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10/8/04 - RELIGION IN ERITREA - 2004-09-28

In its latest International Religious Freedom Report, the U.S. State Department has singled out eight countries as being of particular concern for serious abuses of religious liberty. Countries re-designated from earlier reports are Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan. Countries added this year are Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.

The Eritrean government, says the report, severely restricts religious freedom “for all but the four government-sanctioned religions -- Orthodox Christians, Muslims, [Roman] Catholics, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea.” John Hanford is U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom:

“In Eritrea, the government, in 2002, shut down all religious activity outside of four officially recognized groups. All independent religious groups have been forced to close, and over two-hundred Protestant Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses remain in prison for their faith. Some reportedly have been subjected to severe torture and pressured to renounce their faith and many others have been detained and interrogated.”

In 1997, the Eritrean government approved a constitution that provides the freedom to practice any religion. But the government has not yet implemented its provisions. In May 2002, Eritrea’s minister of information issued a decree that all religious groups must be registered. Leaders of groups other than the four favored by the government were told that no religious activities or services could be held until registration applications were approved.

Although several religious groups in Eritrea submitted applications more than two years ago, none has been approved. Meanwhile, says the State Department report, the government has “harassed, arrested, and detained members of Pentecostal and other independent evangelical groups, reform movements from and within the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were also numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at forced recantations.”

“Too many people in our world are still denied their basic human right of religious liberty,” says Secretary of State Colin Powell. “By shining a light on this issue, this report signifies America’s support for all who yearn to follow their conscience without persecution.”