Religion and Society
Eritrean society is roughly divided among Muslims and Christians, with most Christians affiliated to the orthodox (Coptic) church. A small number of Eritreans practice traditional African religions.
Islam: followers of the prophet Mohammed came to Eritrean coast in 615 to establish relations with Adulate authorities and seek protection for the new faith, making this one of the earliest non-Arabian sites in contact with Islam. Among the many important historical sites in Eritrea is the 500-year-old sheikh Hanafi mosque in Massawa.
Today, nearly all Eritrean Muslims are Sunnis, the largest sect in Islam. Their highest religious authority is the Dar-Al Ifta, headquartered in Asmara. The ninth month of Islamic calendar is Ramadan, a period of obligatory fasting in commemoration of Mohammed’s receipt of God’s revelation. A festive meal breaks the daily fast and inaugurates a night of feasting and celebration. Because the months of the lunar year revolve through the solar year, Ramadan falls at various seasons in different years.
Orthodox Christianity: Eritrea’s links to Christianity are thought to stretch back to the arrival of shipwrecked Syrian traders in the beginning of the 4th century. Over the years since the Orthodox Church has served as a critical repository of written records and iconic art. The Eritrean Orthodox Church separated from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after Eritrea’s liberation and now functions as a self-governing church in communication with the Coptic Church of Egypt.
Today, there are at least eighteen orthodox monasteries in Eritrea. Many were built high atop mountain ridges or tucked into inaccessible places to protect against raids and attacks in the past. Among the oldest and most important are those at Debre Bizen (near Nefasit), Hamm (near Senafe) and Debre Sina (near Keren). The Debre Bizen monastery houses more than 1,000 medieval manuscripts, including fine illuminated parchments bound in thick leather, cloth and wood.
Other Faiths: Most Kunama practice their own traditional religion, centred around the worship of the creator, Anna and veneration of ancestral heroes. There are holy places associated with Anna but no institutional religious body, as the belief system is transmitted through elders of the community.
There are also significant catholic and protestant Christian minorities living mainly in or near urban centres in the highlands and the western slope areas.
The majority of the population in Eritrea lead a rural life. Rural Eritreans, whatever their regional or ethnic background, hold a deep and abiding loyalty to the land, which both sustains and gives meaning to their existence.
Studies show that less than two-thirds of those living in the countryside are farmers and one third leads on agro-pastoral life. Only a small minority, located mainly in the arid northern mountains and in the scorched coastal plains of southern Dankalia, live a purely nomadic existence.
The great majority in the arid regions rely on cattle, camels, sheep and goats for food and income, supplementing this with sorghum or millet crops during years of normal rainfall.
Because they move frequently, nomadic people are harder to reach with social services, such as health care or education. As a result, the poor in these areas suffer higher rates of maternal infant and child mortality and lower life expectancies than other population groups. They are also less likely to be literate, especially women.
However, the government of Eritrea has put a lot of efforts to settle the nomadic people and change their way of life. They are provided with the infrastructure for basic needs such as wells, dams and are also given loans without interest or even agricultural equipment such as motors to help them settle down. With the growth of the population and with the provision of enough facilities and infrastructure, some rural areas also have been changed to moderate or small towns. Education, health and other essential and basic sectors were also provided.
The overwhelming majority of rural dwellers in the central highlands support themselves by planting grain and vegetable crops. However, even full-time, settled farmers depend heavily on livestock for their economic existence-both for their role in the production process and as marketable commodities. Many rural highland families also derive income from non-farm activities-trade, provision of services and the like.
The first sizable towns of the modern era were the ports, which acted as gateways for regional trade and as administrative centres for a succession of colonial powers, from the Ottoman Turks to the Italians. Until the advent of the Italian era, most inland Eritrean towns were modest sized and served mainly as centres for local commerce. By the mid-1930s, however, Asmara had swelled to a city of 120,000 and other towns were rapidly growing around it-Dekemhare, Mendefera, Keren and others.
Its balmy, temperate climate, safe and spotless streets, remarkable architecture and cultural diversity make it one of the most hospitable cities in the continent.
Nearly all of Eritrea’s major towns and cities were originally built according to urban plans. The Eritrean government revised and developed these master plans in reconstructing and expanding many urban centres after liberation. Strict zoning standards have preserved the social and architectural character of the cities. This, coupled with sustained aid to poorer rural areas, has prevented the emergence of the slum belts and shanty towns that encircle many African cities.
The Eritrean society is one of the most unified societies in the world. The strength of the people’s unity and their ability to organize themselves can be traced back to the ancient times before the scramble for Africa era. They have highly sophisticated and documented customary laws, giving them a firm foundation for internally generated growth and development that enables them to selectively draw upon the experiences and achievements of others without jeopardizing either their integrity or dynamism.
During the colonial period the colonizers sought to divide the society regionally, tribally, religiously and ideologically. But the Eritrean people continued to prevail in their unity even during the most adverse of times.
Eritrean women can boast of a unique history in that they found an opportunity to show their potential during the independence struggle period, which they pulled off quite brilliantly. They fought side by side with their male compatriots during the armed struggle and today they continue to be active participants in the front lines of the country’s economic and political life.
Because of the important role women play in the society and economy, the Eritrean government has sought to ensure their full and equal participation while eliminating the disadvantages many experience in marriage, separation, divorce, inheritance and access to property. Measures taken so far include:
- Reserving a minimum of 30 percent of seats in the national assembly for women.
- Appointing women to high political positions, including ministerial positions.
- Promoting economic empowerment through education and skills training.
- Encouraging women’s employment in the civil services and acting to ensure equal treatment in promotion and job retention.
- Establishing institutional mechanisms (including educational) to ad-dress women’s issues in public policy and resource allocation.
Some 45% of households are headed by women, though as a group, they are not poorer than the households headed by men. This is partly because women have access to land and other productive assets and partly because they participate actively in the labour force (47 percent of which is comprised of women). Though women are still less likely to be more literate than men, this too is steadily changing.