Only individuals who were members of the four officially recognized, registered groups were able to practice their religious beliefs freely. The government continued to detain members of unregistered religious groups, many of them because of refusal to participate in the militia program or national service due to conscientious objection to bearing arms. The government held persons associated with unregistered religions in detention without due process, occasionally for long periods of time, sometimes by informally charging them with threatening national security. Prison conditions were reportedly harsh, but there was no independent confirmation because the government did not allow international monitoring.
Three persons detained for religious objections to military service were reported to have died in custody and some 300 individuals were reportedly arrested. At year’s end international faith-based NGOs estimated the population of those imprisoned because of their religious beliefs to be between 1,200 and 3,000.
Government secrecy and intimidation of sources made it impossible to determine the precise number of those imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. Releases and arrests were often unreported. Information from outside the capital was extremely limited.
There were unconfirmed reports that 12 participants at a New Year’s prayer event were arrested in Dekemhare. In March unconfirmed reports stated the government had arrested 125 Christians from an unregistered group in Barentu and another 17 in Keren. The same sources indicated one detained Christian had died at the Ala Military Camp.
In May 37 students at the College of Arts and Sciences in Adi Quiyeh who belonged to unregistered Christian groups were reported to have been arrested. Also in May authorities allegedly arrested five persons from the Church of the Living God in Asmara.
In July faith-based sources reported 39 high school students who belonged to an unregistered religious group had been arrested after completing training at the Sawa educational facility. Additionally, a recent convert to an unregistered Christian group was said to have died in Mendefera while in government detention during July.
In August government authorities were said to have arrested 30 members of the Church of the Living God who had gathered for an evening prayer outside Asmara.
According to Release Eritrea, a UK-based NGO, 150 adherents of an unregistered Christian faith found praying together in Maitemenai, a suburb to the north of Asmara, were arrested in October.
According to 2013 reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, 56 Jehovah’s Witnesses remained incarcerated, including a number of people in their 70s or 80s.
The government detained religious prisoners at Me’eter prison, near Nakfa. There continued to be reports that police forced some members of unregistered religious groups who were being held in detention to sign statements declaring they had recanted their religious beliefs. Authorities reportedly sometimes released detainees who promised to give up adherence to an unregistered religious group. Released prisoners who had been held for their religious beliefs reported harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement.
Members of several religious groups whose tenets did not permit bearing arms faced reprisals for refusal to participate in military portions of national service or the new civilian militia program. The government singled out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket conscientious objection to bearing arms. The government reportedly penalized Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who did not participate in military service on religious grounds by denying them government services and entitlements.
The government continued to require students in their final year of high school to attend the Sawa Training and Education Camp, which included six months of military training. Authorities at the Sawa Camp reportedly abused trainees, particularly those whose religious beliefs included objections to bearing arms. Students who did not want to attend military training at Sawa, including some conscientious objectors, sometimes left the country illegally, despite a shoot-to-kill order for attempting such action.
Some religious leaders stated that national service prevented adequate numbers of seminarians needed to staff religious institutions from completing theological training.
Official attitudes toward members of unregistered religious groups, who worshiped in homes or rented facilities, differed by location. Some local authorities tolerated unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting. The national government continued to disrupt home-based worship and arrested those who hosted prayer meetings. Local authorities sometimes denied community-based services to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.
The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), appointed both the mufti (head) of the Islamic community and the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, as well as some individuals in lower-level religious positions. PFDJ-appointed lay administrators managed some operations of the Orthodox Church, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service. Former Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios, appointed by the Orthodox Church leadership in Cairo and arrested in 2006 for protesting government interference in church affairs, remained under house arrest and was said to be in poor health.
The government allowed Muslims to practice only Sunni Islam, but permitted Muslims to take part in the Hajj, travel abroad for religious study, and host some clerics from abroad. The government generally did not permit Islamic groups to receive funding from governments of nations where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened to import foreign fundamentalist or extremist tendencies.
The government sometimes permitted Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from Rome or other foreign locations. Catholic clergy were permitted to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers that Church officials considered adequate.
Religious facilities not belonging to the four officially recognized religious groups remained closed. Several unoccupied religious structures formerly used by Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and Church of England groups still stood in Asmara. The government permitted foreigners to worship at these sites. Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, remained shuttered, although the government allowed the Bahai center to operate discreetly.
Persons who acknowledged membership in unregistered religious groups generally had difficulty obtaining passports and exit visas.
Some church leaders stated the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and indirectly reduced religious participation.
The government permitted military personnel to possess religious books associated with registered religious groups and to pray privately.