The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated 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 Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups; their members have been arrested and mistreated and their eventual release from detention has sometimes been conditioned on a formal renunciation of their faith. Some unregistered groups are allowed to operate, and the government tolerates their worship activities. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international media continued to report that members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions. During the year, the government both arrested and released individuals imprisoned on the basis of religion. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), officials released 70 individuals imprisoned on the basis of religion in the first two months of the year: six on January 27, and 64 on February 1. On April 5, the Christian NGO Release International reported two new sets of arrests, one set of 23 persons in Asmara and the other of 12 persons in Assab. On April 12, the BBC reported that 36 Christians were released on bail, including 22 from the previous group in Asmara reported by Release International and 14 who had been in prison on the Dahlak Islands for four years. According to Christian Today’s September reporting, authorities arrested 15 Christians, all of whom had previously been imprisoned for their religion. NGOs estimated authorities continued to detain from 130 to more than 1,000 people due to their faith. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith. At least 20 Muslim protesters reportedly remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018. Authorities continued to confine former Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios to house arrest, where he has remained since 2006. The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994 for refusing to participate in the referendum that created the independent state of Eritrea.
While the government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious communities created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom, religious tolerance appeared to international observers to be widespread within society. Churches and mosques are located in close proximity to each other, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on the occasions of religious holidays and other events. There were no reports of sectarian violence, and most towns and ethnic groups included members from all the major religious groups.
U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington raised religious freedom concerns with government officials throughout the year, including the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios. Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of individuals, including members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara, in other countries in the region, and UN officials. Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom and rebut the government’s argument that it does not persecute people based on their religious beliefs.
Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the ongoing denial of licenses or other approvals for exports or imports of defense articles and services as referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(n) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.