"Eritrea hungers for God"
• An interview with Fr Andrzej Halemba of ACN
By Maria Lozano
Q) You have recently been in Eritrea. What is your impression about this country?
A) It was the first time for me, after so many years of trying I got finally the permission to go to Eritrea. Nearly 50% of the population is Christian; the other half would be Muslim. The majority of Christians belong to the Orthodox Church. Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Churches as well Islam are recognized by the state. There are around 150,000 Catholics over there. Definitely you could say that Eritrea is a country which was very much touched by Christianity. The country is marked by Christianity; there are impressive and beautiful churches, impressive towers. But also the spirituality of the people is impressive. They are showing it in their faces and in the clothes that they wear too. You can see women wearing white clothes, which symbolizes the attachment to spirituality, as they bring heaven into mind. Also, even these clothes somehow bring a spiritual atmosphere.
Q) How is life for the Christians there?
A) Despite all the difficulties that they have and that are widely known, we could say that Christianity is surviving in these demanding times. It is worth noting that the Catholic Church is somehow holding her self-sufficiency; she is trying to be self-reliant and run social projects. The Catholic Church is the only religious organization in the country taking care of kindergartens, schools… it is also giving different types of support for women’s promotion, equipping them with some tools to be self-reliant. This is a very remarkable work of the Church because - as everybody knows - many middle-aged men are in the army and for this reason the woman has to take care of the usually large family. We have many families supported only by women practically. The Catholic Church is recognizing this need and is trying to address this problem by improving thorough courses of hygiene, cooking, embroidering, sewing and so on.
Q) What were the most touching moments of the trip?
A) They were many touching moments. If I have to choose one, for me as a priest it was the great determination of the young people - priests and sisters- to learn. Since the internet speed is not high, they have to stay until very late in the night, well after midnight, in order to do their homework, to download files and to prepare the papers for the next day. I saw them working for long, long hours and studying in the night in order to get their licentiate. This is amazing and the same goes to the sisters. It's good to see how many people are interested in being a catechist, in teaching religion. It is not only for them a source of income, a salary – but it is a vocation that they feel.
It is well known that priests are in short supply and cannot be everywhere to celebrate the Mass and for this reason religious sisters take care of the parishes. They prepare people for first communion; they take care of the sick. I remember one old man who was came to them and he seemed to be so familiar with the sisters. He was treated like a grandfather. He was an albino. It was clear that he was sick and had other difficulties, but he felt completely at home with the sisters, which means that they are very close to the people.
It was also very touching to see the sisters running the orphanage. It was beautiful to see how the sisters were treated by the younger and older girls; it was really very nice to see them dancing, teaching and so on.
(Religious sisters looking after orphans in their charge © Aid to the Church in Need)
Q) What is the important point for ACN’s work now?
A) Eritrea hungers for God. I can say this: their determination and spirituality, their hunger for Bibles, this is what is really amazing. They told me people will read anything related to religion. They would like to have it. It's not easy to get it, but when they have it, they will buy it, even if it is very expensive for them. There are many vocations, both for priesthood and religious life. When I visited the minor Seminary I asked the young boys, ‘Why do you want to become a priest?’, and the answers were beautiful. Different answers like: “I want to serve God”, “I want to lead the people” or “I love God and I would like that the others will love God as well”. Of course not all of them will become priests, because sometimes they are alone in this vocation. For instance, one may be the only son in the family and their parents don't like the idea. Others go into military service and they cannot leave. There are other obstacles as well, but one can’t fault their thoughts and ambitions.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 162 languages and 48 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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