As the world focuses on potential military advances against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it risks overlooking another vast region where militant Islam is a growing threat to the Church – in the continent where the Church is growing fastest: Africa.
Amongst other factors, the chaos in Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi – characterised by easy access to weapons of all sorts combined with the increasing presence of jihadists – has had a spill-over effect into Africa’s vast Sahel region. This spans the African continent from Senegal in the west to western Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia in the east. (The ‘Sahel’ describes the ecological and geographic region between the Sahara Desert and the humid and fertile savannah belt north of Africa’s tropical rainforest).
The most dramatic example of this Islamist militancy is in northern Mali, where Islamist militants and foreign fighters made common cause with Tuareg rebels to take over a large portion of the country in 2012. For most of the year, until the French military were forced to intervene, armed Islamist groups ruled the region, banning the practice of other religions and desecrating and looting churches and other places of worship.
In addition to the main group involved then, the jihadist Ansar Dine, other militant groups active in the Sahel region include Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and Islamic State (IS).
A new report from Open Doors International, a charity providing support to the global Church under pressure, shows that the rise of Islamist militancy in the region is undermining freedom of religion. According to the report, puritanical and militant versions of Islam (particularly Salafism/Wahhabism) are increasingly taking root – in a manner that reflects recent developments in the rest of the world – as a result of Islamist missionaries and NGOs from the Middle East, funded by (until recently) oil-rich Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Sahel, which encompasses parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, has been predominantly Muslim for centuries. Due to a mix of environmental, demographic, economic and political factors, all the states that exist in this region are very fragile.
Troops from Mali and Niger, supported by their French counterparts, conduct regular joint operations to hunt for militants in the western part of the region.
The report indicates that the Islamist groups in the region are very hostile to Christianity and show this through violent acts. Northern Mali has witnessed violent attacks against Christians and churches – notably in 2012, during jihadist occupation. There have also been a series of abductions by jihadist groups, which kidnap Christian workers not only to finance operations through demanding ransoms, but also to deter Christians from working in the region. The Swiss missionary, Beatrice Stockly, kidnapped in Timbuktu in January, is still being held hostage by AQIM.
In neighbouring Niger, Islamists burned down more than 70 churches, as well as Christian homes, schools and orphanages, in a series of arson attacks in January 2015.
Islamist groups in the Sahel, like others elsewhere, don’t tolerate other Muslims who adhere to a version of Islam different from their own. Violence and terror is their preferred modus operandi. The report suggests that any further increase in their numbers and influence would add to the difficulties Christians are facing.
Even if these groups do not succeed in imposing Sharia and establishing Islamic “caliphates” at a national level, they will still contribute to the overall radicalisation of the population and the spread of an extremist and intolerant version of Islam, says the report. It says this has created an environment in which any Christian outreach ministry – not to mention the very existence of the Church itself – faces violent resistance.
The radical militancy of jihadist groups in the Sahel is also spilling over further south and giving rise to terrorist attacks in predominantly Christian parts of West Africa, notes the report. The attack on the Grand-Bassam resort in Ivory Coast (March 2016) has highlighted the vulnerability of these countries.
In the long-term, unless these groups are defeated, it is very likely that they will intensify their campaign of terrorism and violence in southern Nigeria and other West African countries which have thus far been relatively spared from terrorist activism, warns the report.
It concludes that the situation for Christians in the Sahel is precarious. It says the region is becoming a new major hotspot for Islamist groups, many of which have allied themselves to international terror franchises like IS and al-Qaeda. It is very important that the countries in the region strengthen their cooperation against these militant groups, says the report, adding that countries outside the region capable of providing assistance should also help.
In addition to robust and decisive military action, the report says it is also important not to adopt a purely one-dimensional approach. The socio-economic and political realities in the region, of which the militant groups take advantage, also need to be transformed, it says. It is only when these underlying realities are changed that Christians and non-Christians will be able to enjoy security and freedom in the region.
(World Watch Monitor) Although the tiny East African nation of Eritrea has a population of just 6 million, Eritrea is one of the leading sources of refugees in Europe. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is a lack of religious freedom.
The Eritrean government outlawed worship outside of Islam and the Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran and Roman Catholic Church in 2002, driving all other Christian churches underground as they faced varying degrees of restrictions and attacks. Since then, thousands of Christians have been arrested and incarcerated without benefitting from a legal process. Among them are a number of prominent church leaders arrested in 2004, who remain incarcerated today, almost 12 years later. World Watch Monitor spoke with the family of one of these prisoners.
