peoples," 14/24).
b.Social justice and issues of Human Rights are the fundamental identifying factors of a just society. We need to be treated justly i.e. as individuals and as citizens earning our living through honest labour. The less privileged in society have as much right to respect as the leaders of society. The guaranteeing of a just wage is both a right and a duty. God himself warns us not to ignore this duty: "Woe to him who builds his house on wrong, his terraces on injustice, who works his neighbour without pay, and gives him no wages" (Jer 22:13). God is on the side of the oppressed, so let us not oppress in turn. "For I know the Lord will secure justice for the needy, their rights for the poor" (Ps 140:13). To those then who, for whatever reason, quit their job just and proper remuneration must also be made.
c.Eritrean society has traditionally held the exercise of law and the demands of rights and duties in high esteem. These were laws which permeated every aspect of life and which were crafted over the cen¬turies by the people who lived by them. Along with these laws the values of hard work, cooperation and solidarity were ever present. All of this belongs to our tradition. It was not imitated nor imposed upon us from outside. We need to show by our words and our deeds that this tradition has not been uprooted; that our society still respects those who work hard and those who offer their service for the good of all; that there is no agenda that will allow the emergence of "privileged" or "unprivileged" classes of citizens; and that jobs and responsibilities are distributed according to criteria of competence rather than convenience.
25.Equality and unity are enhanced rather than threatened by pluralism. Equality in the fields of justice, law, rights, duties and economic and social opportunity make for a stable and well-ordered society. Freedom and democracy cannot exist without this foundation. Given that freedom is ultimately a gift from God, we would like to share some further thoughts on the kind of freedom we are talking about:
a.Freedom of Religion: This freedom emanates from the very nature and identity of humanity itself (Pacem in Terris, John XXIII, art. 11, 1963). Freedom of religion gives rise to other rights as well: to freely express one's ideas and beliefs, to teach, to publish, to associate, freedom from interference from others (even the government) on matters of belief and religion (Pacem in Terris, arts. 12-13). Today there seems to be a serious misunderstanding about the role of Religion in society i.e. as at worst a lie and at best divisive, destructive, anti-development and anti-women. We take this opportunity to strongly reprimand those who seek to obstruct religious development and expression or indeed who create bad feeling and division in the name of religion.
b.Freedom of Speech and the Press: In order to convey and receive the message of the truth, freedom of expression (speech and the Press) is necessary. This right is acknowledged the world over and is a natural consequence of the rights of freedom of conscience and thought. Truth, transparency, and freedom are corner-stones of a truly democratic society and it is the right of all citizens to be able to search for the truth and to express their feelings and opinions.
c.Basic human rights are not only part of a mature and healthy democracy but are also essential to its establishment. In practical terms this means that the individual has a number of rights and moral duties in a democracy: to be free to state one's views, express one's culture and look for the truth; to receive education; to worship privately and publicly; to work, engage in research and to benefit from both; and to participate fully in the political life of the state ("Peace and Development,"p.12). It is the State's job to protect these basic rights since they are of benefit to the whole of society.
d.Preparation for elections: Official government sources have indicated that by the end of this year elections will be held. This is good news and we urge the government to see it through. How were the preparations for the 1993 referendum handled? What preparations are in hand now? Let us enter these elections with the same open¬ness of spirit and calm efficiency as we did for the referendum.
e.Where there is a just Constitution there will be an effective legal system. Though ten years ago we may have lacked sufficient prepared personnel, that should not be the case today. Society in Eritrea respects the law so it should not be difficult to find suitable candidates at home. It is an indisputable fact that the government of Eritrea works and cares for its people. Nonetheless, with the passing of time certain bad habits develop. Care must be taken to keep our legal system free from suspicion. It is ultimately for the government's good that there be an institution of this kind to point out where mistakes have been made.
f.The lack of a trustworthy legal system engenders corruption. We are of the opinion that it will be very difficult to absolve ourselves from charges of corruption. Wherever there are human beings, there are also mistakes. Human beings in Eritrea are much the same as human beings elsewhere on the planet. Care should therefore be taken to ensure that corruption does not become endemic either now or in the future. As the saying goes, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Our only real control is an effective legal system. It should be borne in mind that a lack of accountability will surely wreck society.
