My Encounter with Fr. Mussie Zerai, Nobel Peace Prize Candidate (Open Letter)

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A guardian angel of refugees or an evil clergyman
A guardian angel of refugees or an evil clergyman?

By Daniel Sillas,

You were sitting almost in front of me at the seminar “Horn of Africa. Fleeing war without a name and without an end”, held in Rome on June 24th at the ACLI national headquarters. You spoke and I patiently waited for longer than an hour for you to finish your speech.

I was only allowed five minutes, as agreed with the organizers. I had been up until dawn to write two pages that I would have read swiftly not to waste even a minute.

We had never met before, and it happened after more than twenty years of us both living abroad. At the end of the conference, I waited for the opportunity to exchange a few words with you because we share much more than the country of origin: we are peers and we arrived in Italy in the early nineties on a plane.

I observed you gesticulate to define words that meant nothing religious, in my view. I thought that as a priest, you were not instilling sacredness, spirituality, or perhaps I might be a tough person. Maybe, but you were the one to stop those who spoke of religion…

During the introduction, in fact, the Pan-African Calchi Novati explained that half of the Eritrean population is Orthodox Christian, which is true. You stopped him abruptly saying, “The Eritrean government is secular!” in an accusing tone of voice.

Contrarily, in a world where many continue to kill in the name of ‘God’, I think it is preferable for a nation that its government remains secular and avoid decisions would be based on religion and faith of groups. Especially in Eritrea that could threaten the harmonious coexistence that has existed for centuries between Christians and Muslims.

While you were improvising, I was mentally brushing up on what I should have read and you were already in the title, “What if Africa was different from the way it is always showed?

I also wondered: what is the Africa you usually describe? I realized it is full of dictators, torturers, abuses by Africans to other Africans, mass migration, organ trafficking, violence against women, wars, regimes, prisons, refugee camps and tragedies at sea. All the horror of this world implemented by Africans. Where is the responsibility of the West in your speeches?

You and I are both Eritreans. You tell of an Eritrea I do not recognize, an alien place, a place that does not correspond to my experience. And you talk without that Christian piety worthy of a minister of God, without any pain, almost without humanity. In fact, your narratives are full of resent. I already noticed how your voice rises in tone when just pronouncing “Eritrea”, as if fed a real hostility against Eritrea. One might wonder where all this hate originates from.

Of course, it is perfectly legitimate that you think differently from me or any other, you can disagree with the Eritrean government, but you can not be against Eritrea and its people.

In the current situation of “no-war, no-peace” with Ethiopia, of a conflict never solved with our historical enemy that continues to militarily occupy Eritrean territories, blindly opposing the Government of Eritrea goes to Ethiopia’s advantage. So why not declare it publicly? You should tell the world: “I am for the annexation of Eritrea to Ethiopia”. Certainly, you would not be the first unionist.

Being a parent pushes me to think about the future, not only my daughter’s, but that of all the children of Eritrea. How will their future look like? Will they be truly free or will other invaders oppress them? Will future generations enjoy having clean potable water? Will they have enough food or will they have to queue outside foreign agencies to beg for something to eat?

You have not returned to Eritrea for twenty-three years, and you have never seen the progress the country has achieved. You have not seen the dams that are being built, which have helped greening the environment, quenching the animals thirst and blooming agriculture prosperous.

We work very hard using all the resources we have despite all difficulties. They often define it as “forced labour” here, but that is the future of Eritrea: water. That is why we all have to actively participate, “custa lon ca custa” as the Italians wrote on the ‘Dogali Bridge’.

While talking, you were showing a paper with names scribbled on: “Before coming here I received three phone calls from different guys in Libya” to explain your involvement in the plight of African migrants and refugees. “It’s because of the dictatorship, the regime often defined as ‘the North Korea of Africa’, the ‘indefinite’ military service. More refugee camps and shelters are needed for those fleeing the regime first and the Libyan chaos,” you said. You emphasized the importance of the latest report of the Commission of Inquiry that accused the Eritrean government of serious crimes against humanity, and exclaimed: “Finally, it was about time!

And that moment I wanted to intervene and stop you. You are just following the steps of those who have destroyed Gaza, Sana’a, Tripoli, Baghdad or Kabul. Why are you doing this to our mothers, our brothers and sisters, our fathers, our children?

Do not you think of them? Do not you have mercy on them? Why are you siding with the abusers? Or do you want to tell me you do not know how these situations usually end? Can you imagine what will happen to us after their ‘intervention’? That Eritrea will not work for anyone.

Instead, I stood in silence watching you, but you kept escaping my gaze. You sounded like a politicians during an election campaign, a professor of geopolitics, because you were also offering advices, directives and solutions to the Italian institutions, Ministries and European governments.

I noticed how those around seemed interested. Some wrote down your speech on their tablets. Some nodded continuously, while some shook their heads in shock after hearing your stories and looking at the pencil drawings on the big screen that showed the alleged tortures inflicted in the prisons of Eritrea. They all looked so impressed as if they had seen something worse than the photos of Abu Ghraib.

