Will The “North Korea of Africa” Truly Open Up?

By Benjamin Harbaugh

The small African country of Eritrea sits nestled on the coast of the Red Sea. Roughly the size of Pennsylvania, Eritrea changed colonial hands after World War II and ended up as an autonomous province of Ethiopia in 1952. After its semi-autonomous status was ended ten years later, the region broke out into a violent struggle for independence. Eritreans finally realized their aspirations in a 1993 referendum where they voted overwhelmingly for independence from Ethiopia.[1]

However, this independence came at a great cost. The president of the new country, Isaias Afwerki, ruled with an iron fist. He used his popularity as a freedom fighter to consolidate power and gain total control of the country. Afwerki quickly repressed the Eritrean people with mandatory conscription that could last anywhere from five to twenty years and began to systematically infringe on the basic human rights of Eritreans. Eritrea has been consistently ranked as one of the most egregious abusers of human rights in the world.[2]

The government of Eritrea has specifically targeted religion in its abuse of its citizens. Eritrea divides religions into two categories—recognized and unrecognized. There are only four religions in the first category: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea.[3] Both recognized and unrecognized groups face immense pressure from the government, albeit in different forms.

Unrecognized groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Presbyterians, and Methodists have been denied the right to practice their religion and can face severe repercussions if found doing so.[4] Open Doors, a Christian persecution watchdog, reports that, “during the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, government security forces conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians in inhumane conditions, including small shipping containers in scorching heat. Protestants, in particular, face serious problems in accessing community resources, especially social services provided by the State.”[5]

For recognized groups, the situation is not much better. The government of Eritrea appoints leaders in each of the approved religions and closely observes their activities. The control placed on the established faiths is seen clearly in the story of Patriarch Abune Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. At the beginning of his patriarchy, he refused to comply with the government’s request to excommunicate 3,000 of his followers who were protesting the imprisonment of priests who had been critical of the government. Because he defied the state, Father Antonios was put under house-arrest in 2007. Even though he is now in his 90’s, he still remains under house arrest to this day, with only one known public appearance since his imprisonment.[6]

An opportunity has arisen even in the midst of these horrendous actions. Eritrea was founded in the crucible of conflict with Ethiopia, and, in 2018, they signed a historic peace agreement. This agreement had no preconditions for peace and won the newly elected prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.[7] The momentum of their peace agreement with Ethiopia led Eritrea to sign another peace treaty which normalized relations with Somalia.[8]

International observers saw the signing of these treaties as progress for peace in the region and hoped that it might bring Eritrea into the international community as a normal state. In the flurry of diplomatic activity, religious freedom watchers were diligently waiting for real progress and initially there were small steps forward—the peace pact came into effect, Eritrea released thirty-five Christian prisoners from squalid internment camps.[9] However, this did almost nothing to decrease the estimated 1,200-3,000 religious prisoners in Eritrea.

After their initial excitement, observers became more cautious. In their 2019 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), reported that despite the positive changes in air travel, telecommunication, and trade, no real progress has been made on religious freedom and human rights in Eritrea.[10] According to USCIRF, Eritrea is still a Country of Particular Concern, the highest-level designation for religious repression by the U.S. government.[11]

Eritrea and the international community are at a crossroads. What happens next? While the world rightly celebrated the détente between Eritrea and Ethiopia, it must not be forgotten that many Christians are still languishing in prison for their faith. If Eritrea wants to continue integrating into the world, it should comply with the requirements set by those with whom Eritrea wants to normalize relations.

Eritrea remains subject to two United Nations Security Council sanctioning resolutions which impose an arms embargo and restricts the travel of certain individuals and freezes their assets.[12] The United States is party to these sanctions and should remain committed to pressuring the regime until they release their religious prisoners. Simultaneously, transparency should be encouraged in any way possible. For instance, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and the Office of International Religious Freedom, visited Eritrea in late September of this year to attend a cultural event and strengthen bilateral ties.[13] The U.S., and other countries party to the U.N. sanctions, should pursue ongoing dialogue without compromise until Eritrea gives its citizens access to their God-given right to practice their faith.

Benjamin Harbaugh is an intern in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State and a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between government action and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for Christians around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates

[1] The World Factbook 2019. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2019.

[2] Open Doors. Eritrea Report, (2019).

[3] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report, page 44 (2019).

[4] Ibid 46.

[5] Open Doors. Eritrea Report, (2019).

[6] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report, page 44 (2019).

[7] BBC. “Nobel Peace Prize: Ethiopia PM Abiy Ahmed Wins”, October 11, (2019).

[8] Aljazeera. “Eritrea and Somalia agree to restore diplomatic relations”, July 30, (2018).

[9] Religion News. Fredrick Nzwili, “Eritrean Christians released from shipping container prisons”, July 24, (2018).

[10] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Annual Report, page 44 (2019).

[11] Ibid.

[12] United States Embassy in Eritrea. “Policy & History”, (2019).

[13] United States Embassy in Eritrea. “A Delegation from the U.S. Visits Eritrea”, (2019).


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