Eritrea was an Italian colony, administered by Great Britain after World War II, and then federated with Ethiopia in 1951. An independence movement soon became active. After three decades of war Eritrea became a separate nation.
The conflict was bitter and costly; for many years Ethiopia was controlled by one of world's most brutal communist regimes, which was complicit in the 1980s famine that killed an estimated one million Ethiopians. A bloody border war flared up between the two nations a dozen years ago. Eritrea also fought a brief war with Yemen over a disputed island. These conflicts have provided the governing regime an excuse for delaying elections and repressing human rights, including religious liberty.
Eritrea continues to have a malign impact on its neighbors. Last month the State Department reported that Asmara "acted as a principal source and conduit for arms to antigovernment, extremists, and insurgent groups in Somalia." Eritrea has responded to Washington's criticism with vitriol, accusing Washington of promoting chaos in the region. The State Department has suspended consular services at the embassy in Asmara and issued a travel warning for Eritrea.
As bad as the Eritrean government is for its neighbors, it is far worse for its own people. Eritrea is widely recognized by human rights groups and Western states as having an extraordinarily repressive government. It is one of "the world's most systematic human rights violators," according to the State Department.
The Department's 2009 Human Rights report catalogued a long list of abuses, including "abridgement of citizens' right to change their government through a democratic process, unlawful killings by security forces, torture and beating of prisoners, sometimes resulting in death, abuse and torture of national service evaders, some of whom reportedly died from their injuries while in detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions," and many more.
Last year Freedom House rated Eritrea "Not Free" and placed the country in the lowest category for political rights. Freedom House explained: "The government of Eritrea continued its long-standing suppression of democratic and human rights in 2008, and a group of independent journalists imprisoned in 2001 remained behind bars. The country also maintained its aggressive foreign policy in the region, initiating border-related clashes with Djiboutian forces."
Similarly, Human Rights Watch declared: "Eritrea has become one of the most closed and repressive states in the world. Thousands of political prisoners are detained in prisons and underground cells; there is no independent civil society; all independent media outlets have been shut down; the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church is in incommunicado detention; and evangelical Christians are rounded up and tortured on a regular basis." Another HRW study referred to the government having "established a totalitarian grip on Eritrea."
Amnesty International has routinely detailed human rights abuses by the Asmara authorities. Last year, for instance, the organization noted that "The government prohibited independent journalism, opposition parties, unregistered religious organizations, and virtually all civil society activity." Moreover, Amnesty added, "thousands of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners remained in detention after years in prison."
Some countries establish political tyrannies while leaving people alone in their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, Eritrea fears freedom of conscience in any form. Freedom House pointed to "significant limitations on the exercise of faith." A review directed by Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute explained that "The government had long used the threat of real or perceived enemies to generate popular support." Those targeted include religious believers. Noted the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, "government spokespersons have cited Pentecostals, along with Muslim extremists, as threats to national security."
The Asmara regime routinely assaults religious liberty. The Commission said last year: "The government of Eritrea continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom." A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found government restrictions on religious freedom to be "very high" in Eritrea, placing that nation among the ten worst nations rated.
Since 2004 the State Department has targeted Eritrea as a "Country of Particular Concern." Last year Open Doors ranked Eritrea at number nine on its watch list, up from number eleven the year before. This year Eritrea fell back to number eleven, its relative improvement primarily reflecting the worsening of conditions in Laos and Uzbekistan, which moved up on the list.
Last year International Christian Concern placed Eritrea at number nine in its annual Hall of Shame. According to the ICC the intensity of persecution was "high" and "increasing." In the ICC's report this year the group abandoned its attempt to rank persecutors, but again included Eritrea among the worst ten. Eritrea placed among the top four in intensity of persecution, along with North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia.