"The family" is the proper context wherein we find the sure foundation and marked identity of Eritrean society. If a society is strong and united it is because it promotes strong and united "families." We therefore need to treat the family well since it is our most precious possession and the wellspring and hope of our society. There can be no doubt that some national programmes (summer camps, national service, etc.,) are seriously - negatively - affecting the family. The above mentioned programmes may well benefit the country but why harm one to benefit the other? Could these programmes not be run so that that they may be of benefit to our families as well? The feature that causes the most damage to family life is physical separation: wife/husband, parents/children, plus the mixing of genders. Isolation and lone¬liness create a disorderly life-style: responsibilities are abandoned, illegal conjugal relations occur, mistakes are covered up, divorce rates soar, one parent families increase as do the numbers of teenage parents, and marriage contracts are drained of life. We need to fix these problems before the "family" loses its identity completely. It is public knowledge that the families both of the displaced (IDPs) and of those engaged in national service find themselves in grave psychological and financial difficulties. When a family's bread-winner is sent for service or when youth from the rural areas are taken for service of one kind or another proper provision should be made for the financial well-being of those left behind. If the family falls apart while one or more of its members is away serving the country, what has been gained?
27.Inflation is already a curse in itself, but when it is coupled with unemployment and inadequate pay scales, it becomes a monster. The cost of living in Eritrea is getting out of hand and matters are not helped when military or other forms of national service deprive fami¬lies of their main - sometimes their only - means of income. Many families face destitution and complaints are rife. This state of affairs requires immediate attention. In traditional society begging was considered shameful but today it is becoming increasingly visible - among civil as well as "service" society. In conscience, we need to redress the balance for all those who are in need and, we appeal to our nation and our government to take the steps necessary to put things right.
28.The status of women in our society is another issue that requires attention. Much is said, even done, regarding questions of their rights, equality and quality of life but not all of it is necessarily for their benefit. As a society we have gone to the extreme. During the past thirty years women have borne arms for the country but war and armed conflict are not ideals to cherish - even less so as far as women, society's source of mercy and life, are concerned.
The problems of the past, confronted as they were with such great determination, are not to be looked at with nostalgia nor to be wished forever again ever. Rather they should remain sad memories of courage and determination from which we might learn.
Life, from its very beginning, involves guardianship-stewardship and this is especially true in the context of women. In woman the values of law, compassion and peace have a very special place. As mother, she is at the core of the family - and thus of the whole of society - and as wife she embodies the same respect, dignity and responsibility as her children and family. In short, the mother figure is the nation. When the sacred scriptures say: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28), perhaps we are being told that the rest of society needs to follow the example of women rather than squeezing her into some artificial position.
Today, woman - married or consecrated to the works of God by religious vows - can develop her special gifts, offer her contribution and influence society positively. This is a welcomed trend in our history whereby woman can fully participate in the political, economic, formative and religious life of society, nationally and internationally. It is indeed an advantage to all. This is a right that needs to be encouraged and developed further. Yet, her social responsibilities and her vocation to family life, the wellspring of all development, should not be relegated to second place. Her vocation is sublime and unparalleled (cf. Woman a Teacher of Peace, John Paul II, art. 6, Dec. 8, 1994).
Nowadays we cannot fail to notice that propaganda purportedly promoting the principle of social and political equality is becoming more harmful than advantageous to women. We highly endorse the recommendation that women from their earliest years of childhood should have, like men, equal access to education and social opportunity, to parity in employment and salary. However, it is not equality of hardship and disgrace that she needs but equality of dignity and rights.
For this reason, the Church - commissioned to advocate the dignity and uniqueness of all people and to do all it can so that justice and peace may prevail - was and is actively involved in the holistic promotion of women and their rights ensuring that they are respected and developed properly. We guarantee that the Church will continue in this commission in the future.
The programme known as "coordinated instruction," through which the Ministry of Education permitted religious knowledge to be taught in public schools was very beneficial. No explanation was given when this wholesome programme was terminated. We believe that it should be reinstated and that new teachers, methods and material should be selected and prepared. Those responsible in the Church for this activity are ready to begin discussions on this matter with the Ministry of Education at their earliest convenience.
