Bishops ask faithful to pray after closure of Catholic hospitals in Eritrea
Bishops in Eritrea are asking the faithful to pray and fast after the government shut down 22 Catholic-run hospitals.
The country's Catholics are being invited to join in 17 days of fasting and prayer after the government unexpectedly closed the hospitals.
It is believed that the authorities shut down the health centres after bishops criticised the regime of Isaias Afwerki, who has been president since 1993.
The government first told the staff to hand over ownership but when they and the Catholic Bishops' Conference refused the request, the hospitals were closed.
Archbishop Abune Menghesteab Tesfamariam, of Asmara, said "only the Lord can console us and resolve our problems".
Vatican News said that the poorest people in the country would be worst affected by the closure of the hospitals, most of which were also located in remote areas.
The UN's Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, has expressed concern over the closure of the facilities and called on the government to protect religious freedom.
"These actions show that, despite the improved regional climate for peace and security, the human rights situation in Eritrea remains unchanged," she said.
"I urge Eritrea to live up to its international commitments as a member of the Human Rights Council and allow religious institutions to operate freely and all Eritreans to exercise their right to freedom of religion within the country."
She continued: "The seizure of these health facilities will negatively impact the right to health of the affected populations, in particular those in remote rural areas.
"By curtailing the activities of the Catholic Church, the Eritrean authorities are restricting the right of their citizens to enjoy quality health care."