Eritrea is situated in the Horn of Africa and is one of the world’s most repressive and closed countries. There may be as many as 20,000 prisoners of conscience, including many Christians, all imprisoned without trial. Eritrea has no independent judicial process or independent media and unions and political parties cannot be formed. The UN estimates that about 4,000 Eritreans flee the country every month to escape repression and indefinite military service.
In 2016, a Commission of Inquiry mandated by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) accused the Eritrean government of carrying out crimes against humanity in a “widespread and systematic manner”. In July 2021, the HRC passed a resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea for another year, in recognition of the continuing repression. Eritrea has refused successive requests by the Special Rapporteur to visit the country.
The signing of a peace agreement with Ethiopia in July 2018 raised hopes of change in Eritrea but there were no immediate reforms and by April 2019 President Afewerki had closed all the border crossings into Ethiopia that had been opened in September 2018. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom stated in its 2019 report that despite positive changes in air travel, telecommunication and trade, no real progress had been made on religious freedom and human rights in Eritrea. In 2020, however, a wave of prisoner releases began (see below) that saw over 200 Christians freed by the following spring.
Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a thirty-year war, and the two countries fought a border war between 1998-2000, following which the Eritrean government became increasingly repressive.
President Isaias Afewerki (pictured), who led the fight for independence, has governed since 1993, taking complete power in 2001 after overseeing a crackdown on political opposition and anyone perceived to be a threat to the government, including Christians. Since independence there has never been an election and the constitution has not been implemented. The ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, controls nearly every aspect of society.
In September 2001, the government closed all independent media outlets and President Afewerki ordered the detention of 28 politicians and journalists who had criticised him and had called for democracy – they have not been seen since and ten are reported to have died. Most foreign aid workers were forced to leave in 2002.
Eritreans must complete their secondary education with a year at Sawa Defence Training Centre, followed by military service, supposedly for 18 months. However, the government’s fear of Ethiopia means that military service (mandatory for all men and unmarried women between 18 and about 50) can last indefinitely, and conscripts serve for many years, for little or no pay. Female recruits report frequent sexual abuse by military commanders. Jehovah’s Witnesses suffer because of their refusal to take part in military service.
Christians in Eritrea
In May 2002, the Eritrean government banned all religious groups except the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches and Sunni Islam. The crackdown on Christians followed a Pentecostal revival, particularly among young Eritreans doing military training and service – President Afewerki seemed concerned that young Eritrean soldiers who had become Christians would refuse to obey orders.
Christians from banned denominations began to be arrested (often at church services, Sunday Schools and even at weddings) and incarcerated in appalling conditions in shipping containers, open air facilities in military camps, pits in the ground and police stations, without charge or trial. Prisoners experience torture, hard labour, filthy conditions and insufficient food. They are denied visits from lawyers and family and Christian prisoners may not pray aloud, sing or read the Bible. Prisoners crowded into metal shipping containers face extreme heat during the day, freezing temperatures at night and a lack of oxygen and sanitation.
The number of imprisoned Christians fluctuates as prisoners are released to free space for those recently arrested. Many others are under house arrest. Beatings, torture and extreme deprivation (starvation and lack of medical care, even after bones are broken in beatings) leave many prisoners disabled and some dead. Many come under severe pressure to sign documents renouncing their faith. If they refuse they are brutally punished and threatened that their families will be arrested. Church properties have been seized, their bank accounts frozen and members made redundant.
Several prominent church leaders arrested in 2004 have remained incarcerated in high-security prisons ever since, incommunicado. In November 2019, Dr Berhane Asmelash of Release Eritrea said, “More than one hundred have been locked up for at least seven or eight years. Of these, about forty have been imprisoned for 14 years or more.”
The majority of Eritrean Christians, approximately 85%, are Eritrean Orthodox: of the total population, about 42% are Orthodox, 3.4% Roman Catholic and 1.4% Protestant. The number of evangelicals is growing but is impossible to estimate as they meet in secret.
Even the permitted churches face persecution. In January 2006, the government deposed the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church Abune Antonios (pictured) because he asked for the release of some Christian prisoners. He has been in detention ever since, much of the time incommunicado, and priests and monks seen as sympathising with him have been detained, harassed and conscripted.
Several Orthodox priests have been in prison since 2004 because of their involvement in a renewal movement, while five Christians training to be pastors in the permitted Lutheran church were arrested in April 2014. In June 2019, five more Orthodox priests were arrested and the government closed 21 health centres owned and run by the Catholic Church, which had provided high-quality care to at least 170,000 people every year. The closures followed a call by Catholic bishops for national reconciliation and for reforms to stem the tide of emigration.
Poverty, oppression and indefinite military conscription lead many Eritreans to flee despite the government’s shoot-to-kill border policy. Leaving national service or the country without permission is considered treason, and refugees are sometimes pursued for recapture by the Eritrean authorities, who may also target family members remaining behind.
