Church Group Assists as Crisis Deepens in Eritrea

( [email protected] ) Mar 27, 2009 01:00 PM EDT

Eritrea is on the brink of famine and thousands of people are flooding across its borders to escape starvation and persecution, reports an international pastoral aid organization of the Catholic Church.

Aid to the Church in Need is rushing emergency support to the region amid reports that the east African country’s already devastated economy is hitting a new low.

The Catholic aid agency, which helps persecuted and other suffering Christians, has given tens of thousands of dollars in response to new evidence showing that the unfolding nightmare in Eritrea is creating a humanitarian crisis across the Horn of Africa as people flee the country desperate for food and shelter.

It comes as reports from Western governments and human rights organizations point to an economic meltdown made worse by ever-tightening controls and human rights abuses against so-called dissidents, especially religious groups.

With the U.S. State Department recently issuing an emergency report on Eritrea, sources in the region describe the country as in the grip of a food crisis – with the government stopping people from accessing the most basic of supplies.

Reports by authors whose names cannot be revealed for security reasons say the authorities have blocked the transfer of food from one region of the country to another, banned open-air markets selling maize, barley and other grains, and even conducted house-to-house searches for "illegally-obtained" produce.

Underlining the severity of failed harvests caused by worsening droughts, one report received by ACN states: “I would confidently say that Eritrea is on its knees in terms of food production.”

Accusing the government of refusing desperately-needed outside help, the report adds, “This is turning out to be the destruction and complete isolation of the country.”

As Eritrea’s southerly neighbor, Ethiopia, grapples with the influx of thousands of refugees who have risked death to escape, ACN said it had received SOS urgent appeals for food, clothing and shelter.

Among those receiving ACN’s help are nearly 20,000 refugees spread across two camps in northern Ethiopia. Key to the work is a pick-up truck needed to transfer supplies through mountainous terrain to the refugee camps.

“We can only begin to imagine the nightmare that is unfolding in Eritrea – it seems only history will be able to tell the full story of what the people have gone through," an ACN spokesman said. "They urgently need our prayers and support.”

Aid to the Church in Need said it is increasingly concerned about human rights abuses in Eritrea, especially against Christians.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 Eritrea human rights report released last month, security forces there have used bondage, heat exposure and beatings to torture people arrested for their religious beliefs.

The detainees have reportedly been forced to sign statements denying their faith and have been held in secret metal containers, sometimes underground.

Although the Catholic Church is one of four government-approved religious groups, last year up to a dozen priests and nuns were expelled from Eritrea – in many cases without warning.

Patriarch Antonios, leader of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the country’s largest religious group, was put under house-arrest and in early 2007 Dioskoros Mendefera was announced as his successor in an appointment widely seen as a government set-up.

More recently in June 2008, the government seized property belonging to the Catholic Church after ordering people to evacuate the building. Human rights organizations and religious groups have increasingly spoken out against so-called crimes against humanity carried out by Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki’s regime.

Earlier this month, Afewerki paid host to Omar al-Bashir, president of neighboring Sudan, in an act of defiance after the International Crimes’ Commission issued a warrant for the latter’s arrest on charges of war crimes.