Last Updated: Wednesday, 09 July 2014, 13:04 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2005 - Eritrea

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2005
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2005 - Eritrea, 1 May 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4855697419.html [accessed 10 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The government of Eritrea engages in particularly severe violations of freedom of religion or belief. It has banned public religious activities by all religious groups that are not officially recognized, closed their places of worship, inordinately delayed action on registration applications by religious groups, arrested participants at prayer meetings and other gatherings, detained members of unregistered churches and other religious activists indefinitely and without charge, mistreated or even tortured some religious detainees, and severely punished armed forces members and national service inductees for possession of religious literature, including Bibles. In February 2004, the Commission recommended that the State Department designate Eritrea a "country of particular concern," or CPC. The State Department acted on that recommendation, designating Eritrea a CPC in September 2004. The Commission continues to recommend that Eritrea be named a CPC.

The Eritrean government officially recognizes the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Lutheran-affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea. Although there is no state religion, the government has close ties to the Orthodox Church and is suspicious of newer groups – in particular, Protestant Evangelical, Pentecostal, and other Christian denominations not traditional to Eritrea.

Jehovah's Witnesses were the first religious group to experience the Eritrean government's harsh policies. Negative official and popular views about Jehovah's Witnesses developed as a result of their refusal to take part in the 1993 independence referendum or to serve obligatory tours of military service, for which the Eritrean government has provided no alternate service. Jehovah's Witnesses experience official harassment, including prolonged detention for refusing military service. The President has ordered that Jehovah's Witnesses be dismissed from government jobs, as well as denied a range of important government services, including business licenses, national identity cards, marriage licenses, passports, and exit permits. Some Jehovah's Witnesses who have refused to serve in the military have been imprisoned without trial for a decade; others cannot graduate from secondary school, as the curriculum includes a mandatory military training component.

Relations among the four government-recognized religious communities are generally good. In recent years, however, Protestant Evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal churches have faced societal and government pressure. The Orthodox Church has publicly expressed concern about the growth of denominations it views as heretical, and the loss, particularly of its younger members, to them. The government has restricted foreign faith-based humanitarian organizations, apparently fearing the destabilizing effect of proselytism by outside groups, both Christian and Muslim. Government spokespersons have cited Pentecostals, along with extremist Islamist groups, as threats to national security. There are reports that Islamic militants, allegedly backed by Sudan, have indeed engaged in terrorism in a campaign to establish an Islamic state in Eritrea. None of the suspect Christian groups is known to have engaged in or to have advocated violence.

In 2002, the government imposed a registration requirement on religious groups. Each group applying for approval was required to provide detailed financial and membership information, as well as background on its presence in Eritrea. Exempted from the new requirements for registration were the four "sanctioned" faiths. By stipulating that there could be no public religious activities pending registration, the decree closed places of worship and prohibited public religious activities, including worship services, of all other religious communities in Eritrea. To date, no other religious groups have gained government registration, even though some groups submitted applications over two years ago, with the result that all except the four government-sanctioned religious groups operate without a legal basis. Jehovah's Witnesses were not among the groups offered the opportunity to register.

As part of the campaign against the religious activities of those persons not belonging to officially recognized religious denominations, Eritrean security forces have disrupted private worship, conducted mass arrests of participants at prayer meetings and other gatherings, and detained those arrested without charge for indefinite periods of time. Hundreds of members of unregistered churches are believed to be detained at any given time, typically without charges, even for extended periods. Among those detained have been elderly individuals and persons in poor health. In recent months, following Eritrea's designation as a CPC, the government's religious crack-down has intensified with a series of arrests and detentions of clergy and hundreds of others. Among those arrested were individuals whom Commission staff met during a visit in October 2004. There are credible reports that the security forces have used coercion on detainees to secure repudiation of their faith. Mistreatment of some religious detainees has reportedly included beatings and torture. Almost all allegations of religious freedom violations by international human rights or advocacy groups are routinely denied or ignored by the Eritrean authorities, who have not permitted investigations by these organizations.

