Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and the freedom to practice any religion.
Proclamation 73/1995, which serves as the guiding law on religious issues, calls for separation of religion and state; outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, including concerning foreign relations and social activities; establishes an Office of Religious Affairs; and requires religious groups to register with the government or cease activities. Some members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law reportedly continue to be subject to the former provisional penal code, which sets penalties for failure to register and noncompliance. A new penal code was promulgated in 2015 that does not directly address penalties for religious groups that fail to register or otherwise comply with the law, but includes a punishment for “unlawful assembly” of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 5,001 to 20,000 nakfa ($330-$1,300); however, the new code has not yet been implemented.
The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official registration. Each application must include a description of the group’s history in the country; an explanation of the uniqueness or benefit the group offers compared with other registered religious groups; names and personal information of the group’s leaders; detailed information on assets; a description of the group’s conformity to local culture; and a declaration of all foreign sources of funding.
The Office of Religious Affairs has registered four religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation). While the Baha’i are not one of the four officially recognized religions, they have registered every year since 1959, the year the chapter was established, and have “de facto” recognition from the government. A 2002 decree requires all other religious groups to submit registration applications and to cease religious activities and services prior to approval.
Religious groups must obtain government approval to build facilities for worship.
While the law does not specifically address religious education in public schools, Proclamation 73/1995 outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, and education is not included as an approved activity. In practice, religious instruction is commonplace within worship communities.
By law, all citizens between ages 18 and 50 must perform 18 months of national service, with limited exceptions, including for health reasons such as physical disability or pregnancy. In times of emergency, the length of national service may be extended indefinitely, and the country officially has been in a state of emergency since the beginning of the 1998 war with Ethiopia. A compulsory citizen militia requires some persons not in the military, including many who had been demobilized from National Service, are elderly, or are otherwise exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend ad hoc militia training. Failure to participate in the militia or national service may result in detention. Militia duties mostly involve security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling. Militia training primarily involves occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures. The law does not provide for conscientious objector status for religious reasons, nor are there alternative activities for persons willing to perform national service but unwilling to engage in military or militia activities.
The law prohibits any involvement in politics by religious groups.
The government requires all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to departing the country. The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information.
The law limits foreign financing for religious groups, including registered groups. The only contributions legally allowed are from local followers, the government, or government-approved foreign sources.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In December, the government released 28 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served prison sentences of between five and 26 years, in some cases for refusing compulsory military service. The government did not comment publicly or privately on the releases.
In April, the government reportedly arrested 15 Christians engaged in a worship service at an individual’s home, and in June, another 30 persons were arrested at a Christian wedding. Local contacts reported some, but not all, were released within a few weeks of arrest. There was no information on the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, the charges against them, if any, or if they remained in detention at year’s end.
The International NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including some who had been imprisoned without charge for 23 years, while estimates of the number of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than half of whom had been in prison for more than 20 years, for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith. There were unconfirmed reports that at least 101 of Muslim detainees arrested following protests in Asmara in 2017 and 2018 were released.
International media reported that authorities released from prison 22 Christians in July and at least 69 Christians in September. The released prisoners were not allowed to leave the country. According to CSW, those released in September had been in prison between two and 16 years without charge or trial prior to their release.
Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who last appeared in public in July, 2017, has remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting government interference in church affairs.
Determining the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and the reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.
The government continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service. The government continued to detain Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons. Authorities’ treatment of religious prisoners appeared to have been inconsistent. In some prisons, religious prisoners reportedly were not allowed to have visitors, but in others, visitors were allowed. Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter. Other former religious prisoners reported acceptable conditions, adequate food, and no physical abuse.
Religious groups were able to print and distribute documents only with the authorization of the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.
The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from international NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders. Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching their religious beliefs to others, although they reported that in many cases the government unofficially allowed them to worship in private homes as long as it was done discreetly.
The government, which has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002, stated that it is willing to register new religious groups. A representative of the Office of Religious Affairs said that the office had received applications since 2002 but that all had been “defective.” Unrecognized religious groups expressed fear that applying would open them to further repression.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.
Arrests and releases often went unreported. Information from outside the capital was extremely limited. Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge.
The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.
Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences. According to a report by the European Asylum Support Office, the issuance of exit visas was inconsistent and did not adhere to any consistent policy; members of unrecognized religious communities could be denied exit visas solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. Commercial air service was suspended from March through year’s end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it impossible for most citizens to acquire exit visas.
The government continued to ban all other practices of Islam other than Sunni Islam.
Official attitudes differed toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities. Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting. Local authorities sometimes denied government ration coupons to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups. Some religious prisoners reported they were allowed to worship together in prison as long as they did so quietly.
Diaspora groups reported authorities controlled directly or indirectly virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups. The leaders of the four groups continued to say that their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice. Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.
Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged. Religious structures formerly used by the Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities in Asmara have been preserved. The government protected the historic synagogue, which was maintained by the last Jew known to be remaining in the country. The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, and as there is no longer a Greek Orthodox community, members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church sometimes held religious services on the site. Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as the Church of Christ, remained shuttered. The government allowed the Baha’i center in Asmara to remain open, and the members of the center had unrestricted access to the building. A Baha’i temple outside of Asmara was allowed to operate. Other unregistered groups, including Seventh-day Adventists and the Faith Mission Church, operated to some degree and contributed to the government’s COVID-19 fund. The Anglican Church building held services, but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Some church leaders continued to state the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.
Government control of all mass media, as well as a fear of imprisonment or other government actions, continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government actions against them, according to observers. Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship in a designated place of worship, according to group members.
Observers noted that the government exerted significant direct and indirect influence over the appointment of heads of recognized religious communities, including the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community, and some international NGOs said that authorities directly controlled the appointments. The government denied this, stating these decisions were made entirely by religious communities. The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the acting head of the Sunni Islamic community and the acting head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower level officials for both communities. Observers said that since the 2017 death of the former mufti, Sheik Alamin Osman Alamin, the executive director of the mufti office, Sheik Salim Ibrahim al-Muktar, who was seen by observers as friendly to the government, in effect was acting as head of the Islamic community.
The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church remained without a patriarch since the 2015 death of the fourth patriarch, Abune Dioskoros. Lay administrators appointed by the PFDJ managed some church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.
COVID-19-related travel restrictions, including the closure of the airport in March, prevented Eritreans from taking part in travel abroad for religious reasons and hosting clerics from abroad. The government generally did not permit Muslim groups to receive funding from countries where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened the importation of foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations. However, the Catholic Church reported that in February, officials barred Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel and his delegation from entering the country after they arrived in Asmara at the invitation of Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam. According to the BBC, the officials stated they were following orders from those “higher up” not to permit the delegation to enter the country. The delegation was forced to spend the night at the airport and return to Ethiopia the next day. Delegation members said they had one-month visas and did not know the reason authorities turned them away.
The government permitted Catholic clergy to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers church officials considered adequate; they were discouraged from attending certain religious events while overseas. Students attending Roman Catholic seminaries, as well as Catholic nuns, did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government, according to Church officials. Some Catholic leaders stated, however, that national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training abroad, because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas.
While the overwhelming majority of high level officials, both military and civilian, were Christian, four ministers in the 17-member cabinet, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims.
The government, through National Service, the Warsay Yikealo Secondary School at Sawa that all 12th graders attended, and official party doctrine promoted a sense of national citizenship above religious sectarianism and stated that it does not officially prefer any religion.