We feel that it is our duty to ask the following vital questions: What are our youth thinking and saying? How do they view their country? Do they trust the administrative system? Does the country's economic development and social and religious stability give them cause for hope? If hope has evaporated, then they have no future to look to at home and it is only logical that they will look for solutions elsewhere. They will not think twice about abandoning their mother country and looking for a better future abroad. A nation that is unable to harness the potential of its youth is a country that is doomed to instability. Indeed its very existence as a country at all will be put into question. We believe that we the leaders, both civic and religious, have a great responsibility to bear. There is no point in just asking the question, "why are our youth choosing to go abroad?" - for no-one leaves a country of milk and honey to seek another country offering the same opportunities. If one's homeland is a place of peace, jobs and freedom of expression there is no reason to leave it to suffer hardship, loneliness and exile in an effort to look for opportunity elsewhere.
30.We expect that our youth will soon be returning to us and they will be burdened with grim memories of war. Those who do come back will be scarred physically, mentally, morally and spiritually. They have been wounded by war and the propaganda of war. These wounds will need time to heal and society must provide a healing environment. In the war zone the individual has no time to think, speak or dream freely. He is a victim and, upon his return, is in no position to take on the full mantle of responsibility back in society. In the first place he needs to be eased back into civilian life, gradually taking up gainful employment and reasserting his desire to participate fully once again in the life of the society to which he belongs. He also needs to be protected from feelings of desperation, nihilism and other negative tendencies in society. Our recommendation is that their integration into society be carefully and well studied: their economic, religious, and social lives should be meticulously studied and supported. This is a huge task that should not be left to the government alone. All parties - NGOs, Religious groups etc. - should be asked to participate in this important enterprise.
We consider that the psychological and moral wounds of the returning service personnel are particularly grave. We suggest therefore that a system for healing these wounds should be devised. Use of both the media and extensive seminars should be encouraged so that the youth may share their experiences and help heal each other's wounds.
31.With the first official recognition of the existence of the devastating disease known as HIV/AIDS in our midst, the official response was - and still is - centred around an extensive promotion of the use of the condom. The fact remains, however, that HIV/AIDS is mushrooming. The government promotion programme seems to have done little except boost the sale of and spread the use of the condom. The failure of this first programme resulted in the introduction of a new slogan, "one with one partner only". The message of this slogan is ambiguous: What are its objectives? Does this refer to the context of matrimony? What exactly is being said to the youth? What is the relationship between sex and marriage, between sex and pregnancy, between pregnancy and marriage? What are the legal and cultural consequences of events presaged by the use of the condom? Are sexual relationships to be evaluated in terms of personal choice only? What are the consequences for society and traditional structures? How are relatively unformed teenagers to deal with this issue? What is the role of marriage in society? Does society actually condone the use of condoms and free but "safe" sex? What about the religious dimen¬sion? What about the role of the conscience in the life of the individual? If fear of contracting HIV/AIDS is the only reason for staying with one partner what does that say about the value of intimate human relationships? How long can relationships - ultimately based on fear - be expected to last? Should they last?
What needs to be done, we believe, is for religious leaders and educational institutions to pool their efforts and to re-establish a moral basis for behaviour among the youth. In short to reawaken their faith in God and their sense of responsibility towards society. Such a programme would include a re-introduction to the values and dignity of marriage, the desirability of abstinence and virginity before marriage and the pivotal value of family life. Every means at our disposal should be employed to carry out this far-reaching awareness campaign.
Similarly, involving the minds and hearts of our youth in activities such as sports, education, arts, work, service, and good deeds both moral and spiritual will help distract them from damaging behaviour and incidental sexual relations.
Our newspapers, for the most part, encourage promiscuity and infidelity when they write on this issue. What we need is mature, informed, corrective and educational media contributions if we are to help our youth.
The country's Religious and Faith communities should form their own committee to deal with the HIV/AIDS issue. A national coordinating committee should be formed as well to enhance the sharing of experiences. We strongly support the formation a trauma centre where HIV-AIDS patients could be cared for and those with psychological illnesses could be counselled.
32.Jesus as the "Christ" i.e. the one sent by the Father began his ministry on earth with the following words: "...the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offence at me" (Mt 11:4-6)
The Catholic Church, founded by Christ, accomplishes its mission by using the words of Jesus himself and approaches those "for creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom 8:19-21).
The Church strives to put the power of salvation and grace - as she received it from Christ and receives guidance from the Holy Spirit - at the service of all (The Church in the Modern World, 2:10). The grace of freedom and salvation can only be attained through repentance and the acceptance of the mercy of God. Reconciliation with God and reconciliation with our fellow human beings is likewise dependent on these same two prerequisites. Over the past three years, the Catholic Church throughout the world has been using all her energies to make such reconciliation a reality focusing her efforts on her preparation for the celebration of the Jubilee Year (2000). During this important world event the message of reconciliation, penance, mercy and salvation were repeatedly proclaimed (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, John Paul II, 14 -1994).
