The government detained persons associated with unregistered religious groups, without due process, occasionally for long periods of time, sometimes after informally charging them with threatening national security. Members of several religious groups whose tenets did not permit bearing arms faced much harsher reprisals than those prescribed by law, including detention for years or decades, hard labor and physical abuse, inadequate food, water and shelter, and the withholding of government documents and entitlements such as passports and ration cards.
There was no independent confirmation of these conditions because the government did not allow international monitoring, although contact with some individuals with direct knowledge of the situation was possible.
The government singled out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to bear arms. Jehovah’s Witnesses were collectively stripped of citizenship in 1994 after their refusal to participate in the country’s 1993 independence referendum. According to the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters, there were an estimated 73 Jehovah’s Witnesses in detention, including three men detained for 20 years.
On April 14, authorities arrested more than 90 Jehovah’s Witnesses at a service in a private residence in Asmara. Those arrested included males and females ranging in age from 16 months to 85 years. Authorities released them without charge approximately one month later. On April 27, authorities arrested 31 Jehovah’s Witnesses who were meeting together for Bible study at a private residence in Asmara. The detainees reportedly were later released.
The government detained Jehovah’s Witnesses and other prisoners held for religious/national security reasons at Me’eter prison, near Nakfa and other locations. Prisoners held for national security reasons were not allowed visitors and families often did not know where they were being held. There continued to be unofficial reports that police forced some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, who were being held in detention, to sign statements recanting their religious beliefs. Authorities reportedly sometimes released detainees who promised to give up adherence to an unregistered religious group. Released prisoners who had been held for their religious beliefs reported harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement.
Government secrecy and intimidation of sources made it impossible to determine the precise number of those imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. Releases and arrests often went unreported. Information from outside the capital was extremely limited.
The government continued to require students in their final year of high school to attend the Sawa Training and Education Camp, which included six months of military training. Authorities at the Sawa Camp reportedly administered harsh treatment to trainees, particularly those whose religious beliefs included objections to bearing arms. Students who did not want to attend military training at Sawa, including some conscientious objectors, sometimes fled the country, despite an official shoot-to-kill policy for illegal emigrants.
Most religious facilities not belonging to the four officially recognized religious groups remained closed. The government allowed Muslims to practice only Sunni Islam. Several religious structures used by unregistered Jewish and Greek Orthodox groups still stood in Asmara. The government protected the historic Jewish synagogue, even though there were not enough Jews remaining in the country to hold services. Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists, remained shuttered, although the government allowed the Bahai center to remain open, but not for worship services. There were reports of other Protestant denominations holding services in homes, but not openly.
Official attitudes toward members of unregistered religious groups, who worshiped in homes or rented facilities, differed by location. Some local authorities tolerated unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting. The national government continued to disrupt home-based worship and arrest those who hosted prayer meetings. Local authorities sometimes denied community-based services, such as water and gas, to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.
Individuals who were members of the four officially recognized, registered groups were generally able to practice their religious beliefs freely.
The government permitted military personnel to possess legally printed religious books.
Some church leaders stated the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing the churches from training pastors or priests or building facilities.
In May four Catholic bishops published a pastoral letter sharply criticizing the government about its human rights record. There was no public government response, positive or negative, or even acknowledgment of the letter.
The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), appointed both the mufti (head) of the Islamic community and the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, as well as some lower-level Islamic and Orthodox religious officials. PFDJ-appointed lay administrators managed some operations of the Orthodox Church, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service. Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios, appointed by the Orthodox Church leadership in Cairo and arrested in 2006 for protesting government interference in church affairs, remained under house arrest and was said to be in poor health.
The government permitted a limited number of Muslims, mainly the elderly and those not fit for militia service, to take part in the Hajj, travel abroad for religious study, and host some clerics from abroad. The government generally did not permit Islamic groups to receive funding from governments of nations where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened to import foreign fundamentalist or extremist tendencies.
The government sometimes permitted Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from Rome or other foreign locations. Catholic clergy were permitted to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers church officials considered adequate. Students attending the Roman Catholic seminary as well as Catholic nuns did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government. Some religious leaders stated, however, national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training in Rome or other locations because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas. The government permitted the church to receive financing from the Holy See. In October the visiting Apostolic Nuncio was refused permission to visit parishes outside of Asmara.
The government did not permit the Evangelical Lutheran Church to receive foreign funding.
Reportedly, persons who acknowledged membership in unregistered religious groups generally had difficulty obtaining passports and exit visas.