Haile Naigzhi, leader of Eritrea’s Full Gospel Church, was arrested during the early hours of 23 May, 2004. He was taken from his home to Police Station #1 in Asmara, then moved to Wongel Mermera – a dungeon-like prison in Asmara, where he still resides, alongside at least five other prominent church leaders (see list below). They have little hope of release anytime soon.
For years following Naigzhi’s arrest, his wife and three children (names withheld to protect their identity) waited for his release. In 2013, his wife received credible information that the government wanted to arrest her and the children, so she decided to flee.
As World Watch Monitor reported last year, the journey out of Eritrea is fraught with danger. Movement in Eritrea is heavily controlled through an internal travel-pass system and checkpoints; anyone trying to cross the border can be shot on sight. If you make it past those first two hurdles, you reach the desert, exposed to the unforgiving elements and lawless human traffickers. Whatever destination you aim for after that could see you either crossing the Mediterranean on a rickety boat or dodging deportation from African countries with diplomatic and ideological ties to the Eritrean government.
World Watch Monitor cannot divulge the details of the Naigzhi family’s journey, nor where they ended up, but today they are settled in a new country, where they have been granted asylum.
“We feel safer here,” said Naigzhi’s wife. “We are able to freely serve God. I am also happy because the children are in a good school.”
But their 19-year-old daughter misses home. “Ever since we left our country, things have dramatically changed in a way we didn’t know they would. I knew the moment we left that we would have an uphill battle until we are able one day to go back home again. And it was all true.”
Naigzhi’s wife added: “I miss my husband dearly. It is very lonely for me.”
Their eldest daughter last saw her father when she was seven, whereas the youngest son (13) does not remember a time when they were all together.
The other boy, 17, last saw his father when he was five and confessed to also feeling homesick.
“I miss home, I miss my friends, and I miss our house,” he said.
“It is difficult, but we hold on to Jesus,” said Naigzhi’s wife.
Her daughter added:
“We learnt that having a ‘bed-of-roses’ kind of life on earth is not actually God’s number one plan for us, but that everything we face in this world shapes our spirits into the beautiful spirit the Lord wishes to see in us. I am happy in every way and most especially to be the daughter of the Most High God. I am also happy to be the daughter of a prisoner for Christ. He is the best dad ever! God will make things perfect one day, and I trust Him with all my heart. He is faithful to keep His word.”
Eritrea is No. 3 on Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian. No-one knows for certain how many Christians remain in the elaborate network of incarceration centres in Eritrea. Although there seems to have been a lull in arrests, pressure remains high on Christians and on society in general. Thousands are still intent on fleeing the country, the majority aiming for Europe. Hundreds have died trying.
Incarcerated church leaders
Head of the Orthodox Church, removed from his position in 2007 after criticising the Eritrean government for interference in church activities. Two priests accompanied by government security agents entered the Patriarch’s residence and confiscated his personal pontifical insignia. He was replaced by Abune Dioskoros – a development orchestrated by the Eritrean government. Patriarch Antonios, who has never been charged with any offence, remains under house arrest and strict state surveillance.
Senior pastor of the Kale Hiwot Church. Arrested for participating in a Protestant wedding ceremony in Barentu on 9 January, 2005. Taken to Asmara Police Station No. 5, then subjected to 10 months of solitary confinement and hard labour at Sawa military camp. Released after six years, then re-arrested six months later, after a fleeing church member, who was being monitored, called him. Now back in prison in Barentu, where he has been for 11 years in total.
Senior pastor of the Full Gospel Church and member of the executive committee of Gideons International in Eritrea. When his vehicle was found abandoned in 2005, his wife and four children assumed he had been arrested. Believed to be in Wongel Mermera prison.
Leader of Eritrea’s Full Gospel Church, arrested at his home during the early hours of 23 May, 2004, and taken to Police Station #1 in Asmara.
Founder and senior pastor of Southwest Full Gospel Church, and member of the executive committee to the Full Gospel Church of Eritrea. Before he became a full-time pastor, Dr. Gebremeskel was also a mathematics lecturer and until 1999 was department and faculty head at the University of Asmara. Has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Chicago University. Taken from his home in Asmara Gejeret in May 2004. Wife and four children have not been able to visit him.
