Article Jan 29, 2018

Praying for the persecuted church: Eritrea

“He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:10-11).

During the times of Paul’s persecution, he trusted in the prayers of Christians he knew, and did not know. It was this prayer that gave him hope to continue preaching the gospel in difficult places. Likewise, may we not forget to lift up our persecuted brothers and sisters, that they might continue to find hope in God.

The persecuted church in Eritrea

After gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, a communist party, took power and began ruling the Eritrean people with an iron first. A constitution was ratified in 1997 that is supposed to give individuals the right to believe and practice any religion of their choosing. However, the Constitution has never been viewed as a binding document, and thus has been consistently ignored by the Isais Afwerki regime.

A state-controlled church

In 2002, Eritrea declared that it would recognize only four religious organizations: The Evangelical Church of Eritrea, the Roman Catholic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and Sunni Islam. Each of the four churches have faced strict oversight by the Eritrean government. Each church has government-appointed leaders, must submit activity reports twice a year, and cannot accept funds from foreign religious groups. Churches must receive authorization from the Office of Religious Affairs before they can print and distribute papers. Those who do not comply face jail time.

Abune Antonios, the Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch, was appointed by the government to his position, but began speaking out against their authoritarian practices. As a result, he has been under house arrest since 2006. On July 16th 2017, he was allowed to attend his first church service in over a decade. The next day, he was re-detained.

Those who have different religious backgrounds from the four recognized groups have no legal basis to practice their faith. They are not able to build churches; they cannot gather for Bible study; and their pastors face threats of fines and imprisonment. Reliable news reports of the internal affairs of Eritrea are sparse, because there are no private newspapers, opposing political parties, or internal non-governmental organizations. Nevertheless, some smaller Christian new outlets are reporting that Eritrean forces are going door-to-door and asking citizens which religion they are, and arresting those who name something other than the four permitted religions. More than 200 people have been arrested in the past several months.

Human rights abuses

The United Nations reports that since its inception, the Eritrean government has committed crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, torture, persecution, rape, and murder against its citizenry in order to instill fear and establish a sense of impenetrable authority.

In the military, religious practice is prohibited. Soldiers who are found with religious materials, or are discovered to be attending religious gatherings, are severely punished. This issue is worsened by the government's mandate on every citizen, between the ages of 18 and 70, to work a full-time and indefinite national service position, either in the military, development, or civil service. Those who do not participate in the civil service are imprisoned.

It is estimated that 1,200-3,000 individuals are suffering in Eritrean prisons for religious reasons. Once detained, Christians are not allowed to pray, sing, preach, or read the Bible. Often, religious prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for indefinite time periods, and undergo extreme temperature changes. If they ever are released from prison, Christians are coerced into recanting their belief in Jesus Christ and are warned to not engage in religious services.

The only option for Christians who wish to worship freely is to flee to neighboring states, or to seek refuge in Western Europe or the United States. Since 2014, 6 percent of the population has fled the country. The dire situation is contributing to the global refugee crisis and is threatening to destabilize the entire region of the Horn of Africa.

Prayer points

  • Pray that prison guards come to faith in Christ through imprisoned Christians’ testimonies
  • Pray that government officials will recognize that by imprisoning and killing Christians, they are persecuting Jesus Christ
  • Pray that President Afwerki will allow for open diplomacy and will engage with the international community in discussion about human rights abuses

Further resources