Religious Parties Should Be Banned in Eritrea

By Mussie Izaz

Eritrea has two major religions evenly divided among the population. Islam and Christianity have been an integral part of the Eritrean society for many centuries and still are. The lowland is predominantly Islamic and the highlands is mainly a Christian society. Both religious groups had co-existed side-by-side for many centuries until the advent of the Ethiopian era. Prior to that there was virtually no friction between the two religious groups and each group practiced its religious rights unhindered. And during the Italian colonialism there was no visible division between Moslems and Christians and the cooperation continued among the two groups. Italians treated both religious groups equally and enforced their colonial rules on both sides with no special preference of either groups. However, while the Italians ruled and dominated most of the highlands they did very little developments in the lowlands with the exception of Keren. Instead they concentrated on developing a no-mans land of Tesseney and Alighidir which was full of thick forest and wild animals. Hence, Christian and Moslem differences were nonexistent during the Italian era.

Then the British came with their divide-and-rule methods of disintegrating societies. Such methods had succeeded in the other African colonies and they utilized them effectively in Eritrea. Thus arose Islam and Christian disparities in Eritrea. In an attempt to integrate Eritrea with Ethiopia, the British did their best to create a credible division among Eritreans along religious and tribal lines. They did everything possible during the United Nations mandate in Eritrea to encourage the unionists to opt for full integration with Ethiopia but failed in their bid. Eritrea was eventually federated with Ethiopia for a period of ten years. And during the federation era Ethiopia continued what the British started and the disparity between Christians and Moslems widened tremendously. Eritrea was divided between Moslem and Christian adherents. Most Christians leaned towards full integration with Ethiopia while most Moslems stood opposed to it. Islamic parties were established for the first time and advocated for an independent Eritrea. When Eritrea was eventually annexed with Ethiopia, many Moslems opposed to the integration took to arms and thus, started the armed struggle for Eritrean independence.

During the struggle for Eritrean independence, religious movements were nonexistent. The Eritrean Liberation Front fought against Islamist groups and established a movement based upon the plural society of the Eritrean people. Until the independence of Eritrea in 1991, Christians and Moslems fought along each other and gained the liberation of Eritrea from the shackles of Ethiopia. And then arose groups who purported to represent the Moslem segments of the Eritrean population. They armed themselves and were willing to fight the Eritrean government and to establish an Islamic state. They had some confrontations with the Eritrean government and were eventually annihilated by the Eritrean army. Unfortunately, the Isayas government used the jihadist uprisals to his advantages and terrorized the Christian population all the time citing the Moslem insurgents. They succeeded tremendously and aligned the Christian population to support the Isayas government for fear of Moslem domination. Isayas did not disappoint his Christian followers and virtually obliterated any Islamic movement in Eritrea and persecuted numerous innocent Moslems in the process. However, he did not stop with the jihadists but also persecuted Christians that he felt were opposed to his government.

Today, as the Isayas government is close to crumbling the threat of Moslem and Christian disparities are looming again. A few opposition parties in diaspora are established based on Islamic code of conduct. They are loud and outspoken and are advocating for an Islamic Eritrea which is not feasible. These Islamic parties are propagating the same mantra that caused Eritrea to be integrated with Christian Ethiopia in 1962. Eritrean Christians are apprehensive and are suspicious of their Moslem counterparts and their intentions after the collapse of the Isayas dictatorship. If Eritrea ultimately adopts a democratic mode of governance the picture is grim if what we have as the oppositions in diaspora prevail in future Eritrea. The country will be divided on Christian and Moslem basis and the outcome will be disastrous. The fact is that Christians are terrorized by the parties representing Moslem fundamentalists and the principle of sharia to be adopted in Eritrea. As a result, many Christians would probably embrace another dictator, after Isayas, who would keep the status quo  and liberalize the civic liberties and establish a viable judicial system. Many Eritreans are not thirsty for a democratic system of government that will include Moslem fundamentalists and that is why they discard the numerous opposition parties who embrace Islamic political parties in their midst. Worse even is if the Christian communities in Eritrea seek some kind of accommodation with Ethiopia, probably federation or confederation, to ascertain their security and to discard the rise of Moslem fundamentalist groups disguised as political parties.

We have seen what Moslem fundamentalist could do in Egypt's short-lived Moslem Brotherhood government. Even a predominantly Moslem country could not condone the erosion of liberties by the endorsement of a sharia based constitution. That is why the Egyptians got rid of the Mursi government. In Eritrea, Islamist will advocate a sharia based constitution that will alienate half of the Christian population. That is an acceptable and will not pan out in a free and independent Eritrea.

The reason why Islamic political parties are proliferating is because of assumed grievance that Moslems are being persecuted in Eritrea and that Moslem values are being eroded and that “Moslem lands” are being occupied by Christian highlanders. However, the facts tell otherwise. Moslems are being persecuted by the Isayas government as much as Christians are. Isayas has no religion and is a communist and has no loyalty to either religions. With regard to the erosion of Moslem values it is a fact that Moslems have every right to practice their religion as Christian are in Eritrea even under Isayas. Islam is a recognized religion in Eritrea and all its tenets are respected throughout the country equally as Christianity. With regard to the occupation of Moslem lands there a shift of population on both ends. Christians have migrated to the lowlands and Moslems have likewise migrated to the highlands. As a matter of fact Eritreans have the right to settle wherever they wish be they Moslems or Christians and no land is confined to certain religious groups. Most of the migrations have been in the Gash-Setit region where fertile lands and abundant rain have attracted migrants from the highlands. Prior to the advent of the Italians, Gash-Setit was full of forest and wild animals and no human inhabitants except the Kunamas. Hence, all the Christians and Moslems in Gash-Setit are all recent immigrants and belong to no religious or tribal groups. The only claimants to Gash-Setit are the Kunama people who inhabit a small portion of the land.

Future Eritrea must not entertain political parties based on religion, tribe or regional affiliations. We should include it in our constitution that such parties will have no credence and acceptability in a  democratic and viable Eritrea. How could we allow political parties that represent a segment of our society and preclude others in their organization? As a Christian, who in his/her right mind join an Islamic party that advocates sharia laws? None. Hence, Islamic oriented political parties will recruit and represent only Moslems prohibiting Christian citizens from their membership. Such parties should not be allowed to exist in Eritrea be they Islamic or Christian organizations. A party must have an open membership principles and hence, should not have rules that segregate any Eritrean on race, religion, tribal affiliations and regional sectors. Any political party registered in Eritrea should embrace the entire people of Eritrea as a whole and should represent everyone else without any discrimination.

The British introduced divide-and-rule policies in Eritrea which triggered the wider divide between Christians and Moslems and eventually integrated Eritrea with Ethiopia. The ELF fought against Islamic fundamentalists and advocated for a democratic Eritrea that embraced every citizen of the nation. Today, Islamic fundamentalism is peeping its ugly head and preparing to divide Eritrea on religious grounds. We should all fight it collectively and establish an Eritrean nation that honors every citizen equally without regard to religious affiliation, tribal or regional positions. We have had enough of Islam and Christian squabbles and we should remedy it once and for all. We should all say no to religious political parties. We should not repeat our past mistakes but learn from them.

God bless Eritrea
God bless the Eritrean people

Mussie Izaz

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