The head of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew was barred from leaving the main airport in neighboring Eritrea on Saturday where he had gone to attend an engagement, even though he was issued a valid visa which Ethiopians now get on arrival following a 2018 peace deal.
Local and international reports quoted airport officials as saying that the orders had come from “higher up”.
Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew was in Eritrea to attend an event marking the 50th anniversary of the construction of Kidane Mehret Cathedral in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, and had arrived at Asmara airport on Saturday, but was obliged to return to Ethiopia the next afternoon after fruitless attempts to reach the crowd gathered to welcome him.
The Eritrean government did not offer any comment.
BBC said the Eritrean government has been unhappy with the Catholic Church since bishops called for political reform last year.
It said in response, the authorities closed down Catholic-run schools and hospitals, saying it was imposing old regulations that stipulate that religious bodies cannot run such institutions.
Eritrea under President Isaias Afwerki does not have a functioning constitution and has never held a national election.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, his counterpart in Ethiopia, was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a 20-year military stalemate with Eritrea following a 1998-2000 border war.
BBC said the cleric is a highly respected figure in Ethiopia, where most Christians are members of the Orthodox Church, and was appointed by Mr Abiy to head the national reconciliation commission.
The report added that “there were celebrations when the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea opened in 2018 Roman Catholics make up about 4% of Eritrea’s population. The church is one of only four religious groups allowed to operate in Eritrea, along with the Eritrean Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran and Sunni Islam groups. The government regards other religious groups as instruments of foreign governments”.