The U.S. Department of State re-designated Eritrea as a "country of particular concern" for its poor record on freedom for minority religious groups, which has continued to worsen according to the latest annual report on international religious freedom.
The International Religious Freedom Report 2005, released on Nov. 8, has listed eight countries as "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPCs) for severe violations of religious freedom. The countries, which were also listed in the 2004 report, include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam. Eritrea was first designated as a CPC in September 2004.
Despite the strong outcry of international human rights groups and Christian persecution watchdogs over last 14 months, the 2005 report claims that the Eritrean government's already poor record on freedom for minority religious groups continued to worsen during the period covered by this report."
According to the sources from the U.S. State Department, among the violators of religious freedom worldwide, Eritrea is classified as those that have not imposed totalitarian control over religious practice but implemented repressive policies towards minority or unapproved religions.
The 2005 report states that following a 2002 government decree, only four religions Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Catholics, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation) were recognized officially by the government.
While the four groups together represent at least 95 percent of the total population, all other churches or Christian groups part of the minority must register with the government or cease all activities.
"The Government harassed, arrested, and detained members of Pentecostal and other independent evangelical groups, reform movements from and within the Eritrean Orthodox Church," the report stated.
The report also noted that the Eritrean authorities "arbitrarily enforce" the law they have been established. For example, even though authorities in the Office of Religious Affairs told unregistered religious groups that home prayer meetings would be permitted, the government "did not fully respect this guidance". In addition, "treatment of unregistered religious groups often varied depending on the locale," according to the report.
During the 2004-2005 reporting period, reliable reports estimated that authorities detained at least 500 members of unregistered religious groups without charges, as report 2005 says. Compared to report 2004, which stated "over 400 members of non-sanctioned religious groups have been detained or imprisoned," the situation does not appear to be very positive.
Some detentions last for several days or less, but some people spent longer periods, without access to legal counsel or their families, this years report added. Also, "significant numbers are being held solely for their religious beliefs and some are held in harsh conditions that include extreme temperature fluctuations."
During a briefing session at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 8, Ambassador John Hanford announced the re-designation of the eight CPCs and described Eritrea as a country that has "not been willing to engage in any meaningful way on religious matters," according to sources from the U.S. State Department. He noted that Burma, Iran and North Korea also fell into this category.
In September, the State Department announced the sanction against Eritrea for its religious freedom violation, implementing denial of commercial export to Eritrea of any defense articles and services controlled under the Arms Control Export Act.
"The Secretary approved a sanction against Eritrea because the government has refused to reverse its abuses of religious freedom or to respond in any significant way to our efforts at engagement," said Hanford.
Todd Nettleton, spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs, said it was interesting that of the eight CPCs, only Eritrea was sanctioned.
Only Eritrea has been sanctioned in the last year. (It's) interesting because Eritrea has probably the least economic value to the United States," he told Mission News Network (MNN).
Two other serious religious freedom violators Saudi Arabia and Vietnam were given time extension for demonstrating more progress.
The imposition of export controls demonstrates the seriousness with which the United States views the violations, commented USCIRF Chair Michael Cromartie in a statement released on Sept. 30. The USCIRF also echoed that the already poor religious freedom situation in Eritrea has deteriorated despite efforts by the U.S. government.