Eritrea is a multi-ethnic country, with its population of close to 5 million people comprising no less than nine recognized ethnic groups. The country in the Horn of Africa has a long history of violence and gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following a bloody 30-year war. Peace and independence did, however, not equate to freedom and prosperity – especially not for Christians. A repressive Marxist government has been in power since the country’s birth and Eritrea today is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for Christians, with believers in Jesus suffering intense persecution and deplorable conditions.
In May 2003, the Eritrean government issued a public statement claiming that “no groups or persons are persecuted in Eritrea for their beliefs or religions.” The reality is, however, far removed from this hollow claim.
Eritreans enjoyed a certain extent of religious freedom until 2002, when the government declared that it would in future only recognize only four religious communities: Sunni Islam, the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran-affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea. The fate of Christians from any other church groups is a terrible one.
- Source of Persecution: Christian denominational protectionism
- Government: Presidential Republic
- Leader: President Isaias Afwerki
- Population: 5,310,000
- Main Religion: Islam/Christianity
- Christian Believers: 2,492,000 (47%)
In the 17 years since the government’s declaration, Eritrean authorities have jailed, tortured and killed thousands of citizens, claiming political and religious reasons. Arrests and disappearances of Christians are commonplace. Reports say that between 2,000 and 3,000 Eritreans are currently incarcerated for their faith, imprisoned under appalling conditions, including routine torture. “Prisons” are often nothing more than metal shipping containers without bathroom facilities or ventilation, which turn into virtual ovens in the extreme Eritrean heat. Some of these prisoners have been detained for more than ten years and few have to date been charged with a crime or stood trial.
The regime of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is notorious for its absolute authoritarianism and the one-party government sees democracy as a threat to the nation’s unity and stability. A religious liberty report published in November 2010 explains that Afwerki restricts and prohibits all formation or association between his citizens. His iron grip is motivated by fear that religious freedom will result in Christian evangelism and social tension, which “outside forces” will exploit to destabilize the nation and overthrow his authority. The Afwerki regime’s oppression and persecution of Christians has been brought to light at a number of international forums. To date, no action has been taken to compel Afwerki to change his attitude and policies.
Apart from persecution at the hands of the government, Christians are also facing the threat of Muslims, who make up roughly half of the population and are becoming more radicalized. Converts suffer the worst, since renouncing Islam for Christianity is seen as a complete betrayal of community, family and the Muslim faith. Communities will often band together to block believers from accessing community resources and work in close cooperation with the authorities to withhold supplies to water and other necessities.
In a desperate attempt to escape persecution, thousands of Eritrean Christians have fled the country of their birth. Yet all too often, these refugees fall into the hands of human traffickers, who subject them to a life of slavery.
- Thousands of Christians have been imprisoned in Eritrea, some of whom still remain in prison after more than 10 years. Pray for endurance for brothers and sisters under these horrific conditions, and ask God to give them perseverance in their faith.
- Pray for God’s abundant grace to those who are filling the positions of imprisoned church leaders. Ask the Lord to equip them for the task of leading the church.