Middle East and North Africa

Eritrea’s ‘policy’ of religious persecution ‘targets’ Christians

Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in the world, according to a report published by Barnabas Fund a global leader in support for the persecuted church.

The government of Eritrea pursues a specific policy of religious persecution, which particularly targets members of religious groups outside the four groups recognized and controlled by the government, said a spokesman for the organization.

The majority of members of these unrecognized religious groups are Evangelical, Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses who are severely persecuted, including being subject to arbitrary imprisonment and torture, concluded a report by the Fund.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom stated in its 2016 report that religious prisoners are routinely sent to the harshest prisons and receive the cruelest punishments. The UN Commission on Human Rights in Eritrea presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2016 described this religious persecution as a crime against humanity and drew a specific parallel with the enslavement and persecution of religious and other minorities by the Nazis.

In Eritrea, some 1,200 to 3,000 people have been imprisoned on religious grounds. There were reportedly new arrests in 2016. Religious prisoners are routinely sent to the harshest prisons and receive the cruelest punishments.

In 2006, the government deposed Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Antonios who protested government interference in his church’s affairs. He has been held incommunicado since then and reportedly denied medical care. The Patriarch is an insulin-dependent diabetic whose health is reportedly declining.

Eritrea’s dictatorship controls the internal affairs of the state-registered Orthodox Christian and Muslim communities and also bans public activities of non-registered groups.

In 2011 Pew Research estimated that 57.7 per cent of the population were Ethiopian Orthodox, 4.7 per cent Catholic, 0.7 per cent Protestant and 0.1 per cent other Christian groups. Whilst all Christian groups suffer significantly at the hands of the government, Protestant groups, such as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Pentecostals are singled out for particularly harsh treatment by the government.

It is widely accepted that the 1997 constitution allowing “freedom of religion” has never been implemented. In 2002 it was diminished still further when the government said it would only recognize four religions: Sunni Islam, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, the Roman Catholic Church and the (Lutheran) Evangelical Church of Eritrea. All other Christian denominations must apply annually for government registration. The effect of the 2002 government decree made illegal the existence of other Christian denominations such as Pentecostals requiring them to submit detailed information about themselves. To date no other religious communities have been registered.

In addition to all this, the Eritrean government also tightly controls the activities of the four officially recognized churches who are required to submit reports on all their activities to the government every six months and have had church leaders appointed by the government,

The increasing harassment and persecution of Christians coincides with a free press that was closed down in 2001 and a number of journalists arrested. Christian-owned newspapers had been closed down in 1994 never to reopen.

Significantly the majority of religious prisoners are Pentecostals and Evangelicals. The Eritrean government is suspicious of newer religious communities, in particular Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal communities. It has characterized these groups as being part of a foreign campaign to infiltrate the country, engaging in aggressive evangelism alien to Eritrea’s cultural traditions and causing social divisions.

During 2015, security forces continued to arrest followers of these faiths for participating in clandestine prayer meetings and religious ceremonies, although toleration of these groups varied by location. The US State Dept. reported that some local authorities denied water and gas to Pentecostals.

Countless stories of individual religious persecution have been recorded and noted by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Some detainees who escaped reported that many of those arrested have died in their respective prisons  due to torture.

In 2016 the US Commission on International Religious Freedom listed Eritrea as a tier 1 country (its highest designation for religious persecution.) As a result the US government in 2014 imposed sanctions including the continuation of an arms embargo on Eritrea.

The country of Eritrea is bordered by Sudan in the West, Ethiopia in the South and the Red Sea to its East. Sudan is in the midst of a decades long civil war and both the US and UK governments have issued warnings for people travelling to Ethiopia.