Of course, you have come a long way since you have become a “Father” in 2010. Arrived in Italy in 1992, you managed to take the vows after eighteen years. It is clear that you spent this time doing public relations, creating NGOs, news agencies, activating satellite phones, alerting the Coast Guard, and visiting reception centres of Lampedusa where migrants are held. What a mix between Religion and Politics, one might think!

Now you are viewed as a future Nobel Prize. I feel a bit of healthy envy, not so much for the Nobel, which is meaningless since even Obama has been rewarded, but for that million dollar you will collect. I have not followed your footsteps and I have been cheated by the Italian system that left me unemployed perhaps because, as Giorgio Gaber once said, “Because I had an education that was too Catholic.”

Somehow, however, you give justice back to our grandparents, the ‘Ascari’ at the time of Italian colonialism who did not even have freedom of speech and even a request to go to the bathroom would cost them to suffer violence. What other African is more heard than you are today? Journalists of neo-colonialism will pass you the microphone and political institutions give you pats on the back and so much ‘honour’. Neo-colonialists are not just suddenly allowing you all the glory, but using you as an agent for regime change. A million dollar would not be enough for all you are doing to please and further their agenda.

While listening I wondered, “is it not also thanks to your contribution that European governments are granting preferential refugee status to Eritreans? Does this not seem strange to you when there are other African countries far more wretched than Eritrea?”. I was then hoping to ask: “What would you do now? Help all young Eritreans flee through a humanitarian corridor and cross the sea? Or would you take charge of Mare Nostrum? With a million in your pocket, at least I hope you will allow them to board on a plane, as the both of us did. Do not you realize that you are participating in the weakening of Eritrea? You are just luring people out with the false promise of a future we all know they will never find.

I was convinced that a priest was one that prays and preaches about love, peace, compassion and mercy. The priest is someone neutral, a priest does not judge, he prays and absolves sins. A priest brings people together, creates and betters communities. Western media has defined you ‘Archangel of refugees’, but there are as many that consider you a fanatic troublemaker.

The Eritrean Community in Italy accuses you, for example, of being an agent of division, an agent taking advantage of tragedies, like that of Lampedusa. During those dramatic days, many mothers and Eritreans have cried because of you. Yet, you could have comforted them as a good shepherd and servant of God would have done. You have sinned too much in my opinion and that ‘activism’ has left you with absolutely nothing in your hands, because even those young people you claim to have helped have joined the only true Eritrean Community in Italy. At the end, you are left alone, only with some Westerners.

Our encounter was very brief, we met casually on the exit, one in front of the other, and as many Italians were watching, perhaps forced, you reached out and quietly said: Selam. Priests like you are accustomed to their hands being kissed, but I just shook your hand and repeated Selam and without turning, you left. You probably did not have time, or maybe you had not enjoyed my comment since you did not applaud as everyone else did. Well, I will just live with it!

But I have a request to make, Father, if you really want to save young Eritreans, at the expense of giving up the worldliness, the fame and personal glory, and even the Nobel, it is time that you put yourself aside, because you are too involved to be able to find real and appropriate solutions. If you are so holy as they say, and you really care about the plight of Eritrean refugees and Africans in general, you will have to give space to diplomacy that, until proven otherwise, is the only way to solve this tragedy at the root, starting with the respect of the Algiers Agreements.

You need to understand that neo-colonialism wants to enter Eritrea and it is using you and others to open some doors. The Nobel Prize and similar recognitions all work to facilitate this process. It is not that difficult to understand. They need to create images of trusted men that will be famous, some sort of Hamid Karzai that will make the world go: “Wow, the Nobel Prize Winner said that!

At that point, you and your likes will be considered as those helping a country through “democracy”. You will be the trump of neo colonialism. They have made you and they will use you, exploiting your personal ambitions. You represent the classic example of neo colonialism that always find and employs Africans to destroy Africa. But you should never forget that Eritreans will never allow you, our precious land cost us too many lives. If you are not interested in politics, and your mission is to serve Jesus Christ, then you should resign from your politics, and leave that to politicians.

Do not promote petitions to stop development aid to Eritrea by the European Union with the complicity of Western journalists hired to bring regime change. The Eritrean Government is known throughout Africa for being not open to bribery and that is money that would be used for valid development projects. What you wish would only penalize civilians like my seventy-year old mother that constantly complains of the price of tomatoes and cereals. I ask you: why do you want to hurt Eritreans by collecting signatures of Westerners? Eritrea is still a poor country, that money can give a little oxygen to its economy. It is not by blocking the money intended for Eritrea that human trafficking will stop. But you already know this. You saw Eritreans in Geneva on the 22nd June protesting against the unjust decisions the UN has continued to impose on Eritrea, which have worsened the lives of the people. Where is your Christianity? Where are the mercy, pity and charity? Where is the priest? Where is the man?

If you do not want our mothers to continue curse your name, you should stop with all the ungodly activities you have taken part until now. You should read the mission of your order again:

“This is the mission that the Church has entrusted to us by our Founder, Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini of Piacenza (1839-1905): be migrants with migrants, to build with them, also through the witness of our life and our community, the Church in its earthly pilgrimage supports the poorer and abandoned classes; also help people to discover Christ in our migrant brothers and seize in migration a sign of the eternal vocation of man.” Reflect.