A BRISBANE father-of-three shudders when he thinks of the terror inside Eritrea.
“It is a dictatorship, a brutal dictatorship,” former Eritrean Catholic school teacher Tek Tesfaldet said.
“The country is a big prison. I got out.”
Mr Tesfaldet (pictured) fled Eritrea without a passport 15 years ago, spending time in neighbouring Sudan, before eventually reaching Australia with the help of the United Nations.
His three boys were all born in Australia and the two school-agers attend Catholic schools in Brisbane.
Standing against a repressive government
Mr Tesfaldet considers himself an advocate for Eritrean rights and is part of a worldwide network sharing news as he receives it from inside the one-party state.
Eritrea was once part of Ethiopia. It gained independence in 1993 and has been under the rule of President Isaias Afwerki ever since.
In June the Afwerki government seized 21 Catholic Church-run health centres.
In a letter to the ministry of health, the Church said patients were ordered to go home, and soldiers were deployed to the centres to guard them.
The seizure of the buildings could not happen in a country where the rule of law existed, the letter added.
Country analysts believe the government closure of the health centres is an act of retaliation against the Church for issuing a statement earlier this year calling for reforms to stem the flow of Eritreans fleeing the country.
Only about four or five per cent of the population are Catholic, but the Church bishops have taken a bold role defending human rights and harmony in the country.
A brave Church speaks out
“Most notably, in May 2014, they issued a pastoral letter titled ‘Where is Your Brother?’ that called out the country’s economic, social and political problems, and the mass migration of its young people,” Mr Tesfaldet said.
“Remarkably, there did not appear to have been any reprisals for that.
“In April 2019, the bishops wrote another pastoral letter, with the title: ‘Peace to those Far off and Peace to those Near”, proposing essential governmental reforms and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission for the long-suffering nation.
Eritrea is economically destitute, and the need for continuing humane and efficient delivery of medical services is acute.
“Because many of the clinics are located in rural areas, thousands of mothers and children may be forced to go without healthcare altogether,” Mr Tesfaldet said.
“There are serious concerns that the Catholic clergy and clinic staff could be personally punished in unspeakable ways.”
Mr Tesfaldet estimated in recent years half of all Eritreans had fled their homeland and its repressive regime.
“Political elections, freedom of speech, assembly and the press are non-existent; surveillance, imprisonment, disappearances, and torture of suspected dissidents are routine; religious practice is restricted, and many believers are persecuted,” he said.
Catholics in the country have been invited to prayer and fasting for three weeks for the grace of understanding and co-operation with the local authorities.