There is much religious intolerance in this new, twenty-first century. This is the tale of religious intolerance in an obscure country in East Africa called Eritrea. After fighting for its own freedom from Ethiopia for more than 30 years, this Marxist regime has forced a peace-loving community of Christians to become little more than aliens in their own land.
While known the world over as a group of devoted preachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea have been the target of a brutal and protracted government-sponsored campaign of terror. All Witnesses have been stripped of their citizenship and the rights that go with it, apparently with the intent of breaking their faith or of wiping them out as a presence in that country.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only faith under attack in Eritrea, independent human rights observers say the persecution of this group is particularly intense, extending over the better part of two decades. “Muslims and especially Jehovah’s Witnesses have suffered persecution as a consequence of their refusal to take part in compulsory military service. Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is particularly pronounced given their refusal to vote in the independence referendum,” says the 2008 edition of the book Religious Freedom in the World, edited by Paul Marshall and published by the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank that reports on human rights violations around the globe.
“The government views not participating in military service as a threat to the state,” says Alan Gallina, a human rights specialist with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, and have more than 7 million members in 235 lands across the world. “But if that’s the case, why are there 2- and 3-year-olds in prison right now? Why are there 75-year-olds in prison? How can they be a threat?”
A country of about 5 million people on what’s known as the Horn of Africa, Eritrea shares borders with Sudan to the west, Ethiopia to the south, Djibouti to the southeast, and the Red Sea to the east. As of September 2009, 60 Eritrean Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to be imprisoned for reasons ranging from conscientious objection to military service, to participation in religious activity such as preaching, to meeting in a Bible study group. More than half of the arrests have had nothing to do with participation in military service. Three of the prisoners have been held since September 1994, spending the better part of their lives in prison.
On June 28, 2009, 23 members of one congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the capital of Asmara were peacefully meeting together for Bible study in a private home when Eritrean authorities raided the meeting and imprisoned Witnesses and interested persons alike. Three children ranging in ages from 2 to 4 years were among the group, which also included a child of 8, a woman over 70, and another over 80. The majority of these arrests were of women, since the government had long since arrested their husbands and sons. Most remain in prison today. This is the latest in a pattern of persecution extending back to 1994.
“There is a misunderstanding about who we are,” says Philip Brumley, general counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, in an interview from his office in Patterson, New York. “If the government would understand who we are, we are confident that this mistreatment will end.”
Yet, governmental officials have rebuffed most efforts by the religious group to foster any understanding beyond what’s already known by them. And the little that the government knows, they don’t like.
Jehovah’s Witnesses began showing up on the government’s radar in April 1993, when more than a million Eritreans voted for independence from Ethiopia in a U.N.-supervised referendum. That vote was the culmination of a battle between the two countries spanning some three decades and led by a man who would become president of the newly formed government. The referendum marked the embryonic stages of severe and protracted persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses—who, for conscientious reasons, elected not to participate in the referendum.
Their reasons for not voting are rooted in their stand of strict neutrality in political and governmental issues. This has been a tenet of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith for nearly 100 years, bringing them in harmony, they say, with both Jesus’ teachings and the model set forth by the first-century Christian congregation. They cite the words of Jesus Christ to Pontius Pilate as recorded in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”* Like Jesus, they obey the governmental authorities when the laws promulgated do not interfere with their obligations as set forth in the Bible.
This has put them at odds with Eritrean officials, who seem to believe the state is sovereign in people’s lives—even over God. Jonah Fisher, a former BBC correspondent based in Asmara, writes that the repression of religion is a result of the government being “afraid that people who consider their highest allegiance to be God, at some point may not be patriotic and follow the state’s instructions,” according to his September 17, 2004, report published by the BBC.
If the Witnesses’ nonparticipation in the referendum put them on the government’s radar, however, their firm stand against military service landed them right in the government’s crosshairs as its main target against conscientious objectors.
After 30 years of war it was no surprise that Eritrea’s new leaders maintained a war mentality. Once Eritrea achieved independence, it became what Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute calls a “militarily mobilized national security state.” This militarized state seemed bent on making an example of Jehovah’s Witnesses for their conscientious objection to military service.
But the stand taken in Eritrea is not new for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have steadfastly refused to serve in any military organization of any nation. Their stand is well known in the United States and Europe, where they have exercised their conscientious objection even in the face of death at the hands of totalitarian regimes such as the Nazis during World War II.
“We are not subversive; we are not anti-Eritrean,” says Brumley. “History confirms that Jehovah’s Witnesses will not perform military service. This is not a country-specific position. It is a trait of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” He adds, “Just the fact that Jesus said the world would recognize us by the love we show among ourselves, it is inconceivable that Witnesses would allow themselves to be divided by national barriers.” The scriptural basis for this teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses is found in John 13:35, where Jesus said the identifying characteristic of His followers would be their collective “love for one another.”
From left to right: Paulos Eyassy, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam, imprisoned since September 24, 1994, for their conscientious objection to serving in the Eritrean military.
Notwithstanding the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ long-established stand, Eritrean officials were intent on establishing their own legacy. On September 24, 1994, three young Jehovah’s Witness men were imprisoned, ostensibly for their refusal to join the military. Paulos Eyassu, Negede Teklemariam, and Isaac Mogos have been imprisoned for the past 15 years—isolated from families and community—despite the fact that the maximum penalty for conscientious objection under Eritrean law is three years.
