ERITREA, one of the first Christian countries in the world, is now one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a Christian, the charity Release International says.
Hundreds of Christians are in prison undergoing torture, and all Evangelical and independent churches have been closed, the charity has reported.
The UN estimates that 400,000 people — nine per cent of the total population — have fled the country over the past few years. In the past four years, one in 50 Eritreans has sought refuge in Europe.
The UN has accused the one-party state of crimes against humanity; it is also under sanctions for supporting terrorism linked to al-Qaeda in Somalia.
Last year, a UN inquiry into human rights in Eritrea found the “systematic violation of an array of human rights, on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere in the world”.
“Interference in religious structures and affairs is rampant,” the report said. “Religious materials are confiscated. Adherents are arbitrarily arrested, ill-treated or subjected to torture during their detention, and prisoners are coerced to recant their faith.”
The UN Commission concluded that the Eritrean government “perceives religion as a threat to its existence, and has set about controlling it and its expressions”.
Release International said that the regime had been persecuting Christians for more than a decade. Although estimates vary, at least half of the population of Eritrea is Christian: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Evangelical Lutheran. All independent Protestant Churches were declared enemies of the state in 2002, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were stripped of their citizenship. The only other permitted religion is Sunni Muslim.
Release International visited refugee camps in Ethiopia, where they spoke to Christian refugees, many of whom told stories of being imprisoned and tortured.
One refugee, Elsa, told how she and her sister were imprisoned: “We were kept in underground cells. Sometimes the guards put us both in a metal shipping container to torture us. This became so hot during the day, and then in the night it became freezing cold. We didn’t get much to eat, and there was no medical treatment.
“The guards offered to let us go, but only if we renounced our faith in Jesus. We said no. One evening, we were taken into the bush, and I knew we were going to be beaten. They were going to inflict as much pain on us as they could. The guards took it in terms to beat us. I will never forget hearing the screams of my sister. I never saw her again.”
The charity said that some prisoners were tied and hung from trees in a form of hanging called by guards the “Jesus Christ”, because it resembles a crucifix.
Andrew Boyd, of Release International, said that Eritrean Christians were the world’s “forgotten refugees”.