Eritrea: Unity in Diversity

By Simon Woldemichael

Eritrea is gracefully endowed with a very rich cultural capital, the result of its ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. Taking diversity as a source of strength and beauty, the government and people of Eritrea give priority to unity. The nine ethnic groups and both Christians and Muslims identify and think of themselves as members of one nation and family.

Religious tolerance and understanding among Eritrean Muslims and Christians offer valuable lesson in tackling extremism, radicalization and other related challenges. Unable to spend Easter with my parents who live far from Asmara, I went to my uncle’s home for lunch. The house was filled with visitors, mainly young boys and girls who are my 17-year-old cousin’s classmates. When I noticed that Hayat, my cousin’s best friend, was not there with the cheerful crowd, I soon remembered that Ramadan is not over yet. Knowing the reason for Hayat’s absence, I teased my cousin saying “you were fasting together until yesterday and you are now eating without her.” She then showed me the chocolate, candies and cookies she had reserved for her friend, Hayat, to be given after Fetur (breaking of the Fast). Eritrea is fortunate to have such youth that have inherited a history and culture of tolerance and understanding.

Religious tolerance is crucial in building unity among adherents of different religions. Eritrea is a peaceful country immune to inter-religious conflict that could disrupt social relations and national stability. The mutual tolerance and understanding among adherents of different religions is a means and guarantor of the social harmony and peaceful co-existence of the Eritrean society.

The mutual respect among Eritrea’s diverse population has played a vital role in shaping national morality and conduct of the country. It exerts a cohesive force in articulating common national values mediated through rituals, symbols, and ceremonies. The Eritrean national identity provides a meaningful set of values and acts as an overarching moral glue that binds the nine ethnic groups into one single community. The cohesion and shared values fostered by the Eritrean national identity is essential for social and political cohesion.

The social interaction between adherents of different religions to cheer one another’s religious holiday is a norm in Eritrea. Religious tolerance in Eritrea is not a new invention but has been a tradition for a long time. The inclusion of religious tolerance and freedom in all the customary laws of Eritrea is a manifestation of the broad mindedness of the society. The customary law of Logo Chiwa, for example, states that “we, Christians and Muslims, are brothers. There is no social cleavage in our brotherhood. We look, speak and act the same.”

Eritrea is a secular nation that respects the equality of religions, and religious freedom has statutory protections and guarantees through explicit provisions in Eritrea’s Civil and Penal codes.

The “unity in diversity” concept is incorporated in the National Education Policy of Eritrea to produce responsible citizens. Textbooks highlight the need to preserve ethnic harmony and religious tolerance. Eritrea provides a common secular space to all citizens regardless of their ethnic, linguistic or religious group. “Unity in diversity” is embedded in Eritrean national psyche.

During religious observances, Eritreans pledge to strengthen religious harmony through mutual tolerance, respect and understanding. In Eritrea, citizens are free to maintain their distinct identities while being unified by a national identity and a shared commitment to the common good.

Religious tolerance is more than public order. Public order is maintaining public tranquility, but religious tolerance is measured only by the quality of relationships between adherents of different religions. The general public views harmony as a way of optimizing liberty, solidarity, as a means to realize other rights. Religious leaders champion interaction, integration, and religious tolerance for the common good. Respecting and celebrating one another’s religious holidays and practices is common among Eritreans. Stirring up religious tensions and promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility among adherents of different faiths is a social taboo.

The social harmony of the Eritrean society which promotes norms and encourages conciliatory methods of dispute resolution plays a pivotal role in the preservation of social cohesion. Thanks to the wisdom of its people and GoE’s judicious policies, Eritrea has become an oasis of peaceful co-existence and peace in a troubled region. The social cohesion and trust between Eritreans is a great national resource that enables the country to overcome challenges associated with nation building. The strength of Eritrean nationalism lay in its plurality and indivisible unity of its citizens.