Most Eritreans who manage to escape without falling prey to human traffickers settle well, especially in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, but those who have tried to settle in Islamic countries such as Sudan (where there are over 100,000 Eritrean refugees), Libya and Egypt have experienced human rights violations. Many Eritreans risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to be granted asylum in Europe. The United Nations estimated that there were 507,300 Eritrean refugees at the end of 2018, roughly 10% of the population of the country.
Wave of releases
In 2020, the Eritrean authorities began to release Christian prisoners and by March 2021 it was reported that only about 130 Christians remained in state jails, plus an additional estimated 150 Christian conscripts held in army prisons for practising their faith. The number rose in late March when 35 Christians were arrested at two prayer meetings, although 22 of them were released from Mai Serwa prison just two weeks later.
The reason for the releases is unclear: some think they are the result of individual prison governors’ approach to Covid-19; others have suggested that they are an attempt to deflect international attention from the involvement of Eritrean troops in the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region (see below), where they have reportedly committed many human rights violations. It has also been suggested that Christians have been released from prison to curry favour with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who is a Christian.
The wave of releases began in July 2020, when 22 Methodists from the mountain city of Keren were released after spending a year in prison, followed in the autumn by the release of 69 Evangelicals and Pentecostals who had been in Mai Serwa prison for between four and 16 years. In December 2020 the authorities also released 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including three high-profile conscientious objectors whose cases had been highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea to the UN Third Committee in New York in October 2020.
Ten long-term Christian prisoners were released from Mai Serwa prison in the second week of January 2021, followed between late January and 1 February by the release of 83 more Christians: 64 who had been held in Mai Serwa and Adi Abeito prisons for between two and twelve years; and nineteen who had been arrested in 2020.
On 28 February 2021, 21 Christian women were released from Nakura prison, a notoriously harsh prison in the Dahlak Archipelago where they had been held for over three years. In April 2021, fourteen Christian men were released from the same prison. All 35 Christians released from Nakura prison were from a large group of Pentecostals arrested in the summer of 2017 on the direct order of President Afewerki.
War in Tigray
In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the Ethiopian Army to move into the Northern Tigray Regional State (which borders Eritrea and where 96,000 Eritrean refugees lived, including many Christians) and to impose a state of emergency. Heavy fighting with the rebel Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ensued, with thousands of people killed and up to two million displaced. The conflict also sparked major shortages of food, water and medicine.
Eritrean soldiers, who had reportedly entered Tigray to support Ethiopia in its fight against Tigrayan rebels, have been accused of attacking and burning refugee camps housing Eritrean refugees, attacking churches and committing atrocities against the Tigrayan people including killing hundreds of civilians. They reportedly forced many refugees to march to the border where they were put into trucks and driven back into Eritrea. Ethiopia and Eritrea initially denied that Eritrean troops were involved in the conflict, but witnesses reported the presence of thousands of Eritrean soldiers.
Helen Berhane is a Christian singer and preacher who was arrested in Asmara in 2004 after an album of her gospel music was released. She was put in prison, where she spent most of her time in a crowded metal shipping container. In October 2006, Helen was brought to hospital after a very bad beating by a prison guard. She escaped from Eritrea and eventually went to live in Denmark with her daughter, Eva, where her health gradually improved. In 2009, Church in Chains brought Helen to Ireland to speak and sing at the Annual Conference in Athlone. In 2010, Helen married fellow Eritrean Tesfaldet Meharenna in Copenhagen.
(Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Concern Eritrea, Human Rights Watch, International Christian Concern, Open Doors, Operation World, Release Eritrea, Release International, Reporters Without Borders, UNHCR, World Watch Monitor)
Church in Chains in Action
Church in Chains has campaigned with several other organisations for many years to raise awareness of the persecuted church in Eritrea. Each year, Church in Chains participates in an annual protest vigil at the Eritrean Embassy in London, which is also accredited to Ireland.
In summer 2017, Church in Chains launched a postcard campaign encouraging supporters to send postcards to President Afewerki and Estifanos Habtemariam Ghebreyesus (the Eritrean Ambassador to the UK and Ireland, based in London) appealing for the release of Christian prisoners.
On 12 July the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea for another year
14 men had spent four years in Nakura prison (pictured) while 22 women were freed after two weeks in Mai Serwa prison.
Two groups of Eritreans, totalling 35 Christians, have been arrested for holding prayer meetings.
On 26 February, 21 Christian women were released from Nakura prison in the Dahlak archipelago in the Red Sea.
In the past two weeks at least 83 Christian prisoners have been released, including Mussie Eyob and Aklilu Desbele, and Church in Chains has learned that Twen Theodros was released in late 2020