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.’
Another Eritrean refugee, ‘Dawit’, described the torture he was put through to Release International: ‘I was arrested because of my Christian faith. Each night I had to sleep on the floor with my arms and feet tied together tightly, they called it the Number 8.’
Dawit said his legs were doubled up behind his back and lashed to his wrists. ‘Because of that I still have back pain.’
Sometimes prisoners are tied up and hanged from trees. One form of hanging is known as the Jesus Christ, because it looks like a crucifix.
The totalitarian government in Eritrea exercises rigid control over its citizens. Many have fled the country. According to the UN, half a million have left. Tens of thousands have risked death from drowning to escape to Italy.
‘Yet,’ says Dr Berhane, ‘Christianity has continued to grow in Eritrea’.
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.
Most Christians are members of the state-controlled Eritrean Orthodox Church, whose Patriarch was placed under house arrest and replaced by an Eritrean government appointee. The Eritrean Orthodox Church often regards evangelicals with suspicion.
Although the country’s constitution forbids religious discrimination, that constitution has yet to be implemented.
Eritrea has been accused of exporting persecution to neighbouring Tigray, where its forces have sided with Ethiopia against Tigrayan separatists.
Tigray is known for its churches, monasteries and ancient Bibles, some of them 1,000 years old.
In November 2020, Eritrean forces were accused of killing hundreds of civilians in the sacred city of Aksum, including, according to Orthodox Church sources, ‘at least 78 priests’.
And another former prisoner of faith, Helen Berhane, says the killing of Christians is continuing in Tigray.
‘Eritrean troops are killing priests and raping their wives. Hundreds of priests are dying in this conflict at the hands of Eritrean soldiers.’
What lies behind the persecution is the desire for power and control, believes Release International partner Dr Berhane Asmelash:
‘Religion is power. Every village has a church. The church is the centre of the community. Remove the church and the community will be left without leaders. The Eritreans believe if they kill the priests and leaders, they can easily manipulate the people. So wherever they go, if they see a priest they will kill him.’
According to The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom ‘Eritrea continues to have one of the worst religious freedom records in Africa.’
‘Freedom of faith is the cornerstone of all human freedoms,’ says Release International CEO Paul Robinson. ‘Release International continues to call on Eritrea to set free every Christian prisoner and permit full freedom of faith once again in their country.’
UK-based Release International is active in around 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs, prisoners of faith and their families, as well as Christians suffering oppression and violence, and Christians forced to flee.
Christian media covered the story as a result of this news release, including Trans World Radio: