One of the world’s poorest countries, with among the lowest life expectancies, religion is predominant in the cultural life of Eritrea. The population is predominantly split between Christian and Muslim adherents, and religious intolerance remains rife. There are severe restrictions imposed by government on those unaffiliated with the four “recognised” religious groups. To come out as an atheist is legally unrecognisable and would likely provoke significant social persecution.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

Despite drafting a constitution in 1997 that certifies broad human rights in line with international standards of freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and press autonomy, this constitution has not been implemented, and the Isaias Afweki government tightly controls all religious activity.

Education and children’s rights

Education is officially compulsory only between the ages of 7 and 13, and in practice even this promise is often unfulfilled, due to insufficient infrastructure, skills shortages, poverty, and social taboos.

Most schools are Islamic Koranic or church schools and instruct disproportionately boys over girls. Secular government schools were developed after 1941, however, this programme was curtailed by two civil wars. Illiteracy remains high.

Family, community and society

The Eritrean government only validates four “recognized” religious groups, the Orthodox Church, Roman Catholicism, the Evangelical (Lutheran Church) and Sunni Islam. Despite other religious groups applying for original recognition since 2002, the Eritrean government has failed to implement the relevant rights established in the constitution. Printing and distributing documents of religious groups must be authorised by the Office of Religious Affairs. Other unrecognised religious minorities cannot be authorised. There is not even a process for the approval of atheistic or other overtly non-religious material.

Religious groups in Eritrea must acquire government approval to build buildings for worship and must abide to strict rules conducting relations between religious groups and offshore donors and sponsors. The government of Eritrea forcefully deposed the Eritrean Orthodox Church patriarch in 2005, after he contravened government interference in the affairs of the church. Abune Antonios remains to this day under house arrest, reportedly in grave health and under strict surveillance. The Eritrean government selected his successor, Abune Dioskoros, a move that other Orthodox Churches have refused to recognise.

The application for an exit visa requires a designation of religious affiliation, and members of unregistered religions or no religion require additional permission from the Office of Religious Affairs, which has been reported to grant permission, deny permission, or arrest applicants on the spot for practicing an unrecognized faith or being non-religious.

Members of “unrecognized” religions are arrested, detained in oppressive conditions, and there have been reports that people have been tortured in order for them to recant their religious affiliation. Reports of the harassment and arrest of members of religious minority groups is widespread and frequent.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Questioning authority, let alone criticising it, can lead to imprisonment and worse. Meetings of more than seven unrelated people are forbidden and formation of NGOs is restricted. Moreover, political organization is restricted to the country’s ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Unions are also prohibited with the exception of PFDJ subsidiaries.

Ban on “disparaging” or “profaning” religion

Under the 2015 Criminal Code, under the heading “Disturbance of Religious or Ethnic Feelings”, article 196 states:

“A person who intentionally and publicly disparages a ceremony or rite of any lawful religious group, or profanes a place, image or object used for such religious ceremonies or ceremonies relating to any ethnic group, is guilty of disturbance of religious or ethnic feelings, a Class 1 petty offence, punishable with a definite term of imprisonment of not less than 6 months and not more than 12 months, or a fine of 20,001 – 50,000 Nakfas, to be set in intervals of 2,500 Nakfas.”

It is unclear how this law is used in practice but the weak and vague terms “disparages” and “profanes” suggest that this law could be used to restrict satirical or overt displays of religious criticism or dissent falling short of incitement.

Press freedom

The government of President Isaias Afwerki closed the independent press in 2001 by eschewing their licenses and arresting its publishers and editors. According to the testimony of former guards, Reporters without Borders reported that four journalists died in while detailed in prison in 2012, two of whom had been imprisoned since 2001. Journalists employed by government agencies, arrested in 2009 for allegedly administering questionable information to Western non-governmental organizations and governments, were incarcerated.

In Eritrea, all domestic media is overseen by the government. Out of the four internet service providers in Eritrea, two prohibit access to sites unauthorised by the government and individuals using internet cafes are subject to tight surveillance. Eritrea periodically subverts satellite radio transmissions by opposition groups. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2012 named Eritrea “one of the world’s most censored countries” for the sixth year running.

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