A leading human rights watchdog has released a new report on religious persecution in Eritrea, demanding the government to end such activities.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International (AI) released "Eritrea: Religious Persecution," documenting 44 incidents of religious persecution in Eritrea since 2003. Most of the persecuted churches documented by the report are Evangelical-, Lutheran- or Catholic-based, with some even from the government-permitted Orthodox tradition.
According to the report at least 26 pastors and priests, and over 1,750 women, men and children have been detained since 2003 because of their religious beliefs. AI considers them to be "prisoners of conscience."
The report attributed the series of crackdown on churches since 2003 to the governments order to close down all unregistered places of worship in May 2002.
It noted that all places of worship are required to register with the Department for Religious Affairs in the Office of the President in accordance with the 1995 Proclamation on Religious Organizations. Also, full details were demanded of each organizations doctrines, its history in the country, its leaders and members, assets and funds, services provided and publications.
However, many religious minorities are "reluctant to provide information which could expose their members to reprisals," the report revealed. In some other cases, the applications just simply received no response from the government neither rejected nor accepted. Therefore, many groups, particularly evangelical churches, are forced to gather privately for religious activities.
AI pointed out that the ambiguous policy of the Eritrean government over the operation of religious groups has allowed the government to persecute minorities arbitrarily.
"Without having formally rejected any applications for registration, the government does not permit the practice of faith and worship by the minority religious groups," the report reads. All the arrests appeared to "derive from a general ban on unauthorized gatherings of more than five persons."
AI condemned the government in the report, stating that "Detention of church members has been arbitrary and unlawful, with no arrest warrants, charges or due judicial process or remedy, as are required by the Constitution and laws."
"In early 2003 arrests of members of minority religious groups began, without any explanation, and have continued up to now, intensifying in 2005," it added.
Furthermore, the report unveiled the torture and ill-treatment faced by religious prisoners of conscience, stating, "In prison they are routinely prohibited any form of religious activity or discussion, Bibles or religious materials, insulted and subjected to public humiliation."
"They are also commonly tortured or threatened to try to make them sign a statement agreeing to stop their religious worship and abandon their religion as a condition of release," it added.
A torture technique known as "the helicopter" is routinely used as punishment for detainees and, according to the report, involves someone's hands and feet being tied together behind their back. Prisoners can be left in this position for hours. Many are in extremely poor health and denied adequate medical treatment.
AI criticized Eritrea for violating the international standards on religious freedom as listed on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Both articles guarantee everyone the rights to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
According to AIs report, Eritrea has failed to submit regular reports to the Human Rights Committee on the measures it has taken to make the rights effective. In addition, the Eritrean government has also repeatedly denied the international criticism of its human rights violations.
"The requirement for registration of religions in Eritrea should be revised to ensure it does not violate the right to practice a religion. The government must end its violent repression and ensure that international law is upheld," demanded Kolawole Olaniyan, Director of Amnesty International's Africa program.
At the end of the report, AI made a list of recommendation to the Government of Eritrea concerning the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. AI urged the country to "respond positively to the call of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief," to "address to governments and NGOs around the world," and to "promote freedom of religion and challenge rising trends across the world of religious intolerance."
To the international community, meanwhile, AI called on the U.N. and its specialized agencies, the African Union, the European Union and other countries with specific bilateral ties with Eritrea, to give special attention the human rights situation in the troubled country.