Eritrea: 20 years without religious freedom

In May 2002 the government shut down many Christian churches. There are around 220 Christians in prison and Eritrean troops are killing pastors.

Evangelical Focus

Release International · ASMARA · 27 MAY 2022 · 18:45 CET

Eritrea. / Photo:  <a target="_blank" href=""> Pixabay</a>,, CC0 .,
Eritrea. / Photo: Pixabay,, CC0 .

This May marks 20 years since the Eritrean dictatorship shut down most Christian churches.

The only religions allowed are Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox church, Roman Catholicism and the Lutheran Church, although the registered churches are also under tight control.

Christians who continue to worship and meet in banned congregations are considered enemies of the country, which is known as “the North Korea of Africa”.


220 Christians in prison

Christian organisation Release International estimates that there are around 220 Christians in prison. Last March, 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, and that is beyond the government’s control”, says Release International representative Dr Berhane Asmelash

Most of them are detained indefinitely and have been held for over a decade, often without charge at locations kept secret from their families. The authorities refuse to release records.

Some Christian prisoners are also tortured, by keeping them in shipping containers, “exposed to the searing desert heat by day and cold by night. Some are beaten to try to force them to renounce their faith”, reports Release International.

Furthermore, the prison officials ban praying aloud, singing, preaching or reading religious books in prison.


Government control

Due to the rigid control that the totalitarian government of Eritrea exercises over its citizens, around half a million have left the country, according to the UN data. Tens of thousands have risked death from drowning to escape to Italy.

Most people 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 and control them”, explains Release International.

The Eritrean constitution forbids religious discrimination, but it has not been implemented since 1993, when the authoritarian president Isaias Afwerki and his party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) took control after the country broke free from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year war for independence.


Pastors killed

Asmelash also denounces that “Eritrean troops are killing pastors and raping their wives. Hundreds are dying in this conflict at the hands of Eritrean soldiers”.

“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 leaders, they can easily manipulate the people. So wherever they go, if they see a religious leader they will kill him”, he pointed out.


Pray for Eritrea

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom “Eritrea continues to have one of the worst religious freedom records in Africa”.

The country ranks 6th on Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian

They ask to pray “for all our brothers and sisters currently imprisoned for their faith,and that the Lod might provide fellowship for all believers, and protect gatherings from the watchful eyes of the state”.

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