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5/21/2024 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) — This week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released an article calling on the Biden administration to draw greater attention to religious freedom violations in Eritrea.

In the article, USCIRF highlights the treatment of prisoners in Eritrea as particularly egregious.  

“Two entire decades have passed since the Eritrean government arrested Pastors Haile Nayzgi and Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel, USCIRF Commissioner Frank Wolf said. “It is unconscionable that these two men, along with Pastor Meron Gebreselasie, who was arrested a month later, remain imprisoned under horrible conditions. Bishop Abune Antonios died at age 94 in 2022 while under house arrest. Other Eritrean church leaders should not suffer the same fate.”  

Despite Eritrea’s rich history of Christianity and provisions in its drafted constitution for religious freedom, government actors continue to persecute Christians. Laws affecting religious minorities include Article 196 of the Eritrean Penal Code, which condemns “Disturbance of Religious or Ethnic Feelings.” This law criminalizes public ridicule of a ceremony or rite of any recognized religious group. Violators can serve six to 12 months in prison. Perhaps even more concerning is Proclamation Number 73 of 1995, which gives government officials control over religious activities. All religious groups are required to register with the government. 

The combination of these two factors leads to hundreds of arrests each year. An estimated 500 people have been imprisoned without being charged or tried in court. Hundreds more have been imprisoned on charges such as blasphemy or apostasy. 

USCIRF’s article notes the efforts conducted by the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which resulted in the Eritrean government releasing nine prisoners in March 2023. However, releasing so few prisoners leaves many discouraged, including USCIRF Vice Chair Frederick A. Davie, who expressed this sentiment in the article. 

“Religious freedom conditions in Eritrea remain extremely poor,” Davie said. “USCIRF was hopeful last year when Eritrean authorities started releasing some of those detained because of their faith or belief. Unfortunately, this effort included only a small number of prisoners.” 

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