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Restoring religious freedom in the ‘North Korea of Africa’

by Rev. Thomas Reese S.J. Torture. Arbitrary arrests and detention without charges. A ban on public religious activities. Stifling of dissent. Forced labor. The governments of far too many countries persecute their citizens, including one we hear too

by Rev. Thomas Reese S.J.

Torture. Arbitrary arrests and detention without charges. A ban on public religious activities. Stifling of dissent. Forced labor.

The governments of far too many countries persecute their citizens, including one we hear too little about: Eritrea. Those who know the character of the Eritrean government and its president, Isaias Afwerki, refer to the regime as the “North Korea of Africa.” A fitting moniker.

This week, Eritreans celebrate the holiday of Meskel, commemorating the finding of the True Cross. The head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, however, will celebrate this holiday as he has for the past 10 years – under house arrest suffering from severe diabetes, imprisoned for his beliefs.

It is for this reason that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which I serve, has recommended since 2004 that the State Department designate Eritrea as a “country of particular concern” for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. For the same reason, the State Department has indeed taken our advice and applied this designation every year since, most recently in October 2016.

One man’s story provides a prime example of Eritrea’s violations of religious freedom. For more than ten years, 90-year-old Patriarch Abune (or “Father”) Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been denied due process and refused vitally needed medical care by the government. He is being unlawfully detained, having been earlier unlawfully removed from office.

The “crimes” for which Patriarch Antonios has been detained include his calling in 2005 for the release of political prisoners, and his refusal to excommunicate 3,000 church members who opposed the government. Because of his principled stance in a dictatorship, the government removed him as leader of the Church, illegally replaced him, and since 2007 held him under house arrest.

He has been seen in public only three times since then, including at a mass this past July during which he was prohibited from concelebrating or speaking to his congregants. When it was over, he was promptly was placed back under detention.

Now that we know Patriarch Antonios is alive, it is vital that we focus on working to set him free. To that end, I now work on his behalf as part of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience project.

On paper, the Eritrean constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. In truth, no such freedoms exist. In fact, there are very few legal protections in Eritrea. Thousands of religious followers are detained and held in the harshest prisons, subject to cruel punishment and torture.

President Afwerki and the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice maintain absolute authority. Thousands of Eritreans are imprisoned for real or imagined opposition to the government. In 2015 and 2016, the United Nations documented extensive use of torture and forced labor, including against religious prisoners of conscience and in 2016 found “reasonable grounds to conclude” that the government has committed crimes against humanity.

There are no private newspapers, political opposition parties, or independent nongovernmental organizations in Eritrea. The government requires all physically and mentally capable people between the ages of 18 and 70 to fulfill a full-time, indefinite, and poorly-paid national service obligation. Those who refuse are reportedly detained, sentenced to hard labor, abused, and have their legal documents confiscated. Conscripts cannot practice their religion and are punished severely if they are found with religious materials or participating in religious gatherings.

What should the U.S. government do going forward? Aside from designating Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern and maintaining the existing arms embargo against the regime, our government should use bilateral and multilateral diplomatic channels to urge the Eritrean government to release unconditionally and immediately detainees held because of their peaceful religious activities, including Patriarch Antonios; and to repeal oppressive registration requirements for religious communities.

Thirteen years ago this month, Eritrea was designated a CPC and placed on a list which, in an ideal world, would not have to exist. Along with my fellow commissioners, I look forward to the day when Patriarch Antonios is free and Eritreans experience robust religious freedom.

Father Thomas J. Reese is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.


Review overview
  • alem September 29, 2017

    History is recording all crimes committed and all perpetrators young old will get punished by full force of the law or peoples whim.

    • Asmara Eritrea September 29, 2017

      What I can’t fathom from the above article is why the focus is on Christians rather than humanity? Who is going to champion for the rights of the Muslims, other religious groups and those with no faith? Is this segregation by religion? Tortured people are tortured people regardless of their faith. Indeed there are tens of thousands of Eritreans that are brutalise by Isaias day in and day out for over two decades. So, why should you have an article to highlight the plight of Christians but not others? Rev Thomas, doesn’t the bible teach you “all people are created in the image of God”?

      In away I do not blame you, Rev Thomas, but I blame the root cause of the Eritrean people’s suffering; Isaias. I pray that God reserves a special place in hell for Isaias so he can burn for eternity. .

      Eritrea forever, death to dictatorship.

      • alem September 30, 2017

        U are right it is not only religious leaders and followers who are abused in eritrea but the whole people. However, it is common for religious organisatios to demand release of high profile leaders like the patriarch. The same is true for the followers. That being said, there is way more critics about the crimes against the people or humanity usually including the religious leaders, poloticians, journalists and officials.

  • Tesfaldetabraha September 29, 2017

    Idiot idiot what is the USA going todo you dam ass stupid

  • Nahon September 29, 2017

    I feel sorry for people like Tesfazghi (a guy who changes his nickname several times a day) just to inject a nasty comment here and there.
    This guy seems to be on a mission to divert the attention of Assenna visitors from real issues.
    Higdef employs many such people who feel any change in current status in Eritrea will be to their disadvantage. A group of people who feel threatened by Eritrean nationalism and not Ethiopian enough to claim belonging to it.
    In Higdefland they are the VIPs of the regime. Deep inside they are empty, hollow, rootless to the core.