“The families were deeply grieved at first. Every day since then, worry is added to their grief,” said friends of the family in a report published by Jehovah’s Witnesses on the tenth anniversary of their imprisonment. “They are afraid to speak about it or share what little they do know, for fear of adverse consequences on the men in prison.”
One month after the arrests—almost to the day—the government took an even stronger stand. On October 25, 1994, Eritrean president Isaias Afworki issued the following presidential declaration:
“A group calling themselves ‘Jehovah’ [sic], who are Eritreans by birth, but who have revoked their Eritrean citizenship by their refusal to take part in the referendum, have now reconfirmed their position by refusing to take part in the National Service, thus deciding to revoke their citizenship.”
The immediate result of this decree was swift and decisive. All Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea were stripped of their basic civil rights and barred from working in any governmental employment. Additionally, their business licenses, identity cards, and travel documents were summarily revoked, refused, and/or taken from them. The result has caused tremendous economic hardship in a country already among the poorest in the world. Worse, the decree marked the beginning of a dark period for Eritrean Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose families have been torn apart and disenfranchised by the merciless persecution and imprisonment of children as young as 2 and men as old as 90.
The first communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea date back to the 1940s. But since 1995, at least 250 Jehovah’s Witness families have fled Eritrea and sought asylum outside the country because of the hardships. More than 100 Witnesses lost their employment because of their religion, affecting their immediate family and others who relied on their support. At least 38 Jehovah’s Witnesses were denied business licenses and 37 families have been expelled from their homes, with little prospects for renting a home because of the climate of hate and discrimination.
“The detention of individuals solely because of their religious beliefs is part of the general denial of the rights to freedom of expression and association in Eritrea, as well as other grave violations of basic human rights,” states a December 2005 report by Amnesty International on religious persecution in Eritrea. “These violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion are contrary to international law, as well as the Constitution of Eritrea.”
The violations go well beyond economic hardship and community ostracism, however. According to the book Religious Freedom in the World, there are few places on earth where religious discrimination is so egregious and human rights are so often ignored. By all accounts, Eritrean incarceration can be compared only to concentration camps. Marshall writes: “With grueling work and little food, prisoners are often placed in overcrowded makeshift corrugated tin housing, which exacerbates both the intense heat of the day and the cold of the night. In such an environment, disease spreads quickly, and medical facilities are often either lacking or deliberately withheld. Frequent reports have emerged of confinement in underground cells or metal shipping containers, both of which serve as especially severe punishment.” “Life in detention centers is extremely harsh since it occurs in some of the hottest places on earth. . . . In such conditions, people have died or gone insane.”
In the 2004 BBC report by Fisher, Fisher quotes a journalist who had seen firsthand the human rights violations in Eritrea. “All of these things are just happening repeatedly over and over from people of all different Christian denominations and the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” wrote Fisher, quoting the reporter. “I’ve seen the scars on people’s legs, I’ve seen their tears and it’s very real and they live under a lot of fear.”
It goes without saying that these government-sanctioned actions violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the pledge Eritrea made when it joined the United Nations. Incredibly, Eritrea is violating its own constitution, which was ratified in 1997 but never enacted. Article 19 of the document provides for freedom of conscience, religion, movement, assembly, organization, and expression of opinion. “In reality, however, the government quashes any freedoms perceived to diminish national security or unity,” writes Marshall.
Against this flood of persecution, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea are not giving in or giving up. “I interviewed a few young brothers and sisters and, by and large . . . . their faith is intact and they are strong,” says Gallina. “In fact, their faith has been made stronger.”
Gallina says that the Witnesses are still attempting to send a delegation to meet with President Afworki or his key people. “We almost always find that meeting with officials helps mitigate problems,” he said, adding that any efforts made toward resolving these issues are done “rather cautiously because we are concerned how this will affect our brothers and sisters.”
One of the potential remedies available to both sides is the adoption of a system of civilian national service under the oversight of a nonmilitary branch of government. Such a system of alternative service is made available to Jehovah’s Witnesses and other conscientious objectors in countries such as Cuba, Denmark, Germany, Colombia, Taiwan, among others, according to Brumley.
“Generally speaking, most Jehovah’s Witnesses do not object to performing national service,” said Brumley. “Of course, it cannot be under military supervision, and whether or not one accepts to perform such service is up to the individual’s conscience.” He adds, “If the government needs help to build schools, improve roads, and if there was national service that is civilian, very likely many young Witnesses would be there to help out. . . . Right now, however, they are taking young men and instead of using them to build bridges or schools, they have them sitting in prison.”
Witness officials stress that patience is a must, even after years of severe treatment. “In spite of the chronic mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, we are nevertheless hopeful that through dialogue these misunderstandings can be resolved and peace established,” says Brumley. “In spite of the way we have been treated, we still want to sit down and talk with the government so that the persecution will end.”
It has been said that Eritrean parents will quote an old Eritrean proverb to their children: Kwakolo kus bekus bougru yehahid, which means when translated, “Little by little an egg will walk.” This refers to the process by which an egg is hatched, a chick emerges, and it gradually grows into an adult, teaching a child to reach a goal by working at it day by day. Jehovah’s Witnesses are hoping this proverb holds true in their dealings with the Eritrean government—that little by little, day by day, their efforts will one day help deliver their fellow worshippers from this crucible of persecution.
*Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.