From a shipping container to the White House

Teklemariam Bekit

BBC Tigrinya

Eritrean gospel singer, Helen Berhane, who was held in a shipping container for 32 months because of her faith, has met US President Donald Trump at the White House.

She was there as part of a group who had survived religious persecution.

US President Donald J. Trump welcomes survivors of religious persecution to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington

When she was given the opportunity to talk, she explained the ordeal she went through in Eritrea and highlighted how her church members are still imprisoned.

The majority are in arbitrary detention and none of them has been charged in a court of law.

Ms Berhane was arrested in the capital, Asmara, and spent 32 months in custody. She was released in 2006 after becoming very ill.

Last year, the BBC heard from her:

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President Trump also met Nigerian Esther Bitrus, who was kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014:

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Esther Bitrus, who was kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 in Nigeria,
Getty Images

According to the transcript on the White House website, this was their exchange:

Ms Bitrus: Thank you, Mr. President —

The president: Thank you very much. Thank you.

Ms Bitrus: — for the opportunity to see you. I am Esther, from Nigeria. I do three years in (inaudible). I escaped from Boko Haram. So thank you for (inaudible).

The president: It’s tough stuff, right?

Ms Bitrus: Yes.

The president: That’s a tough one. Thank you.

Ms Bitrus: Thank you.

Ethiopia PM's 'chauffeur diplomacy' in Eritrea

A video of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed driving his Eritrean host President Isaias Afwerki has got people from both countries talking on Twitter.

The Ethiopian PM arrived on Thursday for a two-day official visit to discuss issues of bilateral and regional interest.

The visit comes just over a year after his groundbreaking trip to the capital, Asmara, where the leaders of the long-time foes signed a peace deal.

Eritrean State TV showed Mr Abiy and his delegation at one point walking through Asmara, and then Mr Abiy in the driver's seat when the two leaders inspected some projects as part of his trip.

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This tweeter, who appears to be Ethiopian, thinks it's all a public relations stunt to project normalcy in Eritrea:

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After the initial wave of optimism that followed the peace deal and the reopening of the countries' common border, relations have stagnated.

While people can still fly between the two countries, the border is closed for trade. Also, Ethiopia has not yet given up the disputed border town of Badme, which an international tribunal ruled was in Eritrea.

But Eritrea's information minister has described the peace process as "vibrant":

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It was not the first time Mr Abiy has undertaken to chauffeur leaders.

Last year, he opted to drive the Crown Princeof the UAE, Mohamed Bin Zayed, when he visited Ethiopia.

Eritrea Orthodox Christians expel former church leader

Former patriarch
Abune Antonios has been under house arrest since 2006

Eritrean bishops in the Orthodox church have excommunicated their former patriarch, Abune Antonios.

Antonios, who was the head of the church until 2006, was accused of heresy in a statement signed by six bishops.

He has for a long time been a critic of the government and was deposed and put under house arrest 13 years ago.

But the move to expel him from the church is unprecedented.

Antonios' followers accuse the government of interfering in the affairs of the Church.

Orthodox Christians make up one of the main religious groups within Eritrea.

Court frees mistaken Eritrean 'smuggler'

Mary Harper

Africa editor, BBC World Service

An Italian court has cleared an Eritrean man of running a people-smuggling network, in what his defence described as a shocking case of mistaken identity.

The suspect, identified in court as Medhanie Yehdego Mered, was arrested in Sudan and extradited at the request of UK and Italy on charges that he trafficked migrants from Libya to Europe across the Mediterranean.

His lawyers successfully argued that he was actually Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, an impoverished refugee living in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

The Palermo court, however, handed Mr Medhanie a five-year sentence for assisting people smugglers.

Having already spent three years in court, he was allowed to walk free.

Eritreans demonstrate against closure of Catholic clinics

BBC Tigrinya

Demonstration in Rome

Eritreans living in Italy have held a demonstration in Rome against the Eritrean government after it closed all the health centres run by the Catholic Church.

One protester, Desbele Mehari, told BBC Tigrinya on Sunday that the church-run health centres had been giving quality services to everyone and their closure would affect the poor and vulnerable.

Last month, the Eritrean government ordered all health facilities run by the Catholic Church to be closed. Then a week ago, the authorities ordered Catholic nuns, who were living within the clinics' compounds to move out.

Sources told the BBC, that nuns who had been running a hospital in Zager, a village about 30km (19 miles) north of the capital, Asmara, were prevented from taking any hospital equipment with them.

The hospital provided maternity and general services for villages in the area. A nun told the BBC “this action hurts the people”.

Eritrean Catholic bishops have been calling, in their pastoral letters, for national reconciliation, political reforms and justice.

But the government said in a statement, that the closure of the clinics was in line with a 1995 regulation which “limits developmental activities of religious institutions”.

More nuns evicted amid hospital closures in Eritrea

BBC Tigrinya

Nuns in Zager
The nuns were running a hospital in the village of Zager

Catholic nuns in Eritrea have been evicted from a church-run hospital, the latest to be closed by the authorities.

The hospital in Zager provided maternity and general services for the village and others 30km (19 miles) from the capital, Asmara.

The nuns were stopped from taking any hospital equipment with them, sources told the BBC.

In the last few weeks, 22 Catholic hospitals and clinics have been shut in what appears to be a response to the church’s criticism of President Isaias Afwerki’s rule.

Eritrean Catholic bishops have said in their pastoral letters that they want political reforms in the country, which does not have a constitution and has never held a national election.

But the government insists that the closures are in line with regulations they introduced in 1995, which limit developmental activities of religious institutions. These can range from running schools to digging wells.

On Thursday, another group of nuns, who were running a health facility in south of the country, were also told to vacate their residences.

A nun told the BBC she was saddened: “This action hurts the people above anyone else.”

Eritrea and Sudan to reopen border crossings

Tesfalem Araia

BBC Tigrinya

Eritrea and Sudan have agreed to reopen border crossings following talks in Asmara between Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and the deputy head of Sudan's Transitional Military Council, Lt-Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti.

Sudan had closed the border in 2018, citing concerns over illegal crossings and human trafficking.

On Tuesday, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Meskel tweeted that the two sides had agreed to set up a "joint committee to chart the modalities and monitor the implementation of the agreement”.

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Diplomatic relations between the two countries had not been good under Sudan’s long-time leader Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted earlier this year.

There has been intensive shuttle diplomacy between Khartoum and Asmara in the last few weeks, and Eritrea has expressed strong support for the Transitional Military Council.

Eritrea 'was right to seize Catholic clinics'

Catholic church
Roman Catholics are a minority in Eritrea

Eritrea has hit out at critics of the recent policy of seizing and shutting all Catholic-run health centres.

The UN's special rapporteur on Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, said the act showed that "the human rights situation in Eritrea remains unchanged".

The Eritrean government said her conclusion was based on "erroneous assertions".

A statement on the ministry of information's website says that as a secular country no religion or adherent gets preferential treatment.

As a result "religious institutions are not allowed to actually conduct developmental activities in areas of their choice as this is fraught with discrimination against non-adherents of the specific institution in question".

Therefore, the government says, all "religious institutions [were required] to transfer operational authority of clinics" to the ministry of health.

In other words the government was following the law.

Earlier this month, Eritrea's Roman Catholic Church condemned the government in the one-party state for the seizure.

The Church ran 22 health centres, and their closure is likely to leave thousands of people, mostly mothers and their children in rural areas, without healthcare, BBC Tigrinya's Teklemariam Bekit said.

But the government has defended its record on health championing its "enormous investment" in citizens' health.