At Large

Religious Persecution on the Horn of Africa

An early challenge for the Obama Administration.

By 3.3.09

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Somalia continues to implode, as Islamists gain increasing control over what remains of the impoverished, conflict-ridden nation. But it is not the only human tragedy in the region. Eritrea, which won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after decades of war, has earned a reputation as one of the world's youngest tyrannies. It also is one of the world's worst religious persecutors.

Eritrea poses an early challenge to the Obama administration. Border disputes with Ethiopia continue to threaten to flare into combat. Moreover, U.S.-Eritrean relations deteriorated steadily during the Bush years, as Asmara banned operations by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Washington imposed an arms embargo because of Eritrea's weapons shipments to next door Somalia. Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki now has approached the Obama administration lobbying for a change in U.S. policy -- expressing his hope in his congratulatory letter to Obama on his election that the U.S. will now "advance the cause of regional peace, justice and legality" -- but Washington should make Eritrea's atrocious record of religious persecution part of any dialogue.

Not even two decades old, Eritrea has become one of "the world's most systematic human rights violators," according to the State Department. Some countries establish political tyrannies while leaving people alone in their religious beliefs, but others fear freedom of conscience in any form. Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute explains that "The government had long used the threat of real or perceived enemies to generate popular support." That includes religious believers, even though Eritrea's population is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Notes the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, "government spokespersons have cited Pentecostals, along with Muslim extremists, as threats to national security."

The result is a consistent assault on religious liberty. The Commission said last year: "The government of Eritrea continues to engage in systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom, and the situation appears to have deteriorated in the past year." The Institute on Religion and Public Policy reports that only four churches are recognized, "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 last year: "the government severely restricts freedom of religion for groups that it has not registered and infringes upon the independence of some registered groups." State added that the government "closely monitored the activities and movements of unregistered religious groups and members, including nonreligious social functions attended by members."

The list of charges is lengthy. Reports the Commission: "Current 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 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."

Even as President Afeworki was writing to President-elect Obama, abuses were continuing. In early November 36-year-old Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, an evangelical Christian, died in military detention from lack of medical attention. His death followed that of Azib Simon in July. She was arrested for attending a banned church, tortured in an attempt to force her to recant her faith, and refused medication for malaria for failing to recant. Compass news service reported that another Christian prisoner, Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, died at another detention camp on January 16, as a result of torture and untreated medical problems.

Muslims, too, are persecuted. Writes Marshall: "During the first few years of independence, several Muslims were detained, disappeared, or, in some cases, were extrajudicially executed." Only a variant of Sunni Islam is permitted today.

The list of victims goes on: Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims who refuse to perform military service, Christians in the military banned from practicing their faith, and Christian-owned businesses and businesses selling Christian products. 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." The Commission reports 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." Stories of arrests, imprisonment, and torture have become sadly routine.

Indeed, International Christian Concern estimates that more than 2,000 Christians "are imprisoned in metal shipping containers, military barracks and prison cells." Prison alone almost qualifies as torture. Reports 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." Explains Marshall: "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 attempts to forcibly overturn religious belief. Explained the State Department: "There were reports that police forced some adherents of unregistered religious groups held in detention to sign statements to abandon their faith and 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 document. Reports indicated that these individuals were also monitored after they signed to make sure that they did not practice or proselytize for their unregistered religion."

It comes as no surprise, then, that Eritrea routinely rates near the top of religious persecution lists. In 2004 the State Department targeted Eritrea as a "Country of Particular Concern." Open Doors recently ranked Eritrea at number nine on its watch list, up from number eleven last year. International Christian Concern also placed Eritrea at number nine in its annual Hall of Shame. According to the ICC the intensity of persecution is "high" and "increasing."

The Eritrean government's responds that such reports are "hyperbole" and "distorted and exaggerated."

There's no easy answer to the problem of religious persecution. But it should be a priority of U.S. diplomacy as a matter of basic human rights. Open Doors reports that "an estimated 100 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest and even death for their faith in Christ, with millions more facing discrimination and alienation."

Other faiths, too, face persecution. The Institute on Religion and Public Policy offered set of recommendations to the Obama administration, explaining that "minority religious rights are a global issue: Religious liberty is not partisan, nor is it denominational. The status of Hare Krishnas in Kazakhstan, Ahmadis in Pakistan and Zoroastrians in Iran are just as important as the status of Evangelicals in each of those countries." The U.S. should stand for freedom of conscience irrespective of the faith involved.

That doesn't mean going to war to transform other societies. But it does mean exposing abuses and using the bully pulpit to educate and embarrass. And it means dedicated private efforts, especially through churches and NGOs. America also can accept more refugees from religious oppression abroad, starting with Iraq, where the Christian community has become a target of discrimination and violence.

The Obama administration faces problems big and small. Eritrea is one of the latter. Nevertheless, it poses both a significant moral if not security challenge. How President Obama responds will help set the tone for the rest of his term.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).