USCIRF Calls for Religious Freedom in Eritrea

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged the State Department to vigorously advocate religious freedom within Eritrea

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called on the State Department Thursday to engage in vigorous advocacy on religious freedom with the government of Eritrea and draw international attention to religious freedom abuses in Eritrea.

In a policy brief released on May 5, the USCIRF included specific recommendations for U.S. policy, including actions the State Department should take as a consequence of designating Eritrea a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). In February 2004, the Commission publicly recommended for the first time that Eritrea be designated as a CPC. The State Department subsequently acted on that recommendation, designating Eritrea as a CPC on September 15, 2004.

“Although the 180-day deadline has passed to take action under IRFA, the State Department has yet to announce what policy steps it is going to take,” said USCIRF Chair Preeta D. Bansal in a statement released on Thursday announcing the new policy brief. “The Commission calls on the State Department to take action and has made some specific recommendations in that regard.”

The Commission said it found that the government of Eritrea was engaged in systematic and egregious violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.

“The government of Eritrea has banned public religious activities by all religious groups that are not officially recognized, closed their places of worship, and inordinately delayed action on registration applications by religious groups,” the USCIRF said in the May 5 statement. “To suppress the religious activities of the unregistered groups, Eritrean security forces have disrupted private worship, have conducted mass arrests of participants at prayer meetings and other gatherings, and have detained those arrested without charge for indefinite periods of time.”

In October 2004, the Commission sent a delegation to Eritrea to examine religious freedom conditions there and to gather information to aid in the development of recommendations for United States policy to promote freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in Eritrea.

During a six-day visit, staff discussed the situation there with government officials, leading members of Eritrea’s sanctioned and unregistered faiths, third-country diplomats, United Nations personnel, resident representatives of foreign relief organizations, and others. The staff visit confirmed the existence of the systematic and egregious violations that led to the CPC designation.

Following Eritrea’s designation as a CPC, the USCIRF noted several reports of new arrests and detentions in late 2004 and early 2005. Among those recently arrested were not only Evangelical or Pentecostal pastors and activists, but also a few reform-minded Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Private religious gatherings for Bible study or prayer were raided. Also reported were mass arrests, sometimes involving scores of people, at social events such as a New Year’s Eve party, a wedding, and a wedding reception, whose attendees were predominantly from one or more of the unregistered religious groups.

The USCIRF’s findings and policy recommendations have been included in the policy brief, entitled “Policy Focus: Eritrea,” which was issued Thursday. The Commission’s recommendations include:

• The U.S. government should engage in vigorous advocacy on religious freedom and other universal human rights at all levels of involvement with the government of Eritrea and draw international attention to religious freedom abuses in Eritrea, including in multilateral for a such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

• The U.S. government should conduct a review of development assistance to Eritrea with the aim of redirecting such assistance to programs that contribute directly to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Increases in other forms of development assistance should depend on measurable improvements in religious freedom.

The full text for “Policy Focus: Eritrea” can be found on the Commission’s web site at