In a jubilee three things take place:
Concomitantly, it is a time for correcting the mistakes of the past in a spirit of repentance and a time for giving thanks to God for the blessings of both the past and the present. It is a time when people are called to evaluate their current situation against the plan and will of God and to amend whatever might need amending. It is also a time to look forward to the future, to renew our covenant with God and to move on to meet the new horizons of our faith.
The Past Christian journey
"I give thanks to my God always on your account for the Grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you" (1 Cor 1:4-6).
Our prophetic and apostolic Christian roots go back to St Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, who sent St Frumentius, the revealer of light, who brought us the Gospel when we were still gentiles. St Justino de Jacobis gave new life and vigour to our Christianity for 22 years. He came at a time when we needed re-awakening and was astute enough to see the value of and thus to work with our ancient traditions, values and customs. We give thanks to God who provided us with such a loving and hard-working apostle. We remember with great admiration the long list of bishops, priests, monks, sisters and dedicated lay faithful who received the teaching and testimonies of faith and life and with great zeal and competence passed them on to us.
Today we, too, want to move on, renewed in spirit and bolstered by the example of St Justino de Jacobis. In particular we urge our Priests and Religious to collaborate with our people in true charity and humility. It is our mission and calling to proclaim the living and liberating message of the Good News and to incarnate it in the daily lives of our people.
It is fitting for us to give thanks to God, who enabled our "little flock" (Lk 12:32) offer a significant Catholic contribution to life and development in Eritrea over many years as witnesses to the Gospel and its redeeming message.
The Situation Today
34.It is timely and correct for us all to ask where - with our heritage of proper fear of God, deep spirituality, unique history - we have reached in our journey towards God today. It is clear to all that the maintaining of a distinctive faith identity as well as viable structures reaches back into our historical past and has been handed on faithfully from age to age. This achievement is due no small part to both the strength of our formation and the dedication of the faithful.
We cannot fail to notice that nowadays, because of the introduction of new customs and constantly changing social structures, our courage in championing Gospel values has diminished and with it the possibility of acting as "light" and "salt" within society. Behaviour and attitudes which are completely alien to our traditional Christian ethos are today becoming both normal and acceptable:
In order to clarify our mission and vocation, and for the Christian faithful to be liberated from confusing and ever-changing attitudes - returning instead to faithfulness and courageous Christian witness - we will need to formulate a well structured and firm national pastoral plan which we will then need to implement together.
In regard to the institution of Matrimony, let us not forget that we belong to a tradition that, locally, has become proverbial, "like the marriage of Catholics." It is a tradition to which we must continually return. We do have something to say about HIV/AIDS, about chastity before marriage, about abstinence, about fidelity and perseverance within marriage, and about a society that thrives on trust. We have first to understand these values ourselves and then to bear witness to them by both our words and our example. We are not to be swayed by the whims, fads or fashions of the moment.
We remind our Catholic faithful that it is their calling and vocation to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, and to become the light to the world.
It is our duty to engage with other Christian churches with love and respect and to pray together cognizant of our distinctive identities. This distinctiveness is not an instrument of division but of brotherhood and negates any claim that "there is no need of saying `my church - your church', let everything just be one" - a claim which would only lead to unnecessary confusion and an even greater split. The faithful are reminded not to lose sight of this expression of unity in diversity.
You need to show compassion and sympathy to those who consider the Faith as "backwardness" or "an archaic tradition" and who pretend to live in a Godless world. Be always ready to show them the reason for your hope and faith (cf. 1 Pt 3:15) with gentleness and rever¬ence, without fear or shame. We are thus exhorting you to be true witnesses and that you are right to be different when you stay away from all mischief, oppression, lies, theft, corruption, bribery, avarice, adultery, drunkenness, licentiousness, and egotism.
Embracing the Values of the Gospel
35.Our society - traditionally motivated by and publicly expressive of its healthy fear of God - still needs to be renewed by the spirit of the Gospel so that creeping "paganism" may not overtake it by stealth (loss of enthusiasm or interest in the faith). This new call to Evangelization is not only aimed at proclaiming the Good News to those who have never heard it before but also to those who have heard it, yet are led astray by the behaviour and attitudes encountered in the contemporary world in general and our society in particular. For this reason we are now called to re-evangelize our own society.
