The Eritrean government has rejected a claim by the U.S. State Department that it violates religious rights and severely restricts freedom of worship for all but four government-sanctioned religions, sources said on Wednesday. According to the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), the Eritrean Foreign Ministry was astonished in seeing the U.S. attempt to become “the self-appointed adjudicator.”
In its International Religious Freedom Report for 2004, which was released on Wednesday, the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said the Eritrean government's "poor respect for religious freedom for minority religious groups" had continued to decline.
"The government 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," the State Department said. "There were also numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at forced recantations."
Noting that there "were numerous credible reports that over 400 members of non-sanctioned religious groups have been detained or imprisoned," the department said "government restrictions make it difficult to determine the precise number of current religious prisoners, but it is likely over 200."
In response to the statement, Eritrean Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that "the statement by the State Department does not come as a surprise to Eritrea as it has been no secret that the CIA and its operatives have been long engaged in fabricating defamatory statements in a bid to embark on other agendas and at the same time conceal its unwarranted intervention.”
"It is only astonishing to see the U.S., which lacks moral and legal high grounds on human rights and the respect for religions, make an attempt to become the self-appointed adjudicator," the ministry added in a statement.
According to the State Department, the Eritrean government closed all religious facilities not belonging to the four sanctioned religions, following a decree issued in May 2002 that required religious groups to register or cease all religious activities.
"Leaders of the non-sanctioned religious groups were warned that, until the registration applications were received and approved, no religious activities or services could be held," the department said. To register, each group was required to describe its history in the country, explain the "uniqueness" or benefit that it offered compared to Eritrea's other religious groups, and give the names and personal information of religious leaders.
They were also required to provide a list of group members, detailed information on assets and property owned by the group, and sources of funding from outside the country, to a government committee that reviews the applications. However, no registrations had occurred "despite the fact that several religious groups submitted their registration documents over 2 years ago and continued to inquire with the relevant government offices".
The U.S. State Department charged that "the government closely monitors the activities and movements of non-sanctioned religious groups and individual members, including nonreligious social functions attended by members."
"The government also harassed and monitored some Orthodox congregations whose religious services it did not approve,” it added.
Also, according to the department, "There were several reports that on occasion police tortured those detained for their religious beliefs, including using bondage, heat exposure, and beatings."
“There also were credible reports that some of the detainees were required to sign statements repudiating their faith or agreeing not to practice it as a condition for release,” the department said. “In some cases where detainees refused to sign, relatives were asked to do so on their behalf."
The report, which lists detailed cases of arrests and other forms of abuse, said the U.S. Secretary of State had designated Eritrea as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It was the first time that the annual report classified Eritrea as a CPC. Other first-timers included Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the report maintained CPCs including Myanmar, China, Cuba, Laos, and North Korea as “totalitarian regimes” restricting religious freedom in their societies.
Eritrea is also listed as No. 18, on the Open Doors “World Watch List,” which includes the names of the top 50 countries where Christians suffer the most.