Anaesthetist and pastor of Massawa Rhema Church. Arrested on 3 June, 2004, five days after another pastor, Tesfasion Hagos (who has since been released and granted asylum in another country), visited his church and home. Arrested at a police checkpoint just before entering Asmara, as he was returning Pastor Hagos’ belongings to his home. Taken to the 2nd Police Station, where he was held for about two months, before being relocated to Wongel Mermera, where he remains. Unmarried.
Eritrea’s only psychiatrist. Also served as an Orthodox priest. Arrested in Nov. 2004 for allegedly being involved in the renewal movement within the Orthodox Church.
Expert theologian and Orthodox priest also arrested in Nov. 2004 for allegedly being involved in the renewal movement within the Orthodox Church.
Doctor and Orthodox priest also arrested in Nov. 2004 for alleged involvement in the renewal movement within the Orthodox Church.
Under dangerous conditions, Eritreans are fleeing their country to escape extreme human rights and religious freedom violations.
The ISIS terror group kidnapped 88 Eritrean Christians from a people-smugglers’ caravan in Libya last week, a U.S. defense official confirmed Monday.
The defense official confirmed initial reports of the mass kidnapping to Fox News after seeing a recent intelligence report. The independent Libya Herald newspaper reported that the convoy was ambushed by militants south of Tripoli before dawn this past Wednesday morning.
Meron Estafanos, the co-founder of the Stockholm-based International Commission on Eritrean Refugees, told the paper that the group of migrants included “about 12 Eritrean Muslims and some Egyptians. They put them in another truck and they put 12 Eritrean women Christians in a smaller pick-up”.
Estafanos said that the militants had initially stopped the truck and demanded that the Muslims on board make themselves known. Everyone who responded was asked about the Koran and their religious observance in an attempt to catch Christians pretending to be Muslims. Read More
(Voice Of The Persecuted) Eritrea has been on the hearts of those watching and praying for the persecuted church. One of our advocates has suggested that we shed some light on the atrocities and suffering of the people of Eritrea. And the extreme persecution and torture endured by Christians and other minorities.
“The State of Eritrea, is a country in the Horn of Africa. With its capital at Asmara, it is bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti in the southeast. The northeastern and eastern parts of Eritrea have an extensive coastline along the Red Sea, across Arabia and Yemen.”
Eritrea has also been called a ‘black hole’ and is compared next to North Korea for it’s media black outs. There is virtually no media presence there. Information comes at great difficulty through the UN and different aid agencies. Very little aid is allowed into the country. Eritrea is a member of the African Union, the United Nations and IGAD, and is an observer in the Arab League.
What we do know:
- September 2001 the government closed down all of the nation’s privately owned print media. Outspoken critics of the government have been arrested and held without trial, according to various international observers, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
- In 2004 the U.S. State Department declared Eritrea a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its record of religious persecution.
- As yet, no national elections have been held since independence. The president, Isaias Afwerki, has been in office since independence in 1993.
- Eritrea is a single-party state in which national legislative elections have been repeatedly postponed.
- According to Human Rights Watch, the government’s human rights record is considered among the worst in the world. Some Western countries, particularly the United States, have in particular accused the Eritrean authorities of arbitrary arrest and detentions, and of detaining an unknown number of people without charge for their political activism.
- Human rights violations are allegedly frequently committed by the government or on behalf of the government.
- Freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association are limited.
- Those who practice “unregistered” religions, try to flee the nation, or escape military duty are arrested and put into prison.
- They have a mandatory military service for all between 18 & 45.
- In 2007, the Eritrean government also banned female genital mutilation.
- In its 2014 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked the media environment in Eritrea at the very bottom of a list of 178 countries, just below totalitarian North Korea.
- Eritrea maintains diplomatic ties with a number of other countries, including China, Denmark, Djibouti, Israel, the United States and Yemen. Its relations with Djibouti and Yemen are tense due to territorial disputes over the Doumeira Islands and Hanish Islands, respectively.
The list of atrocities and human rights abuses go on and on. How can a country with diplomatic ties and as member of the UN be allowed to continue to commit atrocities such as holding prisoners in dirty underground storage containers?
One man had the courage to film a documentary about the deplorable conditions in Eritrea, and it will be released soon. He describes the testimony of one who escaped a prison there. The man’s job was to sell kerosene to the other inmates so they could cook. Instead of using the kerosene to prepare meals, they would set themselves on fire just to escape life in the prison. (More) Human Rights Watch & others have documented serious patterns of human rights violations in Eritrea.
