By Martin Surridge — A recent series of deaths, specifically occurring in both detention and torture centers, in the African nation of Eritrea, have a very concerning link to Christianity and the religious practice of the victims. Welcome back to Article18-RLTV’s first weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we will be focusing on a different nation, and the struggles facing its various religious communities. This week: Eritrea–a country in the Horn of Africa hardly known for its religious tolerance–is evidently persecuting members of its Christian population who have violated the country’s strict religious laws that only allow membership in certain state-approved denominations. Since 2002 Eritrean authorities have arrested thousands of believers for worshiping outside the control of the government and it is feared the situation is getting worse.
Coverage of Eritrea’s ongoing persecution of underground evangelical Christians gained further notice during the last couple of weeks as the entire North African region seems to be unraveling in a series of democratic uprisings. The theory, at least according to a recent post by Michael Ireland on Continental News, is that Eritrea sees the danger posed to the governments of Egypt and Tunisia by nontraditional minority groups with outside influences and different belief systems, and have cracked down on its own dissenting rebel communities–Christians. The story has been followed closely by BosNewsLife who quote the explanation given by President Afewerki.
“The Eritrean government has defended its crackdown on churches and devoted Christians who worship outside government control. President Isaias Afewerki is known to have said that several religious groups were ‘duped by foreigners’ who sought to ‘distract from the unity of the Eritrean people and distort the true meaning of religion.'”
The worry for many international activists and observers is that the current problem could turn into a full-blown religious liberty and humanitarian crisis where hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians are killed. Sadly, the fear of such a crisis is neither irrational nor entirely unfounded. According to the 2011 World Watch List, Eritrea ranks 12th in the world for countries that pose the most danger to Christian congregations, and the World Evangelical Alliance-Religious Liberty Commission (WEA-RLC) estimates that as many as 3000 Christians are currently suffering awful conditions, including torture, in Eritrea’s prison system. Some of these prisoners are dying due to being refused basic medical needs, including the torture and death of one woman, sent to prison for the crime of reading her Bible alone in her bedroom.
Barnabas Aid explains perhaps some of the most sobering news of all. In addition to the recent prison deaths from a lack of medical attention,
“Almost an entire congregation – 41 people – from the capital Asmara was taken into custody where they are said to have endured beatings. The following day, 27 believers from various underground churches near Asmara were rounded up by the security forces. On 9 January, 35 Christians including 15 women and two elderly men in poor health were seized from a house church gathering in the town of Nakfa.”
The problem may get worse in the future, either due to increased internal pressure in Eritrea or the fear of similar uprisings throughout the region. However it’s clear that the problem of Christian persecution in Eritrea lies not in the future, but clearly in the present.