International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 – Eritrea

Executive Summary


The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as the freedom to practice any religion. The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. It appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media reported that members of all religious groups were to varying degrees subjected to government restrictions. Members of minority religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and deaths in custody due to mistreatment and harsh prison conditions, and individuals observing the recognized faiths were detained without explanation. In February several NGOs reported Tsehaye Tesfamariam, a Jehovah’s Witness arrested in 2009 and imprisoned at the Me’eter Prison Camp until 2015, died in November 2016 from an illness contracted in prison that authorities reportedly refused to treat. According to Erimedrek News, on March 17, two Pentecostal Christians died after staging a hunger strike to protest their alleged abuse while imprisoned in the Wi’ia Military Camp. Their bodies reportedly showed signs of sexual abuse. In August Human Rights Concern Eritrea reported the death of Fikadu Debesai, a member of an unregistered Christian group who was reportedly arrested in May. In late October demonstrators gathered in Asmara to protest the October 27 arrest of Al Diaa Islamic School president Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur, who opposed government efforts to close the school. Security forces dispersed the demonstrators and many persons were arrested. Nur remained in prison at year’s end. Police arrested and later released the director of the Roman Catholic Medhanie Alem Secondary School and the school’s secretary. Both schools resisted government attempts to mandate the Ministry of Education curriculum. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and Human Rights Watch, between May and December, the government arrested approximately 210 evangelical Christians in house-to-house raids throughout the country reportedly for belonging to an unregistered religious group and imprisoned them on Nakura Island under harsh conditions. On July16, Patriarch Antonios participated in a Mass at Enda Mariam (St. Mary’s) Orthodox Church in Asmara, his first public appearance since being placed under house arrest in 2006. According to Jehovah Witnesses, 53 of their members remained in prison for their conscientious objection to obligatory military service. Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four registered religious groups remained closed,but many of those buildings were protected and undamaged. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were stripped of citizenship in 1994 due to their refusal to vote in the independence referendum, were largely unable to obtain official identification documents. Without official identification documents, many Jehovah’s Witnesses were effectively barred from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel. The government did not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, and continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment such as arrest and detention.

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