Government violations of religious freedom are alleged to be particularly severe in the armed forces. During the war with Ethiopia, many Eritrean soldiers accepted various forms of Protestantism, reportedly alarming government officials and leading to the banning of prayer meetings among armed forces members. Attendance at such meetings is punishable by imprisonment. Moreover, armed forces members and national service inductees reportedly face severe punishment for possession of religious literature, including Bibles.

During the past year, the Commission met on a number of occasions with State Department personnel, Eritrean diplomats, and religious community representatives regarding religious freedom in Eritrea. In October 2004, concerned about mounting reports of religious freedom abuses, the Commission sent a staff delegation to Eritrea. During a six-day visit, the delegation discussed the religious freedom situation in formal meetings with senior Eritrean government officials, leaders of the four major faiths sanctioned by the Eritrean government, as well as with unregistered religious groups, representatives of non-governmental organizations, United Nations personnel, and members of the U.S. and foreign diplomatic communities. In a January 2005 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Commission commended the Administration for Eritrea's designation as a CPC and recommended subsequent actions that the Administration should take, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, in response to that designation.

As a consequence of the designation of Eritrea as a CPC, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • engage in vigorous advocacy on religious freedom and other universal human rights at all levels of involvement with the government of Eritrea and draw international attention to religious freedom abuses there, including in multilateral fora such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; and
  • conduct a review of development assistance to Eritrea with the aim of redirecting such assistance to programs that contribute directly to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; increases in other forms of development assistance should depend on measurable improvements in religious freedom.

With regard to religious freedom conditions in Eritrea, the Commission has recommended that the U.S. government should:

  • urge the government of Eritrea to undertake the following actions to improve respect for religious freedom in that country:
    • implementation of the Constitution's existing guarantees of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice;
    • institution of a registration process for religious groups that is transparent, nondiscriminatory, not overly burdensome, and otherwise in accordance with international standards;
    • prompt registration of those religious groups that comply with the requirements issued in 2002; religious groups should not be required to provide identifying information on individual members;
    • official, public action by Eritrean authorities to permit religious groups to resume their public religious activities pending registration, including reopening of places of worship closed by the ban in 2002;
    • issuance of a public order to the security forces reminding them that religious practice is not to be interfered with except in those circumstances permitted by international law;
    • release of detainees held solely on account of their peaceful religious activities; and
    • increased engagement by the Eritrean authorities with the international community regarding respect for freedom of religion or belief, including by making an official invitation for visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
  • encourage unofficial dialogue with Eritreans on religious freedom issues, specifically by:
    • the promotion of a visit to Eritrea by U.S. leaders concerned with freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in order to meet with Eritrean authorities and other opinion-makers and to facilitate dialogue among all Eritrea's religious communities;
    • the expanded use of educational and cultural exchanges, such as the Fulbright Program, the International Visitor Program, and lectures by visiting American scholars and experts, in order to introduce more Eritreans to the workings and benefits of societies in which religious freedom and other human rights are respected; and
    • support for a conference that would bring together international experts, government officials, and representatives of international organizations, religious communities, and civil society to discuss international human rights standards and best practices related to a) the registration of religious organizations and b) conscientious objection to military service;
  • seek the cooperation of other countries in promoting greater understanding by Eritreans of international standards regarding freedom of religion or belief;
  • support, and offer to provide funding for, the creation of an independent human rights commission in Eritrea, in line with the Paris Principles1 for such organizations, including independence, adequate funding, a representative character, and a broad mandate that includes freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief; and
  • intensify international efforts to resolve the current impasse between Eritrea and Ethiopia regarding implementation of the boundary demarcation as determined by the "final and binding" decision of the International Boundary Commission established following the 19982000 war.

1 Principles Relating to the Status and Functioning of National Institutions for Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, found in the Annex to Fact Sheet No. 19, National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu6/2/fs19.htm, accessed January 31, 2005).

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