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Executive Summary

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as the freedom to practice any religion. The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. It appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community. Most places of worship other than those of the four registered religious groups remained closed, but most of those buildings were unharmed and protected, including the Bahai center and Jewish synagogue. The government continued to limit financing of religious organizations and only allowed contributions from local followers or from government-approved foreign sources. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were stripped of citizenship in 1994 due to their refusal to vote, were unable to obtain official identification documents as in previous years. The government did not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment such as arrest and detention, and denied them the opportunity to obtain a national identity card required for most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.

The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of sources made it difficult to obtain accurate information on specific religious freedom cases. According to the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch, all religious groups were to varying degrees targeted by government restrictions. Amnesty International reported the government subjected members of unauthorized religious groups to arbitrary detention, torture, forced recanting as a condition of release, and other forms of ill-treatment. January marked the tenth year of Patriarch Abune Antonios’s house arrest. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI) corroborated reports that more than 10 Orthodox priests were detained in April for protesting his continued detention and expressing concern about government plans to appoint a new patriarch following the death of Abune Dioskoros, who was appointed by the government following the detention of Patriarch Abune Antonio. According to international representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Saron Gebru, a 28-year-old woman, began serving a six-month sentence in April after “being convicted for attending the 2014 Memorial of Christ’s death.” She was released on October 5. Meraf Seyum Habtemariam, a 53-year-old female Jehovah’s Witness, remained imprisoned after being arrested for taking part in a “religious activity” in October 2015. The COI reported in June 2015 that authorities prohibited religious gatherings; arrested, subjected to ill-treatment, beat, and coerced religious adherents to recant their faith; and “disappeared” many religious followers between 1991 and 2015. The COI’s findings relied primarily on testimony from victims and witnesses, thematic discussions, and written submissions. The June 2016 report concluded, “There are reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials have and still continue to deprive Eritrean “Pentes,” (members of Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal religious groups) and some Muslims, of fundamental rights contrary to international law on religious grounds. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been targeted since May 1991, and other nonauthorized religious denominations since no later than 2002.” The COI also concluded, “Persecution on both religious and ethnic grounds has been an integral part of the Eritrean leadership’s plan to maintain its authority in a manner contrary to international law. Thus, the Commission finds that Eritrean officials have committed the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, in a large-scale and routine manner since May 1991.” The COI found “that, at a minimum, the persecution of members of nonauthorized religious denominations persists.” The government continued to deny the COI access to the country.

Refugees outside the country reported that neighbors in the country sometimes turned in to local authorities members of unregistered religious groups that met together in homes to worship.

U.S. embassy officials continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training. Embassy officials also met with clergy, leaders, and other representatives of religious groups, both registered and unregistered. Embassy officials also discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of interlocutors, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, and UN officials. Embassy officials used social media platforms and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.

On October 31, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act. Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

International Religious Freedom Reports
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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future