Tackling the Root Cause of Christian Persecution in Eritrea

By: Fernando Perez

Eritrea, one of Africa’s newest and smallest countries, has jailed, tortured and killed numerous evangelical protestant Christians over the last eight years.

IIRF-Research and Analysis Report

Tackling the Root Cause of Christian Persecution in Eritrea
November 29, 2010

Eritrea, one of Africa’s newest and smallest countries, has jailed, tortured and killed numerous evangelical protestant Christians over the last eight years. Concerns over Christian persecution have been raised at various international forums, but there has been little change in the attitude and policy of the one-party government. That’s because the root cause of growing religious restrictions in the country remains intact.

The man behind religious persecution, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, is a “Christian.” He is a member of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, an Oriental Orthodox church, in the capital city of Asmara – belonging to the largest among the only three Christian denominations allowed to function in the country. However, 64-year-old Afewerki has the reputation of being an alcoholic, and a ruthless autocrat.

Afewerki, the leader of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice party, not only targets “unregistered” Christian groups, but also the leadership of his own denomination, the (Coptic) Orthodox Church of Eritrea, as well as “unrecognised” non-Sunni Muslims and followers of the Baha’i faith.

Afewerki’s policy of restrictions is more about his fear that religion will mobilize people than religion per se. In other words, he wants to restrict and pre-empt any formation of people’s association.

This is why the government has not allowed any political opposition in the country or civil society – there are no protests or unions either. Anyone who has openly criticized the government or tried to mobilize people for a cause has been jailed or had to flee the country. There is no privately-owned news media because impartial news organizations are seen as a tool of the United States intelligence CIA.

The government sees democracy as a threat to the nation’s unity and stability, on which Afewerki has concentrated its efforts in his 17 years of rule – without seeking people’s approval by an election.

Afewerki’s anxiety – real or pretentious – can be seen against the backdrop of the complex geopolitics in the Horn of Africa (Northeast Africa containing the countries of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia).

Eritrea’s strategic importance – it has a 1,150-km Red Sea coastline and abundant mineral resources (nearly 60 percent of the lands in Eritrea have minerals including emeralds and gold) – has been like a curse in disguise. It has been invaded and colonized by many external forces, including the Arabians, the Turks, the Portuguese and the Egyptians, and more recently, by the British and the Italians. After the colonial powers left, Eritrea was annexed by its giant neighbor, Ethiopia, in 1952. Eritrea gained independence in 1991 after a 30-year war. But border disputes with Ethiopia still remain.

Since Afewerki became the President in 1993, his government imposed severe civil and political restrictions citing threat from Ethiopia as the prime national interest. Presidential elections were planned for 1997, but they were not held under the same disguise.

Particularly after a war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 – which cost Eritrea around 70,000 lives –Afewerki, who led the country to independence from Ethiopia, became over-suspicious and a lot more autocratic.

As part of its policy of extreme caution against external threats, the government in 2002 imposed restrictions also on religious groups other than the four recognized religious denominations – the Orthodox Church of Eritrea; Sunni Islam; the Roman Catholic Church; and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea (Lutheran). The government asked unregistered groups to furnish financial and membership details as an excuse to outlaw them.

By imposing restrictions, the government sought to target mainly Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian denominations, which grew in numbers during the two-year war with Ethiopia. Many youngsters in the army – mainly those serving under the nation’s compulsory national service programme – became followers of these denominations and would meet secretly for prayer and Bible study. But the government was nervous about youth with military background meeting together.

The government’s concern remains till today. Although most groups submitted the details sought by the government and applied for registration, the ban remains active till today.

For similar reasons, the recognized churches also faced intrusion and still aren’t allowed to criticize any government policy. In 2005, when Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church spoke against state interference in the church’s internal matters, he was put under house arrest and replaced by another church leader.

The government also fears – or claims to do so – that religious freedom will lead to evangelism by Christian groups and thereby cause social tensions which can be exploited by “outside forces” to destabilize the nation. The Muslims – the eastern and western lowlands – and the Christians – mainly highlanders – are equal in number in the country, and this balance is seen as a key factor that has kept communal violence at bay. Eritrea has a population of over 5 million.

Due to its alleged fears, the Eritrean government has imprisoned tens of thousands of people, mainly for political and religious reasons, and tortured and killed many of them extra-judicially. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 Christians are in Eritrean prisons.

The Constitution of Eritrea, which provides freedom of religion for all faiths, was ratified in 1997 but has not been implemented – for the same excuse that the nation is under threat.

Ethiopia is the main but not the only source of fear for Eritrea. Eritrea has troubled relations with most of its neighbours – Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Somalia and Djibouti. Relations are strained also with the United States, the European Union as well as the African Union.

In 2009, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Eritrea for its support of the Somali Islamic insurgency – Islamist groups like al-Shabab and Hisbul-Islam, which see Ethiopia as an enemy, are fighting for control of the capital city of Mogadishu. In protest, Eritrea suspended its membership of the African Union alleging that the United States was behind the move.

Afewerki dislikes the United States because Ethiopia is a strategic partner in the global war on terror and Washington has allegedly neglected the grievances Eritrea has had with Ethiopia concerning the border dispute.

The State of Eritrea is believed to be crumbling given its isolation and economically poverty (as per the latest Global Hunger Index, Eritrea is among the world’s top 10 countries with the worst levels of hunger), though gradually. It is highly doubtful that the Afewerki government will be able to sustain the unity and stability of the nation with its authoritarian rule for much longer. Analysts say citizens inside the country and the Eritrean diaspora are losing patience and may rise up against the authoritarian government. Especially those compelled to serve in the army may pose a threat to the government. If Afewerki’s government falls, as a result of a people’s movement, it will take a heavy toll on people’s lives, including that of Christians, as the government will overreact.

More desirable will be change through cautious engagement with Eritrea by nations and blocs that care for democracy and prosperity in that country. However, no engagement without helping minimize tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia can be fruitful. Once that happens, the nation will have to eventually implement the constitution, hold multi-party elections, release political and religious prisoners and grant equal rights to adherents of all faiths.