Religious persecution in Eritrea (+ readers debate)

If you are Catholic, Muslim, or a member of the Orthodox and Evangelical churches in Eritrea then it seems you can breathe easy.

However, those who believe and practise minority faiths are routinely persecuted, according to human rights groups.

Two years ago the Eritrean government introduced a registration system for religions which forced groups to submit information about themselves in order to be allowed to worship.

Apart from the four mentioned, other faiths have not been recognised.

And human rights groups have regularly complained that people practising minority religions have faced harassment.

Secret Meeting

I went to visit a small part of a Christian Pentecostal Church that has been banned from meeting for the past two years.

When I arrived in a small dark room of a private house, 12 men and women face away from each other, looking to the corners of the room.

Lit by just a small lamp, some of them are singing, some praying, occasionally one breaks into prayer and collapses to the floor.

The congregation has divided into small groups. There are 10 other gatherings just like this, taking place across Asmara tonight.

These people are very trusting of each other – just by being here and praying together.

There have been numerous occasions reported around Eritrea of neighbours and friends of worshipers informing the authorities.


A few days later I arranged to meet a man, who I will call Samuel.

Samuel was attending a religious service, just like the one I was at, when soldiers arrived.

“I was praying with six people at a house one evening and the soldiers came into the house, watched us for one minute and said these meetings are forbidden,” he told me.

“We were beaten with sticks and then taken to a police station.”

Samuel told me that he and the other Pentecostals had spent the next three months being moved between different locations where they were regularly beaten.

“We were put into a metal shipping container with nine Jehovah’s Witnesses; one of them was in his 90s. During the day it very hot and at night very cold”.

Eventually Samuel said he was released after signing a document in which he promised to return to Orthodox Christianity.


His case, it seems, is not an isolated one. I spoke to one American journalist while she was in Eritrea, undercover, researching religious persecution.

She asked that I not mention her name, so that she can return to the country.

She told me she repeatedly heard from individuals telling her police had taken them off and beaten them after interrupting them praying at home with friends.

They were then told they were an enemy of the people and forced to either sign a paper or kept in jail if they wouldn’t sign and left in containers.

“All of these things are just happening repeatedly over and over from people of all different Christian denominations and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. So it is very pervasive of any group that are not part of the four major religions,” she said.

The evidence she has seen herself is undeniable, she says. “I’ve seen the scars on people’s legs, I’ve seen their tears and it’s very real and they live under a lot of fear.”

I was asked to leave Eritrea before I could get a government response to my research and experiences, but a statement from the foreign ministry rejected accusations of religious persecutions from the United States.

The government seems to have decided that anyone who does not follow a certain standard is an enemy of the people, is an enemy of the state.

It is afraid that people who consider their highest allegiance to be God, at some point may not be patriotic and follow the state’s instructions.

At a time of growing tension, both with Ethiopia and Sudan, it seems the Eritrean government is determined that nothing, not even religion, should fall outside their control.

Editor’s Note: the full article includes comments made by Eritreans and others from Africa, both against and in favour of the policies and practices mentioned in this article

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday September 18, 2004.
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