Asmara, Eritrea, Dec 4, 2012 / 12:25 am (CNA).- The Eritrean government’s practice of forced military conscription means that seminarians and other church workers are being forced into the army, causing a personnel shortage for the Catholic Church.
A source close to the local Church told the charity Aid to the Church in Need that the compulsory military service is “bleeding the Church in Eritrea to death.”
The source, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals, said the government “exaggerates the danger of war, as a pretext to keep people in military service.” The source said the atmosphere of imminent war helps “keep people in line.”
The communist government, which does not set a fixed period for military service, has kept many Church workers and seminarians in military service for more than 15 years in some cases. The government “even wants to arm priests,” the source said.
“In general, military service has led to a situation where there is a shortage of qualified workers in many professions – not just in the Church, the source added.
The government has encouraged all Eritreans to own weapons, even priests and housewives. National service is required for all male and female citizens beginning at age 16. Many people serve as indentured laborers to build roads or to work in foreign-run mines.
Thousands avoid military service by fleeing the country each year. Eritrea’s national soccer team recently defected while on a visit to Uganda, in part because of the compulsory military service, Radio France Internationale says.
Over 2,000 Christians are among those who have refused military service and are imprisoned for their beliefs. Most of the detained Christians are members of non-recognized churches in a country where only four religions are formally recognized: the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Islam.
Catholic Church activities are also burdened by a 1995 decree that restricts social and welfare projects to the state. The government has unsuccessfully attempted to seize Catholic schools and other projects.
“The government wants us to restrict ourselves to the church and vestry,” Aid to the Church in Need’s source said.
Eritrea became independent from neighboring Ethiopia in 1993 after 30 years of conflict. It has about 5.2 million people, almost half of whom are Christian. Most of the Christian population is Orthodox, while Catholics make up about four percent of the total population.