Eritrea/US row over religious freedom
[ This report does not
necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
NAIROBI, 16 Sep 2004 (IRIN) - The Eritrean government has
rejected a claim by the US State Department that it violates religious rights
and severely restricts freedom of worship for all but four
government-sanctioned religions: Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Catholics, and
the Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
The accusations were made in a statement issued by the US State Department.
"The statement by the State Department does not come as a surprise to
Eritrea as it has been no secret that the CIA and its operatives have been long
engaged in fabricating defamatory statements in a bid to embark on other
agendas and at the same time conceal its unwarranted intervention," the
Eritrean Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.
"It is only astonishing to see the US, which lacks moral and legal high
grounds on human rights and the respect for religions, make an attempt to
become the self-appointed adjudicator," the ministry added in a statement.
In its International Religious Freedom Report for 2004, which was released on
Wednesday, the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, said the
Eritrean government's "poor respect for religious freedom for minority
religious groups" had continued to decline.
Over 200 members of religious groups reportedly detained
"The government harassed, arrested, and detained members of Pentecostal
and other independent evangelical groups, reform movements from and within the
Eritrean Orthodox Church, and Jehovah's Witnesses," the US said.
"There were also numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at
Noting that there "were numerous credible reports that over 400 members of
non-sanctioned religious groups have been detained or imprisoned," the US
said "government restrictions make it difficult to determine the precise
number of current religious prisoners, but it is likely over 200."
According to the US, the Eritrean government closed all religious facilities
not belonging to the four sanctioned religions, following a decree issued in
May 2002 which required religious groups to register or cease all religious
"Leaders of the nonsanctioned religious groups were warned that, until the
registration applications were received and approved, no religious activities
or services could be held," the US said. To register, each group was
required to describe its history in the country, explain the
"uniqueness" or benefit that it offered compared to Eritrea’s other
religious groups, and give the names and personal information of religious
They were also required to provide a list of group members, detailed
information on assets and property owned by the group, and sources of funding
from outside the country, to a government committee that reviews the
applications. However, no registrations had occurred "despite the fact
that several religious groups submitted their registration documents over 2
years ago and continued to inquire with the relevant government offices".
The US State Department charged that "the government closely monitors the
activities and movements of nonsanctioned religious groups and individual
members, including nonreligious social functions attended by members." It
added. "The government also harassed and monitored some Orthodox
congregations whose religious services it did not approve."
Police accused of torturing religious detainees
"There were several reports that on occasion police tortured those
detained for their religious beliefs, including using bondage, heat exposure,
and beatings," the US said. "There also were credible reports that
some of the detainees were required to sign statements repudiating their faith
or agreeing not to practice it as a condition for release. In some cases where
detainees refused to sign, relatives were asked to do so on their behalf,"
The report, which lists detailed cases of arrests and other forms of abuse,
said the US Secretary of State had designated Eritrea as a "Country of
Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for
particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
Eritrea has a population of around 3.6 million of whom about half are Sunni
Muslims and 40 percent Orthodox Christian. There are small numbers of Roman
Catholics, Protestants Seventh-day Adventists and 1,500 Jehovah's Witnesses,
according to the State Department. About two percent of the people practice
traditional indigenous religions while very small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus,
and Baha'is also exist.
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