The Eritrean government has rejected a claim by the US State Department that it violates religious rights and severely restricts freedom of worship for all but four government-sanctioned religions: Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Catholics, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
The accusations were made in a statement issued by the US State Department.
“The statement by the State Department does not come as a surprise to Eritrea as it has been no secret that the CIA and its operatives have been long engaged in fabricating defamatory statements in a bid to embark on other agendas and at the same time conceal its unwarranted intervention,” the Eritrean Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.
“It is only astonishing to see the US, which lacks moral and legal high grounds on human rights and the respect for religions, make an attempt to become the self-appointed adjudicator,” the ministry added in a statement.
In its International Religious Freedom Report for 2004, which was released on Wednesday, the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, said the Eritrean government’s “poor respect for religious freedom for minority religious groups” had continued to decline.
Over 200 members of religious groups reportedly detained
“The government harassed, arrested, and detained members of Pentecostal and other independent evangelical groups, reform movements from and within the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the US said. “There were also numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at forced recantations.”
Noting that there “were numerous credible reports that over 400 members of non-sanctioned religious groups have been detained or imprisoned,” the US said “government restrictions make it difficult to determine the precise number of current religious prisoners, but it is likely over 200.”
According to the US, the Eritrean government closed all religious facilities not belonging to the four sanctioned religions, following a decree issued in May 2002 which required religious groups to register or cease all religious activities.
“Leaders of the nonsanctioned religious groups were warned that, until the registration applications were received and approved, no religious activities or services could be held,” the US said. To register, each group was required to describe its history in the country, explain the “uniqueness” or benefit that it offered compared to Eritrea’s other religious groups, and give the names and personal information of religious leaders.
They were also required to provide a list of group members, detailed information on assets and property owned by the group, and sources of funding from outside the country, to a government committee that reviews the applications. However, no registrations had occurred “despite the fact that several religious groups submitted their registration documents over 2 years ago and continued to inquire with the relevant government offices”.
The US State Department charged that “the government closely monitors the activities and movements of nonsanctioned religious groups and individual members, including nonreligious social functions attended by members.” It added. “The government also harassed and monitored some Orthodox congregations whose religious services it did not approve.”
Police accused of torturing religious detainees
“There were several reports that on occasion police tortured those detained for their religious beliefs, including using bondage, heat exposure, and beatings,” the US said. “There also were credible reports that some of the detainees were required to sign statements repudiating their faith or agreeing not to practice it as a condition for release. In some cases where detainees refused to sign, relatives were asked to do so on their behalf,” it added.
The report, which lists detailed cases of arrests and other forms of abuse, said the US Secretary of State had designated Eritrea as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
Eritrea has a population of around 3.6 million of whom about half are Sunni Muslims and 40 percent Orthodox Christian. There are small numbers of Roman Catholics, Protestants Seventh-day Adventists and 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the State Department. About two percent of the people practice traditional indigenous religions while very small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is also exist.
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