In this new age we Christians need to arm ourselves with the new armaments of God and proceed on our journey with courage as true witnesses of Christ. Our father, St Justino de Jacobis, is a unique example for us of the application of creativity to the task of presenting the Gospel, collaborating with others and undertaking difficult tasks. We are aware that, despite all the difficulties and challenges of his time, he prepared books, formed very spiritual and hard-working priests and catechists and involved lay people in the field of Evangelization. We exhort all of you to take up with enthusiasm the challenge we now face in this urgent task.
Following the example of St Justino our priests and religious, need to grow alongside our people sharing their daily problems and challenges. Ultimately we would like to turn our world on its head and draw together in a consistent way what we think, what we say and how we live.
Our first Pastoral Plan will have as its priority an intensive programme of Christian formation for our people. Primarily it will be aimed at the following groups of people:
The Future Journey of Our Church
The jubilee we have just celebrated has given us an opportunity to reflect on our situation -- past and present - and helped us clarify our spiritual attitudes and prepare for the journey that lies ahead of us in the future. In doing this we are called on to strengthen our Christian spirituality through prayer, witness, and service.
The Church as the Family of God
The local Catholic Church in Eritrea is part of the Universal Church and functions as a small "family of God". This portmanteau concept covers a range of specific meanings and purposes: solidarity, mutual love, unity, harmony, fraternity, acceptance, collaboration cooperation, confidence, mutual trust and compassion. It also combines references to the deep traditional roots of the family unit in Eritrea and the style of Christianity as expressed in the African context - be those Gospel values home-grown or adapted from abroad. Finally it incorporates a call to faithfulness, on-going renewal and continuity. It is our intention not only that these values be strengthened and developed but also that their validity be guaranteed.
In recent times this spirit has been most evident in the way that Eritrean deportees from Ethiopia and returnees from the Sudan were welcomed home. In this kind of climate peace, reconciliation, truth and love will naturally prosper. If we are to succeed in becoming truly a family of God these are the signs that we must manifest. There can be no doubt that the Church has the potential to offer a substantial contribution to the development of local society but this will only come about if we are able to turn ourselves into a spiritually healthy and committed family of God. To this end we must encourage serious dialogue, understanding and trust.
With diligence and hard work a spirit of harmony and unity may prevail in our churches. Similarly we look forward to stronger links with our Sister Churches through increased activity in the ecumenical sphere and with our Muslim brothers through inter-faith dialogue. As children of the same Father it is only right that attitudes of fraternity, understanding and agreement unite us and it is the firm desire of the Catholic Church that deeds as well as words will deepen these relationships.
As we encourage a spirit of collaboration, understanding and tolerance in the religious sphere we extend the same invitation to leaders in the civil, political and governmental spheres. We strongly urge our government officials and political leaders to develop a spirit of dialogue and sharing among themselves, between themselves and the general public, with other parties and with Churches and spiritual leaders so that our nation may truly feel itself to be one family.
Witness and Prayer
38.The Catholic Church must be recognizable and thus strengthened by clear Christian witness and deep prayer. Its members are called to become the "salt of the earth and the light of the world" (cf. Mt 5:15-16). Conscious as we are of our calling as witnesses, the fact remains that in our lives both individual and social there are signs of counter witness.
Over the last ten or so years Eritrean society has undergone many changes. In the main, these changes have had negative results: traditional social structures are being abandoned, the institution of marriage is rapidly losing its social and religious significance, abortion and divorce are becoming common-place and the practice of witchcraft is on the increase. So far the Church has had little or nothing to say in response. Such inaction is shameful especially since Catholic believers claim to be steeped in the Christian tradition, to be enlightened by the person and teachings of Christ and to share the blessings of the Eucharistic mystery. The time has come for us to take stock of our situation and make a radical examination of conscience. We must ask ourselves how we have reacted to the precepts of the Gospel, the teachings of the Church and to the thrust of our Christian spirituality. We need conversion. The first step is to return to the practice of regular prayer. The second is to put into practice the most fundamental law of Christian life - namely love of God and neighbour (cf. Mk 12:30-31; Jn 13:34; 1 Cor 13). Prayer and thanksgiving make up the essence of our response to the God who revealed himself to us in Christ. Prayer involves fo¬cusing oneself, heart and soul, on God - in other words believing and proclaiming that he is the source, purpose, support and sustenance of life. Jesus insists that we pray (cf. Mk 11:24; Mt 7:7-11; Lk 9-13) as he did himself - praying during the most critical moments of life, conversing with the Father through prayer (cf. Lk 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18; Lk 10:21) sometimes in thanks and blessing (cf. Mt 11:25-27; Lk 10:21-22) and at other times in appeal (cf. Mk 14:33-36; 5:7-8). Christian life without prayer is unthinkable. It is intrinsically connected with God and with the vocation to holiness within God's larger plan for a new Evangelization of society. This prayer is made real through the liturgy in general and through participation in the Eucharist and the prayers of the Church's Tradition in particular. The faithful in our parish communities - including groups of families - need to develop their own spirit of prayer.
