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Eritrea's attempt to shut down religious schools sparks protests

(Pixabay/coyot)The Eritrean government has tried to shut down religious schools as part of its plans to force all schools in the nation to go public.

Students have gathered in Eritrea's capital of Asmara last week to protest against an attempt to shut down a religious school as part of the government's plans to force all schools in the nation to go public.

The Eritrean government has reportedly announced in September that all schools in the nation would be transformed into "community" or public schools, noting that the changes would take effect immediately.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the proposal to transfer control of every school to local communities was devised by the Ministry of Education in 2014.

World Watch Monitor noted that turning over religious schools to the government would entail that students will be forbidden from wearing religious items such as Christian crosses or Muslim headscarves.

Among the schools that were notified of the changes was the Catholic Medhanie Alem Secondary School in Asmara, which was ordered by the regional Minister of Education "to close the school and to report to the [regional administration] the list of all the students."

In a letter dated Sept. 18, the Minister cited a 1995 government declaration, which stated that all social activities, such as private schools, clinics and orphanages, should be under the control of the government. The proclamation also noted that the activities of religious organizations should be limited to attending to the spiritual wellbeing of adherents.

When the Catholic church refused to comply with the request, the government shut down the school and arrested a nun, Sr. Tinsaw, and a priest, Abba Haile Paulos.

On Oct. 20, the authorities arrested Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, a nonagenarian and the respected Honorary President of Al Diaa Islamic School in Asmara, for opposing the government's decision to expropriate the private school.

Students had gathered in the Akhria neighbourhood in the north of Asmara on Oct. 31 to demand the release of Hajji and other detainees who were also arrested for opposing the government plan.

The demonstration reportedly turned violent as the crowd of protesters grew. Armed security personnel allegedly began assaulting the students, who in turn responded by throwing stones.

A video of the incident reportedly showed security personnel shooting and chasing unarmed protesters through the streets of the capital.

Armed undercover security officials continued patrolling the streets even though the protests ended by Tuesday.

Asmara-based activist network Arbi Harnet noted that the private Islamic school has been reopened "quietly" and some of the students who were detained during the protests have been released. However, some of them were reportedly mistreated by the police in order to obtain information.

"The targeting of educational establishments belonging to two of the faith communities which are permitted to function in the country is indicative of an enduring unwillingness to respect and protect both the right to education and the right of freedom of religion or belief," said CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.

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