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Last Updated: Friday, 17 September, 2004, 03:00 GMT 04:00 UK
Religious persecution in Eritrea
By Jonah Fisher
Former BBC correspondent in Asmara

Main cathedral in Asmara
The Catholic Church is one of four approved religions

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.

We were put into a metal shipping container... During the day it very hot and at night very cold
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.

Eritrean president
President Isaias Afewerki does not allow political dissent either
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.

Here is a selection of your comments on this story.

Like most Eritreans, I and my family had contributed to the liberation of Eritrea as freedom fighters for a number of years before the independence. After independence, I ( and one of my brothers) served in the police force. My religion is Orthodox Christian. But one of my sisters (who also was a freedom fighter for 12 years before indepenence) changed her religion to Jeohvah's Witnesses in 2001. The Government ordered us to convince her to get back to her 'normal' religon. She was beaten and tortured, but never changed her mind. My brother saw her determination and Faith and followed her footstep. My problem started then. All the three of us were put in jail and labelled 'A family of traitors'. I was interogated through torture to tell them 'for whom the family is working'. When they failed to get any information from me and knew I have not changed to Jehovah's Witness, they released me in October 2003. Later, I was able to cross the border and escape to Sudan. I have no information as to what happened to my brother and sister since then.
Ewne, Europe

I am a "Pente" as they call us, that used to support the Eritrean government's actions against Jehovah's Witnesses. However when the government started persecuting us I had second thoughts and now I realize that I was totally wrong in not speaking out in support of free worship. As the old adage goes "if they come for them in the morning they will come for us in the evening". Two years ago I posted an apology to all Jehovah's Witnesses for my stand against them. I hope they will forgive me. As for those who are still supporting the government's actions against freedom of religion it will not be long before they will find out that the government will come against them and there will be nobody left to protect them. I pray for peace and calm, I am sure one day we will see a bright future where freedom of religion reigns in this unhappy and sad country. Peace.....
janet tesfai, boulder, colorado u.s.

Eritreans are free to practice what every religion they wish to practice. As long as that religion is not used as excuse from our national obligation, I remember when the government started the national service and school registrations there was some of our Moslem father who refuse to send there female kids to school because of there believes but the government told them religion can¿t be used as excuse you can practice whatever you want to practice but when it come the nations future we are not just Moslem or Christian first we are Eritrean.
Samson Debsay, Seattle, USA

Although I am from orthodox church,I am happy that there is growing much attention regarding the unwaranted and intolerable religious perecution of eritreans who are members of the minority religions.I can't put all the atrocities of these believers but I want to say on it is the propaganda of the regimes supporters and the governmnent byitself. They always say that this are not patriotic. This is a totally LIE. I was in Assab during the 1998 war with ethiopia. The believer of the minority religions are the one who vigilantlly defended their land.
Negassi, Sweden

Even those approved religious institutions have no full right to carry out their duties. Only Elders can go freely, without being asked for ID and movement permit, when going to church and pray. When the priests preach they have to make sure directly or indirectly they don't complain about their rights being suppressed by the government. The priests have no right to visit prisoners, certain sick people and more, which is part of the mission of Christianity and Islam.
Haben Tesfay, London / Eritrean

I think the Eritrean Government is right. Why do we Eritreans need new and 'imported' religions in the first place?
Gebremichael, England

I'm not a politician nor interested in politics but this is just too much to bear. It reminds me of my childhood in Mengistu's time when this type of power abuse was practiced! I'm an Orthodox Ethiopian that attends the Christian Pentecostal Church, whenever I travel to Addis or in Sweden. Worshipping God together is the only place were we Ethiopians and Eriterans gather. Please let the Christians say their prayers in Eritera that's what is giving all of us peace. We'll remember you in our prayers!
Alemu, Stockholm/Addis

Eritreans are allowed to practice any kind of religion so long as it is in conformity with the law of the land. The problem arises only when some religious groups refuse to abide by the law (i.e. do the national service). And those groups cannot be exempted to do their national duties for it would be unfair on those who do their duties, besides it would be open to abuse. Furthermore, Eritrea (a nation of 4 million) can not afford to scrub the National Military Service because of the tension with Ethiopia over the border.
Daniel Abraham, London, UK

I agree with Eritrean state religion police because a country that has the same language and the same religion helps its own national unity and development.
Anteneh, Addia Ababa, Ethiopia

One Sunday morning, more than one hundred Jehovah's Witnesses followers were gathered and praying in the centre of Asmara. The government soldiers encircled us and beat us. Then after, they divided us into different groups and detained us in different locations for a month. At last, they told us we were no longer Eritreans and Eritrea didn't need such kind of people. The relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea hadn't deteriorated at that time. So a group of 40 people including women were deported to the border town of Zalambesa in Ethiopia. Since then I am living in the Ethiopia capital Addis Ababa freely with my belief and I can pray day and night as I wish.
Hailat, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I agree with the Eritrean Government in banning these denominations which enter the country and disrupt its functioning by preaching and proselytising the citizens. I am referring to the Protestant denominations like Pentecostal, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. They use US money to propagate their religious bigotry and should be banned.
Edgar Martins, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I was doing my national service in Sawa Military training during the period 1999- 2001. During the two years period of my stay in Sawa, I witnessed an enormous amount of beating and torture to individuals who happened to be followers of Jehovah's Witness and Pentecostal (commonly known as "Pente") religions. I was, on many occasions, a prison guard to these people. The Jehovas are detained for refusing, according to their faith, to take the military training. But the "Pentes" are usually simply detained for reading bibles, praying in a group, singing gospels etc during the free time, even though they are good soldiers. Once they are detained their head is shaven, like the other criminals in the prison. 20-30 of them are detained in a 3x4 metal-house. They were allowed to go out only for 30 minutes in whole day. The perfect relaxation time for the detainees were when they were taken to load and unloads cement, food etc from trucks. They all prefer this work than to be locked in the container even though it is physically exhausting for them. But the worst time for all of them was during 'questioning' time. They were badly beaten to the extent that noses are broken, feet bleed. After the beating comes the notorious 'helicopter' torture in which your two legs are tied with your hands on your back. You are thrown in the sun and milk is poured on your body to attract the flies. It was the most inhuman treatment I have ever witnessed
Amanuel, Cape Town, South Africa

New unity in Eritrean opposition
15 Aug 04  |  Africa
Country profile: Eritrea
16 Jul 04  |  Country profiles

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