These abuses include arbitrary arrest, torture, appalling detention conditions, forced labor, and severe restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, and worship. There are no independent media in Eritrea, and local nongovernmental organizations are prohibited. The Eritrean government uses a vast apparatus of official and secret detention facilities to incarcerate thousands of Eritreans without charge or trial. Many of the prisoners are detained for their political or religious beliefs; others because they tried to evade the indefinite national service or flee the country. (More from Human Rights watch)
Eritreans have suffered from trafficking in the Sinai and other countries enduring rape, burning, & mutilation. The silence from the World is shamefully deafening. Eritrean Christians suffer at groundbreaking levels.
Those fortunate enough to escape tell of horror beyond imagination. Imagine that suicide would be better than living in these conditions. Rights groups are speaking out, but it seems no one is listening. In addition to asking our government to investigate, Eritreans are in dire need of our urgent prayers.
We will be keeping Eritrea in our prayers and our watch list. While trying to shed some light in the darkness.
Pray for those that are in prison in shipping containers and holes in the ground that their faith in Jesus will be strong.
Pray for those in prison that their light will shine to the persecutors.
Pray that the church will continue to grow in Eritrea in the midst of her persecutions.
Pray that the dictator of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki will have a saving experience of Jesus Christ.
Pray that the blood of the martyrs will bring forth much fruit and gospel seed.
Resources: Human Rights Watch, Wikipedia, & EWTN
Washington, D.C. (May 9, 2014) – Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) today introduced legislation to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which he helped establish in 1998 as the author of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The commission was last reauthorized in September 2011.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government advisory body charged with monitoring the status of the freedom of religion or belief abroad and providing policy recommendations to the president, Secretary of State and Congress.
“Religious freedom is America’s first freedom, and a vitally important human right enshrined in international law,” Wolf said. “It should be a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. Too often that is not the case.”
“The Commission plays an invaluable role in giving an unvarnished picture of religious freedom violations the world over,” Wolf continued. “It is well respected on both sides of the aisle for its thoughtful analysis and policy recommendations, and its commissioners are regularly called upon to provide expert testimony at congressional hearings and briefings. Simply put, the commission’s research informs the work of many in foreign policy-making circles.”
As recent as April 30, 2014, the USCIRF released its annual report which documented religious freedom violations in 33 countries and made a number of policy recommendations, including that 16 countries and recommended that the State Department add eight more nations to its list of “countries of particular concern,” defined under law as countries where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are tolerated or perpetrated: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam. USCIRF also recommended that the following eight countries be re-designated as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. for particularly severe violation of religious freedom. The report also examines U.S. international religious freedom policy and recommends way to strengthen U.S. engagement and promotion of religious freedom.
Wolf said he looked forward to swift passage of this critical legislation.
Representative Wolf deeply cares and has worked diligently to protect the human right, Freedom of Worship for all people in the world.
He has long believed that the United States has an obligation to speak out for religious freedom, often referred to as the “first freedom.” Recognizing that religious freedom was often sidelined in our bilateral relations and diplomatic engagement with other countries, in 1998, he authored the International Religious Freedom Act, which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and established the International Religious Freedom Office at the State Department headed by an ambassador-at-large. This was a critical first step in integrating religious freedom into our broader foreign policy, but he says “Much remains to be done.”
“Sadly, religious freedom advocacy has never been more needed. A landmark report on religious freedom, released by the Pew Forum in 2009, found that “nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities. Pew has done subsequent studies on the issue and it’s 2014 report found that incidents of abuse targeting religious minorities were reported in 47% of countries in 2012, up from 38% in 2011 and 24% in the baseline year of the study.”
“If the international community fails to speak out and advocate for those whose basic human rights are being trampled, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance are bleak.”
In January 2013 I reintroduced bipartisan legislation to create a special envoy within the State Department to advocate on behalf of vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.
In countries like Iraq and Egypt, ancient Christian communities are being driven from the lands they have inhabited for centuries. In Iran, Baha’is are imprisoned and in some cases executed simply because of their faith. In Pakistan, Ahmadi graves are desecrated. In Afghanistan, a country where America has sacrificed greatly in both blood and treasure, the most basic right to freedom of religion or belief is not recognized in the constitution. This is but a snap shot of the grave challenges facing these communities.
