Eritrea's distinction as Africa's newest country-winning liberation in 1991 from Ethiopia after 30 years of war-is superceded only by its growing reputation as one of the continent's-and the world's-worst persecutors.
Since New Year's Day the government has intensified a campaign against Christians, arresting 230. In the last three years authorities have imprisoned about 400 Christians. The Marxist state views devoted followers of almost any religion as threats to national stability. Officials have usually denied the existence of persecution, but in late March, the Eritrean ambassador to the United States justified state action by comparing evangelicals to al-Qaeda terrorists.
Officially, Eritrea recognizes only Islam and three churches: the historical Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran denominations. Since January, however, authorities also targeted reformist or charismatic segments within the three. According to Compass News, police arrested 25 Catholics rehearsing for a wedding in the capital, Asmara. They arrested 27 teachers and young students in an Orthodox Sunday school group known as Medhane Alem.
Other groups have not escaped authorities in recent weeks. A senior pastor of the Full Gospel Church disappeared from the pickup truck he was driving in Asmara on March 18, presumably taken into custody. Police in the town of Adi Tekelzan, 20 miles north of Asmara, arrested 14 members of the Protestant Kale Hiwot church as they held a Bible study in their pastor's home in February.
In Keren, Eritrea's third-largest city, police arrested 15 women praying in a home. In Asmara, a university professor in agriculture, Senere Zaid, hid for two weeks to avoid arrest before turning himself in to police. Mr. Zaid is a leader in the Living God Church, which broke off from the Orthodox movement seven years ago. Police had discovered his name on a rental contract for a facility used by his church for worship.
In the last year, many Christians arrested have been imprisoned in darkened metal shipping containers, which turn sweltering or frigid as the weather changes. Several have also endured beatings, starvation, and torture aimed at forcing them to recant their faith. The latest raids have caused such an atmosphere of fear, however, that even Eritreans abroad who have close contact with home churches are struggling to find out how the latest detainees have been treated.
"The government has pledged to clear the country of evangelicals by 2005," Berhane Asmelash, coordinator of the London-based advocacy group Release Eritrea, said she has been told. "We don't know if it's true or not, but it coincides with the government's actions. What I know about our government is whatever they say, they do it."
Given the documented abuse, the United States named Eritrea one of the world's worst abusers of religious freedom last year, joining only seven other countries. The United States is now considering imposing sanctions on Eritrea, although the fiercely independent country has rarely responded to outside pressure.
The persecution has driven many Christians into underground house churches-only compounding their offenses in the eyes of the authorities. They call non-official denominations "Pentes," short for Pentecostals, and accuse members of dodging military service. "For the government, if someone is Lutheran or Orthodox, if he prays, if he reads his Bible, he's a Pente," Mr. Asmelash said. "It's not the background that matters, it's the devotion."
And now the government is not just arresting Christians it stumbles upon-it is trying to cultivate informers. "They're being hunted down-really, really hunted down," said Habtu Ghebre-Ab, an Eritrean Christian and professor at the University of Cincinnati. "The government is actually asking [people] to name individual adherents."
For Mr. Ghebre-Ab and other Eritrean Christians in diaspora, the intensified crackdown is no surprise given the country's history. The current leaders, drawn from the Marxist guerrillas who fought Ethiopia, displayed their hostility to religion as early as the 1970s. When they took power after independence, they shut down fringe groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Baha'is.
In early 1998 the government began to take over church clinics, orphanages, and other property, Mr. Ghebre-Ab said. Though another war that year with Ethiopia interrupted the process, by 2002 Eritrea had closed all "new" church groups-including denominations related to Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians that functioned for decades. That, said Mr. Ghebre-Ab, "was isolated harassment . . . nothing on the scale we're seeing today."
Eritrea, which sits on the Red Sea, is roughly half Muslim and half Christian. Italy colonized Eritrea from 1890 to 1941, then the British took over. The British ruled Eritrea as a UN trust territory until the UN decided to make the country a federal portion of Ethiopia.
When Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962, Eritrean guerrillas fought back for the next 30 years. While Ethiopia received Soviet weapons and backing, the Eritreans had to go it alone; they scavenged arms from Ethiopian soldiers on the battlefield and survived on the individual contributions of Eritreans around the world. With its borders and sovereignty still vulnerable, Eritrean leaders stake the country's survival on unwavering loyalty to the state.
The government requires men and women ages 18 to 40 to undergo six months of military training and a year of national service. With the last border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), demands grew. Youths who went into the military "never came out," Mr. Ghebre-Ab said. The army swelled to 300,000, almost a tenth of the population. The stringent life prompted many to turn to religion, creating a Christian revival of sorts. But the government tolerates faith even less in the barracks than in homes.
"I think the ruling party really sees that as a great threat-young people over whose minds they have no kind of control," Mr. Ghebre-Ab said. "The 100 percent allegiance of young people is most important."
"What about the ones who lost their lives?" said Sarah Gebremicael, an 11-year guerrilla war veteran whose brother and sister died fighting in the war. "It was not for this they lost their lives. How many friends, classmates, neighbors have been lost?"
Ms. Gebremicael, who now lives in the Washington area, is active in the U.S. Eritrean evangelical community. During the independence war, one-third of Eritrean forces were women, and she was one of them. "Eritrean Christians don't have a problem being Christian (brothers) with everyone, even Ethiopians," she said. The authorities "don't like that. They want Eritreans to remain Eritreans."
Eritreans resent the strong-arm tactics of President Isaias Afewerki and his administration. His government refuses to implement a 1997 constitution that guarantees freedom of religion and other democratic rights. Prominent politicians who challenge the party line are jailed. Privately owned newspapers are forced to close. For many now, the sacrifice for independence has yielded only more authoritarianism.