Places of worship have become the latest target for the forced roundup of Eritrean teenagers to serve as soldiers
Eritrean soldiers wait to cross the border to watch the border reopening ceremony with Ethiopians as two land border crossing points between the countries were reopened for the first time in 20 years in Serha, Eritrea on 11 September 2018 (Photo: AFP)
Places of worship have become the latest target for the forced roundup of Eritrean teenagers to serve as soldiers, in what clerics describe as a deteriorating situation.
For two years, young people aged 15 and 16 have been removed from towns and villages. Some find themselves on the front lines of the war in Ethiopia’s northern state of Tigray, the sources say.
“A few weeks ago (Eritrea) resumed the confiscation of schools run and owned by the Catholic Church. (As if) that was not enough, now there are roundups of young boys and girls as young as 16 …for endless compulsory military service,” said Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean-born Catholic priest who works with migrants, on September 7.
“They are doing it in places of worship as happened last Sunday (September 4) in the eparchy of Segheneity, in the village of Akrur at the Catholic parish of Medhanie Alem,” he said.
The priest said soldiers arrived during mass and surrounded the church to prevent anyone from escaping. They then forcibly took the teenagers, including all the choir boys in their uniforms, the priest said, pointing to photographs widely circulated on social media.
“These young people who end up in military training camps and then (would) be sent as slaughter fodder in the ongoing wars in the region, especially in neighboring Ethiopia,” Father Zerai said.
He warned that if the regime continued to loot places of worship, there was a risk that young people – fearing forced recruitment – would abandon churches.
“The sacred right of every believer to go to church to pray without being persecuted by the army or the police in his country is a fundamental right of every human being,” the priest said.
For 20 years, the government of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has implemented a national service program for all citizens between the ages of 17 and 55.
According to Human Rights Watch, many Eritreans have spent their entire lives in government service, either military or civilian. Many of those recruited come straight from secondary schools, according to the human rights organization.
Forced recruitment has driven many young people aged 18 to 24 to flee the country, including making the dangerous journey across the desert and the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
The Eritrean government has ignored calls from the international community to respect human rights.
“Every day people continue to run away from the government’s forced recruitment and make these journeys through the desert. The government doesn’t care. It has nothing to lose,” said an Eritrean church source who could not be named for security reasons.