ERITREA (FORBES)--At the end of May 2018, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea, a group of UK Parliamentarians from across both houses of Parliament, held a session at the UK Parliament to examine the ongoing religious persecution in Eritrea. The meeting was entitled ‘Religious persecution in Eritrea: A crime against humanity’ and was co-organised with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (another cross-party group consisting of over 110 UK Parliamentarians) with the support of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors UK and Aid to the Church in Need. It was chaired by Lord Alton of Liverpool who, over the years, has been a vociferous advocate for international religious freedom. During the event, religious leaders representing the Evangelical Protestants, Muslims and the Orthodox Coptic Christians, spoke of the challenges faced by their respective religious communities in Eritrea. Lord Alton speaking on the religious persecution in Eritrea, described Eritrea as the North Korea of Africa. Lord Alton raised the fact that the UK government appears to downplay the atrocities perpetrated against religious groups in Eritrea in order to ‘normalise relations’ with the Eritrean government. He claims that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in Eritrea, yet the world continues to look the other way.
The session coincided with a debate in the House of Commons (the so-called Westminster Hall debate) organised by Chris Philp MP, focused on the persecution of Christians worldwide. The debate raised the issue of religious persecution of Christians in Eritrea and, in particular, the case of 33 Christian women who were imprisoned for taking part in a prayer. Both events helped to shed light on the fact that not only is the religious liberty of Eritrea threatened, there is a strong argument that it does not exist in the first place (not in accordance to international standards). Religious persecution in Eritrea affects several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witness and Muslim communities. These communities were the first religious groups to experience such challenges in Eritrea before other religious groups came under threat.
Indeed, Eritrean law incorporates very few protections on religious freedom. Theoretically, the Eritrean constitution provides for a protection for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Yet, despite the fact that the Constitution was ratified in 1997, it has yet to be implemented. More worryingly, it looks unlikely to be implemented since President Afwerki announced plans to draft a new constitution in 2014, rather than to implement the existing one. As a result, religious freedom does not have any effective protection under the Eritrean law. The fact that the constitution has not been implemented detrimentally also affects the protection of other fundamental human rights.
The question is then, is Lord Alton correct to claim that the religious persecution in Eritrea amounts to crimes against humanity? In short, certainly yes. He is certainly not the only one to have reached such a conclusion. In fact, in 2016, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (the CoI-E) stated that there were reasonable grounds to conclude that crimes against humanity were being perpetrated in Eritrea. For this reason, the CoI recommended that the UN Security Council refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. In July, the CoI-E recommended that ‘an accountability mechanism to investigate, prosecute, and try individuals accused of committing crimes against humanity in Eritrea, including engaging in torture and overseeing Eritrea’s indefinite military service, which the CoI-E equated to slavery’ be implemented by the African Union.
Eritrea is a religiously diverse country and the government encourages a multi faith tradition, so long as the religion is officially recognised. The problem lies in the fact that the Eritrean government recognises only four religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. Other religious groups are subject to registration. Any religious group that is not registered is not allowed to conduct any religious activities until such time as the registration is granted. Having said that, according to Pew Research Centre, ‘the Eritrean government has not approved registration for any additional religious group since 2002.’
The result of the requirement to register religions is that certain religious factions become effectively outlawed. Evangelical and Pentecostal religious groups are two such examples of religions which were effectively outlawed after the introduction in 2002 registration requirement. Groups practicing these religions face the risk of arrest followed by indefinite detention without charge or any chance of redress, as well as the physical and psychological violence often experienced in detention.
In its 2017 report, USCIRF found that:
"Systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations include torture or other ill treatment of religious prisoners, arbitrary arrests and detentions without charges, a prolonged ban on public religious activities of unregistered religious groups, and interference in the internal affairs of registered religious groups."
According to USCIRF, religious prisoners are routinely detained in the harshest of prison environments where they are subjected to cruel punishments. The report further states that:
"Released religious prisoners have reported that they were kept in solitary confinement or crowded conditions, such as in 20-foot metal shipping containers or underground barracks and subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations."
USCIRF identified that the situation is particularly severe in the case of unregistered Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As a result of these challenges, USCIRF indicated that Eritrea meets the requirements for a country of particular concern (CPC) designation under the International Religious Freedom Act. Indeed, the religious persecution in Eritrea is of concern and needs to be addressed urgently. As long as the Eritrean government is willing to engage in a constructive dialogue with the UN and individual states, there is some hope that the dire situation of persecuted religious groups will change. However, if that dialogue fails, Eritrea may well deserve the designation of being the North Korea of Africa.
Ewelina U. Ochab is a human rights advocate and author of the book “Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.”