A Serving Church
39."In a country that is going through an important change and beginning a new historical chapter we, as Church, take on a mission of service to which we are irrevocably tied by the gospel of Christ" (Peace and Development, p. 16). A Church that wants to bear witness to its faith validly can only do so through her service. Like the deacons of the New Testament (cf. Acts 6:1-7), the Church has an obligation to serve the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the victims of war and AIDS. And as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples so we are called to serve one another. Let those in the family - husband, wife, children and parents - practice mutual service with love and joy so that in this way authentic service may be rendered in the church and in society.
This kind of service, properly planned and using suitable means, obliges us to fulfill our social responsibilities. The service we render in the form of work - as the Old and New Testaments indicate - is both a vocation and a mission and forms part of our vocation as human beings (cf. Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55; Hos 20:9; 2 Thes 3:6-12). To become true blessings we need to develop a proper attitude towards work so that we may better ourselves, develop a self-reliant Church and improve the world to which we belong.
40.As we conclude our letter we would like to offer a word of advice to all people of good will in this country: We need to learn from our past history and journey and we need to develop a true spirit of peace, reconciliation, harmony and collaboration now and in the future. We strongly recommend that an extra effort be made to create a society wherein all its members may find tranquility, comfort, stability and safety; wherein our children and youth may grow up in an atmosphere of peace; wherein adults may find fulfillment in work and joy in their families; and wherein our elders may find shelter and warmth in their twilight years.
We place these plans under the protection and the guidance of God for only through his wisdom may people learn to respect their broth¬ers and sisters and guide them in the ways of peace.
To the Catholic Faithful
We appeal to you who are under our particular pastoral care, "so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Pt 2:9), "make every effort to supplement your faith with virtues, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love" (2 Pt 1:5-7). In this way, by strengthening yourselves, you can make a positive contribution in the unfolding society to which you belong and bear witness to the Gospel in which you are steeped.
To the Catholic Families
We appeal to you as "families" to become "domestic churches" and to be led by the light of the Holy Spirit and thus to be a source of light to others. May you find strength and courage in your faithfulness to the covenant of our Faith and inspiration in the example of the mutual care and love of the Holy Family in Nazareth.
To the Catholic Youth
To you, our youth, we say this: As Simon, in embracing Jesus, was able to glimpse the bright future contained in his promise of salvation so we too see ourselves, our future and our hope reflected in you. "Let no one have contempt for your youth" (1 Tm 4:12). Be strong in your faith but first find it and embrace it. "You will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching you have followed" (1 Tm 4:6).
To the Clergy
To you clergy, our primary collaborators in the pastoral care of our flock, we acknowledge your perseverance, service and commitment. We assure you that "when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive an unfading crown of glory" (1 Pt 5:4) and recommend you to the Lord's care. We appeal to you to remain firm in your vocation of priestly service. To you seminarians we also recommend you to God's care and appeal to you to follow your vocations conscientiously bathed in the light of God so that one day soon you may worthily take up the baton of committed service among his people.
To Those in Religious Life
To you who have consecrated your lives to make life itself holy and to bring lost sheep back into the fold, who - for the sake of God's glory and everlasting Kingdom - live by the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedience, and chastity, we urge you to continue living your consecrated life generously and fully, with your torches lit, your lamps brightly illuminating both the Church and the society to which you belong and may your lives be a spotless example to others.
May Our Lady continue to intercede for us with her Son so that our people may soon find true and lasting peace.
The LORD bless you and keep you!The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!(Num 6:24-26).