The Eritrean government has officially recognized only four religions which are the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. All other religions and beliefs are deemed as illegal in the country. Though the Eritrean Constitution guaranteed the right to freedom of religion and belief, it has still failed to put this in practice since its ratification in 1997. This leaves many Eritreans in a vulnerable situation when exercising their right to freedom to religion or belief.
Even if there are officially recognized groups, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) Annual Report 2019 has recognized that even these groups have struggled to practice their faith freely as the Eritrean government regulates and interferes in their affairs. This makes Eritrea one of the CPCs (Country of Particular Concern) during the 2020 report. CPCs, according to the USCIRF website, are those countries that “commit systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”. These countries are recommended for policy options, which include sanctions, to the US state department.
Eritreans have suffered under the rule of President Isaias Afwerki, the leader of the only political party permitted in the country since 1993, who forcefully suppresses individual human rights. He exercises the right to freedom of religion or belief but with exceptional repression and has used the absence of peace with Ethiopia to justify authoritarianism. The government of President Isaias, hence, does not have any particular religious affiliation. In effect, the country under Afwerki portrays an old-style secular police state that tolerates religion when it is considered useful, but then represses it whenever it has become a threat. The country’s human rights record has also routinely ranked and stooped lowly among the worst in the world. For the Eritrean Christians, this kind of government is not the solution but is the problem.
Eritrea was condemned as one of the most dreadful countries for religious freedom and has shown no signs of improvement. The Eritrean government has continually suppressed its citizens and uses difficult registration requirements as a method to limit freedom for religion and belief in the country. Eritreans who are affiliated with “unrecognized” faith faced raids on their homes, imprisonment and torture. Release can only be done with written renunciation of religious affiliation. It is truly alarming that there are incidents where they detain and torture religious prisoners of conscience among others.
Recently, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Church in Chains (Ireland), the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the UK, Human Rights Concern-Eritrea and Release Eritrea hosted an online protest against the continuing repression of freedom of religion or belief in Eritrea during the evening of May 28. As the lockdown restrictions in the UK are still implemented, the annual protest which usually takes place outside the Eritrean embassy in London, was done online, which included a one-hour online prayer service, with contributions from each of the organising groups and a number of special guests, including Lord Alton of Liverpool and Eritrean Gospel artist Helen Berhane. Tens of thousands of Eritreans are still detained without charge or trial under life threatening conditions in different sites across the country. Eritreans are hopefully seeking help and are waiting to be heard one day to be free.