A Catholic bishop was reportedly arrested in the northeast African country of Eritrea on Saturday.
Security officers detained Bishop Fikremariam Hagos Tsalim on Oct. 15 at Asmara International Airport after he returned from a trip to Europe, reported the BBC.
The Vatican-based news agency Agenzia Fides said that the 51-year-old bishop was being held at Adi Abeto prison alongside two priests who were arrested last week.
The reason for the arrests is currently unknown, but relations between the Eritrean government and the Catholic Church have been strained in recent years.
In 2019, the country’s 22 Catholic-run hospitals closed following a government order to transfer ownership to the state. Later that year, the authorities also seized Catholic schools.
The government took the steps after Eritrea’s Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter calling for greater respect for human rights, including religious freedom.
Bishop Fikremariam Hagos Tsalim was named bishop of the newly created Eparchy of Segheneity in southern Eritrea in 2012. He was one of four Church leaders who signed a letter to Eritrea’s minister of public education in 2019, lamenting the loss of Catholic schools.
The letter asked: “If this is not hatred against the faith and against religion, what else can it be?”
There are reports that the bishop has spoken out against the war in the Tigray Region of northern Ethiopia, which involves Eritrean forces.
Eritrea, a nation of six million people, gained independence from neighboring Ethiopia in 1991 following a 30-year war. The country has been led by President Isaias Afwerki since 1993.
Earlier this year, the charity Open Doors ranked Eritrea as the sixth-worst country in the world in which to be a Christian.
“Despite almost half the population identifying as Christian, believers in Eritrea continue to suffer extreme persecution, making it still one of the hardest places in the world to follow Jesus,” it said.
The BBC estimates that 4% of the Eritrean population is Catholic. The majority of the population belongs to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which is part of the ancient Oriental Orthodox communion.
The Vatican recognized the Eritrean Catholic Church as an autonomous Eastern Catholic Church in 2015.