Open Doors Reports on Persecution in Eritrea
ERITREAN CHRISTIANS MARK 20 YEARS OF CHURCH CLOSURES
Christians in Eritrea mark 20 years of state persecution this month. The East African dictatorship shut down most of its churches in May 2002, outlawing every religion except Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and the Lutheran Church.
And today, 20 years later, the persecution continues. Release International is calling for full religious freedom in the country, which has been described as the North Korea of Africa.
‘Eritrea is like a giant prison,’ says Release partner Dr Berhane Asmelash. ‘The country is filled with jails. It is like North Korea.’
The government has closed many Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. And even registered churches come under tight control.
Christians who continue to worship in banned congregations are regarded as enemies of the state. And believers in the armed services caught practising their faith face imprisonment.
Estimates vary as to the number of Christian prisoners in Eritrea. According to partners of Release International there are still an estimated 220 Christians behind bars. In March 2022, Eritrea jailed 29 Christians, after police raided a prayer meeting in a private house.
‘Christians are the most persecuted group. It is because they won’t stop gathering and won’t stop worshipping,’ says Dr Berhane. ‘It is beyond the government’s control.’
Most Christian prisoners are believed to be Pentecostal or Evangelical. Many are detained indefinitely and have been held for more than a decade, often without charge at locations kept secret from their families. The authorities refuse to release records.
Some Christian prisoners have been kept in shipping containers, exposed to the searing desert heat by day and cold by night. Some are beaten and tortured to try to force them to renounce their faith.
The prison authorities ban praying aloud, singing, preaching or reading religious books.
One Christian prisoner, ‘Elsa’, said: ‘We were kept in underground cells. Sometimes the guards put us in a metal shipping container to torture us. This became so hot during the day, and then in the night it became freezing cold. We didn’t get much to eat and there was no medical treatment.
‘The guards offered to let us go, but only if we renounced our faith in Jesus. We said no.
‘One evening we were taken into the bush, and I knew we were going to be beaten. They were going to inflict as much pain on us as they could. The guards took it in terms to beat us. I will never forget hearing the screams of my sister. I never saw her again.’
Eritrea broke free from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year war for independence. Since 1993 the country has been ruled by a dictatorship, under the authoritarian president Isaias Afwerki and his party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).
Christianity took root in the region in the 4th century. Today, Eritrea is usually considered evenly split between Muslims and Christians, although Pew Research estimates almost 63 per cent to be Christian.