In January 2011 following a Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing during which sobering testimony [was heard] about the challenges facing religious minorities in Iraq and Egypt, Wolf introduced the special envoy, bill – along with Democrat Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who is of Armenian and Assyrian heritage. The hearing predated the so-called “Arab Spring.” But arguably, the dramatic changes in the region have only made these communities more vulnerable.
Over 20 special envoy posts exist to protect a range of groups and interests, but none is dedicated to the plight of Middle East religious minorities.
On September 18, 2013 the House again overwhelmingly passed the Special Envoy vote by a vote of 402-22, but it has languished in the Senate.
Wolf is actively working to press for swift Senate action. Each day that passes without a dedicated special envoy to advocate for these besieged religious communities, America’s first freedom, religious freedom, is under assault around the globe.
“I renewed my efforts in the 113th Congress to press for passage of this important legislation and to mobilize faith leaders in the West to advocate for these imperiled communities. In January I sent a letter to more than 300 Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox leaders in the West, calling for them to use their influence to speak out on behalf of the persecuted Church around the globe, specifically in the Middle East.”
On Wednesday, the Christian leaders joined forces to call for an end to the silence over persecuted Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Rep. Wolf has regularly met with beleaguered Christians from this part of the world. He said, “Their stories are eerily similar: believers kidnapped for ransom; churches–some full of worshipers–attacked; clergy targeted for killing. In the face of this violence, Christians are leaving in droves.”
In countries where Christians must deal with harsh persecution, many are silenced by fear and abuse. The oppressors wish to hide the atrocities from the international community. Those standing up for religious rights and revealing the abuse are threatened to be silent or face severe persecution—death threats, pressured to convert to Islam, beaten, tortured, shot at and even lose their lives. It is not uncommon for them to be fired from their jobs when the employer is pressured to do so by the persecutors. And to further strike fear, their families likely experience all of the above.
The growing radicalism in these countries has forced many religious minorities to live in fear. In Pakistan, where false blasphemy charges have escalated and are abused, Christians asks us, “What has happened to humanity and what have we done to deserve such treatment?” (John 15:18, John 15:20) Simply being in disagreement with the prophet of Islam can wrongfully be proclaimed as blasphemy, denying their freedom of worship. As seen in recent cases, subjecting them to possible death sentences has also intensified. Too often and now more frequently, Pakistani citizens trying to make a difference by promoting peace and religious equality are forced to flee the country to spare their lives and that of their families. While Pakistan loses one more of the brave few willing to stand up and be a voice for Christian rights and that of other religious minorities.
In the Bible there is much written about the oppressed and persecuted. Jesus had more to say about the poor than any other group of people. He had great concern for this critical issue and taught us that we should too. As American Christians, if we are earnest about our faith, then we should be compelled to aid the oppressed in the world. Being blessed by God living in a nation of great freedom, should we not use this gift and ability to be a voice for those who don’t?
VOP and persecuted Christians appreciate the work of Rep. Wolf. May the Lord bless him in his efforts.
Engage and inform others on the topic of Christian persecution. And get them praying for our suffering brethren!
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo
Egyptian Copts are eager to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s this year but at the same time acknowledge the need for increased security.
“Christmas celebrations are a necessity that will not be stamped out by any circumstances or events,” said Father Paul Nathir of the Church of St. Anthony in Cairo’s Shubra district.
He told Al-Shorfa, however, that Copts are planning on making this year’s New Year’s and Christmas celebrations low-key affairs.
“Copts have unpleasant memories of previous New Year’s and Christmas Eves,” he said, recalling the killings in Nag Hammadi on Christmas Eve in 2009 and the bombing of the Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve last year that left dozens of Christians killed and wounded.
“Many areas have begun forming popular committees to secure the masses held during the holidays in collaboration between young Christians and young Muslim members of political groups and independents,” he said.
Mena Mitri, a senior in Cairo University’s Department of Languages, said celebrating Christmas is “essential and semi-obligatory, no matter the circumstances”.
Mitri said Christmas festivities in Egypt continue from mid-December through mid-January. Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate the holiday on January 7th while the Catholic community celebrates it on December 25th.
“The Copts begin decorating their Christmas trees one day after fasting is concluded, or two days before Christmas Day. Women bake cakes and biscuits, most of which are distributed to neighbours, both Christians and Muslims, and some hang curtains and lay out rugs,” Mitri said.