The Institute on Religion and Public Policy reports that the Asmara government recognizes only four churches: "the government routinely fails to approve registrations" and "interferes in the everyday workings of registered religious groups at the highest levels." The State Department echoed that conclusion: "The government continued its involvement in the affairs of the four approved religious groups." It is far worse, however, for those churches which are not authorized. State explained that "Authorities regularly harassed, arrested, and detained members of various religious groups. The government closely monitored the activities and movements of unregistered religious groups and members, including social functions attended by members."
The list of abuses is lengthy. Reported the Commission:
Violations include arbitrary arrests and detention without charge of members of unregistered religious groups, and the torture or other ill-treatment of hundreds of persons on account of their religion, sometimes resulting in death. Other serious concerns continue to include the prolonged ban on public religious activities by all religious groups that are not officially recognized, closure by the authorities of the places of worship of these religious groups, inordinate delays in acting on registration applications by religious groups, and the disruption of private religious and even social gatherings of members of unregistered groups.
Non-Sunni Muslims also suffer. Businesses, both Christian-owned and retailing Christian products, are targeted by the government. The military is the fount of much abuse: at risk are Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims who refuse to perform military service as well as Christian personnel banned from practicing their faith. Many people of faith go to jail for their beliefs. In 2005 Amnesty International published an extensive report "on widespread detentions and other human rights violations of members of at least 36 evangelical Christian churches."
More recently, the Commission reported that "Eritrean security forces have disrupted private worship, conducted mass arrests of participants at religious weddings, prayer meetings, and other gatherings, and detained those arrested without charge for indefinite period of time." Government restrictions make it hard to count the number arrested and imprisoned, but stories of arrests, imprisonment, and torture have become sadly routine. Nevertheless, the stories of many victims ultimately leak out.
International Christian Concern estimated that "there are more than 3,000 Christians imprisoned in Eritrea. Many are kept in metal shipping containers, military barracks and prison cells under inhumane conditions. Many Christians have been paralyzed or killed in prison due to torture and lack of medical condition." Conviction of a crime in a court of law is not required for imprisonment.
The prison conditions alone would be considered as torture almost any where else on earth. Reported the Institute on Religion and Public Policy: "Prospects for these recent detainees and those held for several years are grim," as "it is not uncommon for prisoners to die from the torture and the inadequate and unsanitary conditions to which they are exposed." Marshall's report details the horror: "Life in detention centers is extremely harsh since it occurs in some of the hottest places on earth. The Bada detention center lies in an area 70 meters below sea level and at times experiences temperatures of over 60 degrees C. In such conditions, people have died or gone insane."
The Asmara government even presses people to renounce their religious beliefs. Explained the State Department:
There continued to be reports that police forced some adherents of unregistered religious groups held in detention to sign statements saying they abandoned their faith and to join the Orthodox Christian Church as a precondition of their release. These individuals typically faced imprisonment and/or severe beating until they agreed to sign the documents. Reports indicated these individuals were also monitored afterward to ensure they did not practice or proselytize for their unregistered religion.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Eritrea routinely rates near the top of every list of religious persecution. The Eritrean government typically responds that such reports are "hyperbole" and "distorted and exaggerated." They are not.
Not all religious persecutors are geopolitical problems. Not all geopolitical problems are religious persecutors. Alas, Eritrea is both.
Washington's options in dealing with Asmara's tyranny are limited. But the president should use his bully pulpit to publicize and embarrass human rights violators like Eritrea. The administration should work with allies and friends to apply diplomatic pressure and develop sanctions targeted against regime elites.
The U.S. also should welcome refugees seeking to escape a countrywide prison camp. We know what happens when asylum applicants are sent back to Eritrea: Amnesty International has reported on cases of asylum-seekers from other nations who were forcibly returned and who then disappeared from public view, apparently arrested on their return. Torture and lengthy imprisonment likely followed.
Finally, the rest of us should seek to discomfit Eritrean officials and protest Eritrean policies. We should help refugees fleeing repression of all kinds and back groups which support religious liberty. And we should pray for the martyrs of faith today. People around the world continue to pay the ultimate price for freedoms which we in America take for granted.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).