Eritrea’s persecuting government
When Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, it was widely hoped that the nation would become an example of good governance for the whole of Africa. Sadly, Eritrea is now regarded as one of the worst persecutors of Christians in the world.
Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa. Its area is roughly that of England and Wales, comprising a dry, temperate plateau and hot, desert lowland along the Red Sea coastline. After 60 years of colonial rule by Italy and then Britain, in 1951 Eritrea became part of a federation with Ethiopia.
Ten years later, several Marxist liberation movements began a war for Eritrean independence, which took more than 30 years to reach the desired outcome. But although the economy was devastated in the conflict, Eritrea began its new life amid much optimism, as former insurgents set aside their ideologies in the interests of building the nation.
A new constitution was ratified by the National Assembly in 1997. It provided for political and religious freedom and guaranteed a fair legal system. The country was established as a democracy and elections promised. But the constitution was never implemented and elections never happened.
Attempts to reconstruct Eritrea’s infrastructure were frustrated by further war with Ethiopia, and conflicts in neighbouring Sudan and Somalia exacerbated the region’s instability.
The Eritrean government has proved to be suspicious of dissent, perceiving it as the work of internal enemies. As a result, most rights guaranteed by the constitution have tacitly been set aside. So at present Eritrea is one of the most repressive countries in Africa.
Compulsory national service, which used to last only 18 months, has been made indefinite, and every year thousands of Eritreans flee the country to escape it. Eritrea has become notorious for its appalling legal and detention systems. Prisoners may be kept in custody for years without trial and are unable to communicate even with their families.
Some are held in harsh conditions, such as metal shipping containers or underground prisons — scores of people may be incarcerated together and temperatures can fluctuate massively. Prisoners may lose their eyesight in the prolonged darkness. Reports of torture and beatings are common, and some have died in custody.
Reliable statistics for the different religious groups in Eritrea are not available. However, it is estimated that 50 per cent of the 3.6 million population is Sunni Muslim and 45 per cent professes Christianity. Most of the latter belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Church. There is a sizeable Roman Catholic community and smaller Lutheran church; other Protestant groups are very small.
Eritrean citizens are tolerant towards one another’s religious adherence. Islam predominates in the lowlands and Christianity in the highlands, but mosques and church buildings co-exist throughout the country. In the capital, Asmara, Christian and Muslim holidays are respected by all religious groups.
But despite this, Eritrea has the second worst record in Africa for abuse of religious liberty, and in 2006 the US government redesignated it as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act.
The Government officially recognises only the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches, and Sunni Islam. In 2002 it declared that other religious groups must register, but in practice registration has proved impossible as the Government has not approved any applications.
Following the 2002 decree, buildings belonging to non-registered groups were forced to close. Some local authorities still allow these groups to worship in homes or rented spaces, but sometimes these gatherings are disrupted and their hosts arrested; in other places no meetings are allowed, or are limited to groups of five people or fewer.
This denial of legal status to smaller denominations heralded the beginning of a severe and increasing persecution. The Eritrean government is deeply suspicious of the links that some churches have with international Christian bodies. Even Eritrean church leaders, who founded many churches without foreign assistance, are accused of being non-indigenous.
In late November 2008 a campaign of mass arrests was initiated. More than 100 men, women and children from a variety of Christian denominations were detained.
It is reported that they were transferred to a military facility, where many were severely mistreated. Local sources indicate that some may have died after being denied access to medical treatment.
It is estimated that the number of Christians in detention rose from around 300 in 2003 to more than 2000 in 2007. Non-governmental sources put the 2008 figure at 3225, including many church leaders.
Please pray for the persecuted Christians of Eritrea, as they seek to be faithful to the Lord under great pressure and oppression. Pray for those who are imprisoned, beaten and tortured for their faith, and for those bereaved of loved ones or living in uncertainty without news of them.
Pray that international pressure will persuade the Government of Eritrea to implement the country’s constitution and grant full religious freedom to all its citizens.
Edited from an article by Barnabas Aid