A new report from the United Nations says “systematic, gross and widespread crimes against humanity”, including abuses of religious freedom, have been committed in Eritrea and should be investigated by the International Criminal Court.

Only four religious denominations are tolerated in Eritrea: Eritrean Orthodox, Catholicism, the Lutheran church and Sunni Islam. All other denominations are strictly prohibited.

In its section on religious discrimination, the report, released on 8th June, states: “The Government controls freedom of religion tightly...Religious practice by members of non-authorised religious groups is prohibited and subject to repression. Following a 2002 decree requiring registration of all religions seeking authorisation to practice, a number of smaller religious groups attempted to register. To date, they have not received authorisation.”

The report adds that the government also continues to “control” authorised religious groups. It references the recent arrest and detention (in April) of 10 Orthodox priests for protesting against the continued detention of Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonio, who was arrested more than 10 years ago.

The Eritrean government claims religious freedom “is guaranteed by law” in Eritrea, and says Eritrea has “a rich history of religious tolerance, co-existence and harmony in a turbulent region that is often wracked by acute religious polarisation and strife”. It says its 2002 regulations were intended only to “request new faiths to declare their sources of funding. Most of the miniscule new faiths did not want to comply with the regulations because they have external funding”.

The UN says between 300,000 and 400,000 people are “enslaved” in Eritrea, mainly through enforced and indefinite “national service”, including, but not confined to, military conscription.

The BBC’s Africa editor, Mary Harpe,r told the World Service on 8th June that, in response to this report, “it is possible that certain individuals from Eritrea might end up being indicted by the International Criminal Court”.

But the Eritrean government’s Head of Political Affairs, Yemane Gebreab, said the allegations were “laughable”. “There is no basis to the claims. Everyone who knows anything about Eritrea, including European governments, will tell you this is rubbish,” he told reporters.

The UN says it “recognises that there is a considerable degree of religious harmony among those religious denominations authorised in Eritrea. Nonetheless, Eritrea’s persistent discrimination against persons belonging to unrecognised religious groups constitute violations of Article 486 of Eritrea’s Transitional Penal Code, Articles 2, 18 and 26 of the ICCPR, and Articles 2 and 8 of the ACHPR”.

“Many of the acts of discrimination constitute the crime against humanity of persecution,” it adds.

In 2015, Eritrea, which has a population of only around 6 million, was the source of 25 per cent of the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, more than any other nationality.

In 2011, 659 Eritreans made the journey; in 2015, the number was 38,791, according to figures from Frontex.

The reasons for this are multifarious, but a lack of religious freedom has regularly been cited as one factor.

- World Watch Monitor