  • Danilo September 29, 2017

    ተጠቀምቲ ኢዚ ፎሩም፡ ንጸርፊ ቡዕሉጋት ዳርጋ ደርፊ ክንወስዶ ንኽእል ኢና።ብልክዕ ከምቲ “ሓሶት ምስ ዝደጋገም ሓቂ ይመስል”ከምዝበሃል ጸርፊ’ውን ዓጽሚ ይሰብር ኢዩ።እሞ፡ንሕናውን ንጻረፍ’ዶ ንላዘብ?መላዝብቲ ዘይብልካ’ውን ክትላዘብ ዝከኣል ኣይኮነን ።እንተተኻኢሉ ግን እቲ ፍታሕ ካብ ኣሰና ይኹን።እንተ ዘይኮይኑ ነቲ ጸርፊ ንሕና ‘ውን ንተብትቦ’ዳኣ።

  • alem September 29, 2017

    Halima tiktelka resah higdf /agame.

    • alem September 29, 2017

      Meant to be a response for ermiyas

      • Danilo September 29, 2017

        He deserves more! Brother Alem. ማይ ቡሑቅና በሊዑ/ሰትዩ ዝዓበየ ዓጋሚኖ maialino! ኣድጊ testardo figlio di buttata. He can’t (even be warrior of Adwa )because we have been honestly defence them sheet.

  • ሀረጎት September 29, 2017

    ሰሜን ኮርያስ ሚሳይል ዝሠርህ፣ ኒዩክላር ቦምብ ዝሠርህ ፍልጦ ሀኒፃ፣ እዞም መንነት አያታቶም ዝደርበዩ ነውራማት ዕባያት አስመራ ብዥካ ምብስባስ ሕዝቦም እንታይ ሀንጎል አሊዎም’ዩ ምስ ሰሜን ኮርያ ዝዋዳደሩ? ኢዚኦም አደር ዘያብሎም ዛርቲታት ወለዶ ኢሳያስ ምስ ሀጢያቶም ካብዚ ዓለም ምስተዓለዩ ጥራህ’ዩ ሠላምን ልምኣትን ቅሳነትን ራህዋን ኪነግሥ፡፡

    • alem September 30, 2017

      Thanks much assenna. We understand all the constraints that was being taken advantage of by this evil guy who was trying to destroy assenna.

  • Berhe Tensea September 29, 2017

    There are paid agents who are very happy to see the Eritrean people reduced a beggar and suffering at the hands cruel colonizers such as Bashai Lema.
    The people who are trying serve the dictator are using multiple pen names to create confusion, but fortunately Assena visitors aware of this criminals, and everything is being done to uncover their identities using IP.
    Criminals will be exposed at the right time and will be asked to account.
    Death to Bashai Lema

    • Danilo September 29, 2017

      Thank you assenna, I my self were about to loose my temper. This way you kept me cool thank you !

    • AHMED SALEH !!! September 30, 2017

      From the beginning this NEFAHITO has
      abused ASSENNA FORUM purposely .
      He might be part of agents that succed
      to corrupt ASMARINO.COM forum .
      The credit goes for those participants that keep fighting back against these
      suspicious intruders . keep up , guys .
      So far silence cost us heavy price to pay.

  • Tsehaye September 30, 2017

    Happy meskel to the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea, more to the people of Ethiopia still celebrating it with new year.

  • haki September 30, 2017

    How some stupid writers compare the regime of Eritrea with North Korean is beyond me and i am certain the North Korean government does not like this nonsense comparison .North Korea is a technological power house,mighy and strong army…HIGDEF killed the child before it could walk so…it the same like some fool highlands who do not have any clue or do not want to know the contribution of a donkey and an ox to humanity misuse the names of these hard working animals as derogatory words such as ADGI and BIERAY …in the HIGDEF world the donkey is coptic christian and the camel is moslem…kkkkkkkk the camel is the embelem of Eritrea and ADGI is a derogatory word in Eritrea…the gedli of EPLF/PFDJ is not even fair to the donkey of Eritrea…

    ርሑስ መስቀል

    • AHMED SALEH !!! September 30, 2017

      Twisted mind creates twisted thought .

      • Tsehaye October 1, 2017

        Born twisted translates and gives all twisted meaning.
        haki, well said and how true and precise you stated it all.

        • AHMED SALEH !!! October 1, 2017

          Sorry if you felt like ADGHI but bunch of idiots have nothing to say except twisted mind insulated with backward mentality .
          For 24 hrs / 7 days – we Christians , blabla – them Moslems blabla……..
          sounds like the language of a donkey .

          • Tsehaye October 1, 2017

            Born twisted camel and you will die like a twisted old camel.
            Go kiss, hug and sleep with your moslem camel.
            You have the mentality, attitude and maturity of a dirty camel.
            Only an idiot irresponsible would have the nerve to call us idiots!

    • alem October 1, 2017

      The leaders of north corea have vision and conviction that Strips the rights of the citizens completely and humulates anybody who dares to say “i disagree.” channeling entire wealth and resourse of the country to defense, to protecting your power, to spying ur own citizens, to isolate the country for sole purpose of abusing defenseless weak people hiding the crimes from the world are all common to both regimes. This is what makes them the same, not the level of advancement. The main difference is i do not see eritrea as a country in 2030 unless we are hit by a lightning.

      • shilan October 1, 2017

        You will not live until 2030 but Eritrea will continue to live beyond 2030, don’t be a jerk!