Last Updated 7 August 2020

Eritrea is a one-man dictatorship under President Isaias Afewerki. There has not been an election in Eritrea since independence in 1993. Afewerki has long used the ongoing war with Ethiopia to justify rampant authoritarianism, human rights abuses and civil society restrictions. However, the July 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended Eritrea’s diplomatic isolation, does not appear to have ushered in a new era of respect for human rights.

The population is predominantly split between Christian and Muslim adherents, and religious intolerance remains rife. The Eritrean government only officially recognises four religions: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. All other religions or beliefs are deemed illegal. To come out as an atheist is legally unrecognisable and would likely provoke arrest and significant social persecution. Even members of ‘official’ religions frequently find themselves unable to practice their faith because of government interference in their affairs.

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

Though the Eritrean Constitution purports to guarantee the right to freedom of religion or belief, to date the Constitution has not been applied in practice. Many Eritreans face severe restrictions when exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. 

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.

The government conscripts Eritreans indefinitely into the military or civil service (a form of forced labour) for low pay and often under abusive conditions. Legally, conscription begins at 18, but children are among those caught during roundups (“giffas”) in urban areas and sent directly into military service.

Family, community and society

Treatment of unrecognized religions

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 Printing and distributing documents of religious groups must be authorised by the Office of Religious Affairs.

Religious groups in Eritrea must acquire government approval to build buildings for worship and must abide by strict rules conducting relations between religious groups and offshore donors and sponsors.

Leaving the country without permission is illegal and individuals trying to flee risk being shot, killed, or arrested. 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 deny permission, or arrest applicants on the spot for practicing an unrecognized faith or being non-religious.

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

On 25 October 1994, the Government revoked the citizenship of all Jehovah’s witnesses in Eritrea due to their refusal to take part in the referendum on independence and their opposition to conscription. Political neutrality and conscientious objection are both core aspects of their faith. At least 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses remain imprisoned at Mai Serwa prison.2

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Questioning authority, let alone criticising it, can lead to imprisonment and worse. No NGOs are allowed to operate in Eritrea and the government does not permit overseas human rights groups to visit the country.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

Eritrea’s 2015 Penal Code criminalizes at least two types of blasphemous conduct. 

Article 196 criminalizes the “Disturbance of Religious or Ethnic Feelings,” defined as:

“intentionally and publicly disparag[ing] a ceremony or rite of any lawful religious group, or profan[ing] a place, image or object used for such religious ceremonies or ceremonies relating to any ethnic group.” 

The offense of “Defamation of or Interference with Religious and Ethnic Groups” is contained in Article 195. This offense is defined as:

“intentionally and publicly assert[ing] fabricated or distorted facts, knowing them to be such, in order to cast disparagement upon any religion or ethnic group, or unlawfully disrupt[ing] or attempt[ing] to obstruct a religious service or assembly.” 

The penalties for both offenses are possible imprisonment for up to a year. Not enough public information and monitoring exists to determine how often these laws are used in practice. 

Press freedom

The government of President Isaias Afwerki closed the independent press in 2001 by eschewing their licenses and arresting its publishers and editors. The Committee to Protect Journalists named Eritrea the “most censored country in the world” in 2019, reporting that Eritrea “is the worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa”, with at least 7 journalists having died while in custody.3 The 1996 press law requires that the media promote “national objectives.” The state retains a legal monopoly on all broadcast media, and in practice all journalists follow the government’s editorial line. 

Access to the internet is very low for the general population. Most citizens use internet cafes where they are subject to surveillance. On 15 May 2019, the BBC reported a social media shutdown in Eritrea, ahead of the country’s Independence Day celebrations.



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