In a cold, dismal London weather on Saturday, an estimated 150 Eritreans came out to be part of a crucial debate at a civic conference organized in commemoration of the first anniversary of the creation of CDRiE, Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea.
The conference was held in order to tackle the burning national issues of the day ranging from the catastrophic plight of Eritrean refugees to the contentious issues of languages, religion, and ethnicity and land rights.
CDRiE’s Chairman Suleiman Hussein set the tone of the debate as key note speaker in which he emphasized the fact that these issues alone would be determining the future of national unity. He called for an urgent action because religious and ethnic issues “have the potential of sowing the seeds of communal conflict when used for political agenda, whether by people belonging to the opposition or the government in Eritrea.”
Among those attending were two ex-Eritrean ambassadors, representatives of the newly formed Eritrean People’s Democratic Party, representatives of religious and ethnic based groups and parties, academics, professionals, researchers as well as other thinking Eritreans from many parts of Europe, Africa and Northern America.
We are confronting topics that have often been taboos at our dinner tables said Professor Gaim Kibreab (UK) debating the Eritrean languages issue. Gaim says Tigrigna and Arabic should be taught simultaneously in schools regardless of religion or ethnicity with the aim of creating a “bilingual society committed to a single nation Eritrea where all citizens live in peace and harmony.”
A paper presented by Senaiet Yohannes from Canada gives a ghastly picture of the untold misery Eitrean refugees face every day in camps in Northern Ethiopia where men and women, and children are crammed together in make-shift shelters. The paper presented on Senaiet’s behalf by CDRiE member Petros Tesfagriorgis, speaks of widespread malnourishment causing grave illnesses among refugees including chronic depression. Petros said CDRiE was soon launching a global appeal for food aid, medicines and clothing to be sent to the refugees.
Taking up the conference theme of national unity, Researcher Ahmed Suleman from UK spoke of the Eritrea’s ethnic diversity as a source of national strength. Ahmed underlined that fear and lack of trust in our political discourse were among factors hampering positive national integration. “We have a right to diversify or differ but we have a religious and historical obligation to remain united,’ affirms Ahmed.
Dr. Yebio Woldemariam, who flew in from New York for the London gathering, extensively and deeply dealt with the issue of land rights. Dr. Yebio condemned the recent state sponsored migration of people from the highlands to the lowlands of Eritrea as reckless. He says “imposing the will of the state, a state that is immature and still in the process of evolution, on pastoral for that matter agrarian society is to invite trouble of great proportion.” The way out of the present dilemma, says Dr. Yebio, is through a well thought national development policy that will take into account the wishes and desires of the stakeholders.
Finally, addressing the issue of religious freedom, Journalist Habtom Yohannes from Holland underscored that secularism (Almanawnet) was needed for a healthy separation of State and Religion. “By Secularism I don’t mean anti-religious secularism as under communism or under the current Eritrean Government, but as it is found in…. democratic countries where the rule of law reins and where the right of every believer and religious group is guaranteed.” Stressing that secularism evolved to protect minority religions, Habtom emphasized that future Eritrean governments should be religious-neutral and should accommodate atheists and believers.
CDRiE founding members Tzegai Yohannes as debate moderator, and Abdulrahman Sayed as master of ceremony, supported by very competent Tigrigna and Arabic interpreter Kamal Ismael, steered the 10 hour London symposium to a successful conclusion.
Note: Papers presented at the symposium will be published in part or in their entirety in the following days.
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