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ICC Note

Eritrea, which has been called the North Korea of Africa, is one of the most repressive states in the world. In 2002, the Eritrean government declared that there were only 4 legal religious organizations in its borders. These included the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations and Sunni Islam. When they find people that do not fit into one of these allowed religions, they arrest them as enemies of the state. They have held many people for years without any charges. This includes one man whose wife was able to relate her story to World Watch Monitor.


2017-09-15 Eritrea (WorldWatchMonitor) World Watch Monitor reported a month ago how a mother of three, Fikadu Debesay, died in a desert camp where she had been imprisoned together with her husband. Their crime? Belonging to a non-sanctioned church in Eritrea.

Like Debesay, Ruth is in her late 30s, has three children, and although not imprisoned herself, her church-leader husband is. Here, she tells World Watch Monitor about life as a Christian single mother in Africa’s most repressive state. Initially it is difficult for her to talk and speak openly. Words come hesitantly, carefully considered. But then, as she relaxes, she’s almost eager to talk about things kept inside for so long.

“I was born into a Christian family and, when I became a teenager, in 1994, I decided I wanted to take personal responsibility for my faith. Since then, I’ve experienced what it is to worship God both in freedom and now in secret,” she says.

Ruth became a Christian in a church that enjoyed freedom, but eight years later, in 2002, a law was passed in Eritrea prohibiting Christian practice outside Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations – and also Sunni Islam – so members of outlawed churches now meet in secret in private homes.

The year after her church was officially closed, Ruth married her husband, already a church leader. They had three children, but then the government imprisoned him.

Ruth says that, since then, life has become extremely difficult: “I always worry and wonder how he is. I also find it unbearable to see how my three young children miss him. They always cry for baba. They sometimes perform poorly in school because they miss him so much. It is so hard to care for them by myself.”

Raising a child in this climate of state-repression is a challenge, she says: “When a baby is born in Eritrea, the most important papers are the birth and vaccination certificates. But those mean nothing without a baptism certificate from one of the recognized churches”. In other words, children can only be admitted to school if parents are members of one of the state-recognized churches. The same applies to obtaining food coupons and gaining access to other public services, says Ruth. It is the government’s way of identifying members of unregistered religious groups.



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