“In the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, everyone goes to church to participate in the mass,” Mitri said. “After exchanging holiday greetings, everyone heads home to start preparing for the feast, which usually takes place in the home of a senior family member such as a grandfather or uncle.”
Turkey, fish, meat pie, fatta, fruit cake, and pumpkin pie are some of the most popular foods served on Christmas.
‘Christmas only differs from Muslim holidays in terms of religious rituals’
Fahim Abdel-Salam, who earned a doctorate in social sciences from the University of Cairo, told Al-Shorfa that the Coptic celebration of Christmas falls on the 29th of Kiahk on the Coptic calendar (January 7th) after a 40-day fast.
“Christmas was one of the grand holidays during the Mamluk period,” Abdel-Salam said. “The Sultans celebrated it and distributed gifts and food to the people, and everyone participated in ceremonies held in public places that were decorated with candles, lanterns and fireworks.”
Holiday decorations during that era consisted of tree branches and red flowers, which were supplanted in homes by Christmas trees, synthetic decorations, lights and red flowers, Abdel-Salam said.
“As for holiday customs, Christians congregate in churches for midnight mass where they sing Christmas hymns. The priest reads verses from the Bible and explains the meaning of the holiday, and church bells ring at precisely midnight,” he said. “However, in recent years, political and security incidents began to dominate the speeches, and they are now included in the holiday sermons.”
Abdel-Salam said the Copts’ observance of Christmas only differs from Muslim holidays in terms of religious rituals. “The feasts, exchange of greetings, and family visits are the same for followers of both religions, which illustrates the depth of the historic relationship between the two sides over the centuries,” he said.
Debesai’s death also coincided with the arrest of around 70 Christians at a prayer gathering in Asmara, the capital.
These arrests bring to nearly 300 the number of Christians known to have been taken into custody this year in what local Christians have called the most serious campaign against the Eritrean Church yet.
This follows the deaths earlier this month of around 380 mostly Eritrean and Somali migrants as they attempted to flee to Europe in ill-equipped vessels, crossing the Mediterranean from Libya.
The United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, recently told the General Assembly that human rights abuses in Eritrea are causing “countless Eritreans to desert from their positions and flee the country”.
Eritreans are second only to Syrians in terms of the number of those who have fled to Italy by sea up to 30 September this year (UN figures). “It demonstrates the desperation of those who decide to flee, despite the extreme dangers along escape routes and an unknown future,” said Keetharuth.
UN figures claim that between 2,000 and 3,000 people are fleeing Eritrea every month despite a “shoot-to-kill policy” for those who attempt to leave. More than 300,000 Eritreans are believed to have fled the country in the past decade.
Keetharuth said the most serious violations include a lack of freedom of expression, assembly, religious belief and movement; extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, extended incommunicado detention, torture and indefinite national service.
Eritrea’s ambassador to the UN, Arya Desta, rejected these claims, saying they were being used as a “tool of political pressure” for making “unfair and unjust” sanctions. He also denied the implementation of a shoot-to-kill policy.
Debesai had been taking part in national service when she was arrested last year for her involvement in Christian activities outside of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran church groups.
Debesai, who was engaged to be married, was then kept incommunicado in Adi Quala, near the Ethiopian border.
Her fiancé Yohannes was arrested on the same day and also held in Adi Quala.
A representative of Open Doors, a charity that works with Christians under pressure for their faith, said that many Christian men and women are being held in underground dungeons, metal shipping containers and military detention centers.
“They face exposure, hard labour and insufficient food, water and hygiene. They are regularly denied medical treatment for malaria and pneumonia contracted while in prison or diseases like diabetes, hypertension or cancer that they may have arrived with,” said the representative.
A number of rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have condemned Eritrea’s human rights record. Amnesty International claims that Eritrea’s prisons are filled with “thousands of political prisoners, locked up without ever being charged with a crime, many of whom are never heard from again”.
At least 10,000 political prisoners have been imprisoned since 1993, claims the organization, and many die in detention as a result of “torture, appalling conditions or suicide”.
Speaking to the BBC World Service in the aftermath of the first Eritrean deaths off the island of Lampedusa, Gaiam Ciprian of London’s South Bank University said that every Eritrean between 16 and 40 has to do national service, and since there is no effective de-mobilization, so no-one really leaves it.
He also said the Eritrean economy has virtually collapsed.