2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: 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.  Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups, and their members can be subjected to additional security service scrutiny.  The government appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community.  International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media continued to report members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions.  Members of unrecognized religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and deaths in custody due to mistreatment and harsh prison conditions, and detention without explanation of individuals observing the recognized faiths.  In March Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur died of unknown causes in police custody, where he had been kept since October 2017.  Reports indicated police arrested hundreds of protesters, including minors, at or soon after his funeral.  In 2017, the government closed a secondary school sponsored by an Islamic organization but later allowed the school to reopen for one year; in contrast, a private school sponsored by an Islamic organization remained closed.  NGOs reported two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses died early in the year in Mai Serwa Prison outside of Asmara.  International media and NGOs reported authorities conditionally released some Christians from unregistered groups from prison during the year after they had renounced their faith in 2014.  Authorities continued to confine Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios under house arrest, where he has remained since 2006.  The government granted entry to prominent Ethiopian television evangelist Suraphel Demissie in June as part of the first set of flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara after the airways reopened; onlookers filmed him preaching on the streets of Asmara.  NGOs reported the government continued to detain 345 church leaders and officials without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 53 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith.  An unknown number of Muslim protesters remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.  The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994.  Some religious organization representatives reported an improved climate for obtaining visas for foreign colleagues to visit Eritrea and increased ability to call their counterparts in Ethiopia.

The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious community sources created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom.  Religious leaders of all denominations and the faithful regularly attended celebrations or funerals organized by the recognized religious groups.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including the March protests surrounding the death of Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur, the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios.  Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during a series of bilateral meetings with visiting senior Eritrean officials in Washington on multiple occasions during the year.  Embassy officials met with clergy, leaders, and other representatives of religious groups, both registered and unregistered.  Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of interlocutors, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, as well as UN officials.  Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.  Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

For the full report see here.