AFRICAN HUMAN RIGHTS LAW JOURNAL
(2014) 14 AHRLJ 244-265
The troubled relationship of state and religion in Eritrea
Daniel R Mekonnen*
Senior Legal Advisor, International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI), Norway
Director, Release Eritrea, United Kingdom
Eritrea is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religion country. The country does not have an official state religion. However, since the country’s independence in 1991, the relationship between state and religion has been a troubled one. At least four religions are officially recognised by the state: Islam, of the Sunni rite; the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, part of the worldwide Coptic Orthodox Church of the eastern rite; the Eritrean Catholic Church, part of the worldwide Roman Catholic movement; and the Eritrean Evangelical Church, part of the Lutheran World Federation. There are also a number of religious beliefs which are not formally recognised by the state. Members of these religious groups practise their belief clandestinely at the risk of insurmountable levels of persecution: If caught practising their religion in whatever form, they are treated harshly. The persecution of these groups takes place mainly in the form of coerced repudiation of one’s religion. This is routinely accompanied by various forms of human rights violations, such as prolonged arbitrary detention and solitary confinement, including torture. In extreme cases it also entails extrajudicial execution. In this context, freedom of religion is severely restricted in Eritrea due to the excessive levels of state intervention in matters of personal belief or creed. As such, Eritrea has become a major example of religious persecution in the world. This has prompted, amongst other things, the description of Eritrea as one of the worst abusers in the world, along with North Korea. The relationship between the state and religion has been particularly problematic since the Eritrean government introduced a new policy in
* LLB (Asmara), LLM (Stellenbosch), LLD (Free State); email@example.com
** BA (Westminster), MSc (London); firstname.lastname@example.org
2002 ordering the ‘closure’ of all other religions except the four officially- recognised beliefs. This article critically analyses the troubled relationship of state and religion in Eritrea and, in so doing, it addresses the challenge from a human rights perspective.
1 Introduction: Religion and the pre-conflict, in- conflict and post-conflict state
This article discusses the troubled relationship of state and religion in Eritrea. Having obtained de facto independence in 1991 after a 30- year war of independence with Ethiopia, and de jure statehood in
1993, the country is the second youngest in Africa, the youngest being the newly-born Republic of South Sudan. In this contribution, we discuss the sad state of affairs in Eritrea through the lens of a historical overview of the relationship of state and religion, dating back to the ancient times.
However, what is it necessary to analyse the relationship of state and religion in Eritrea? We briefly answer this question based on the observation of Selassie, who asserts that religion is one of the three major forces that define modern politics, the other two forces being nationalism and the demands of constituent parts of a state in
national politics.1 As such, an understanding of the relationship
between religion and state is a very important indicator in
comprehending the state of human rights and political development,
particularly in post-conflict tyrannical states such as Eritrea. However,
we note that Eritrea is a very difficult case study in terms of explaining
its predicament using the characterisation of a pre-, in- and/or post-
conflict state, as explained below.
Before 1991, Eritrea was a battlefield experiencing continuous hostilities that date back at least to the Italian colonial era, at which time the country was created as a modern polity. From 1991 to 1998 it saw a relatively peaceful transition to a much-anticipated democratic order which has as yet not materialised. From 1998 to
2000, it fought a devastating border conflict with Ethiopia. In the
words of Cameron: ‘From the ashes of this calamitous reversion to war, there arose a dirigiste state.’2 The nation has already become ‘a battalion state’.3 Given its unimpeded high-speed course towards a
1 BH Selassie Wounded nation: How a once promising Eritrea was betrayed and its future compromised (2011) 237.
2 G Cameron ‘The Eritrean state in comparative perspective’ in D O’Kane & TR Hepner (eds) Biopolitics, militarism and development: Eritrea in the twenty-first century (2009) 143.
3 C Bundegaard ‘The battalion state: Securitisation and nation building in Eritrea’ PSIS Occasional Paper 2, 2004, http://mercury.ethz.ch/serviceengine/Files/ISN/
20600/ipublicationdocument_singledocument/3cb39359-b77b-4042-a6c6-f99d9 e897f83/en/PSIS-OccPap-2_2004-Bundegaard.pdf (accessed 31 January 2014).
‘militaristic garrison state’,4 the nation is just an inch away from becoming another failed state in the Horn of Africa. This region has already produced such a failed state in the last two decades, and it is
likely that Eritrea will become another failed state.5
Whilst a number of factors have contributed to the sad state of affairs in Eritrea, the repressive political culture of the ruling and sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), is the main problem. As noted by Bozzini, the state in Eritrea is authoritarian, unaccountable, volatile and violent; and the political leadership is an all-powerful and capricious, ready to do whatever it can, at the cost of individual basic freedom (including matters of intrinsically personal nature, such as religious creed), in order to hold state power intact. The political leadership continues in power, despite its large de-legitimisation and widespread popular disapproval
of its policies.6 This provides the broader context within which we try
to analyse the troubled relationship of state and religion in Eritrea,
which has now become a major cause of unprecedented levels of
religious persecution and other forms of human rights violations in the
Our article is organised as follows. The current section is the introductory part. In the next section we provide a brief historical overview of the relationship between state and religion, starting from ancient history to the modern era. This provides a broad overview that fits the purpose of our research, particularly in the context of the two most dominant religions in Eritrea: Christianity and Islam. In the third part, we discuss the troubled relationship between state and religion in Eritrea with the emphasis on the post-independence era. However, in order to have a very comprehensive picture, we will touch briefly on the pre-independence history of the state-religion relationship in the country. The fourth part links the debate with the prevailing excessive state interference in religion, a practice which has become a major cause of unprecedented levels of religious persecution in the country. In elaborating this challenge, we discuss a few representative case studies of religious persecution that is currently taking place in
4 TR Hepner & D O’Kane ‘Conclusion: Biopolitics and dilemmas of development in
Eritrea and elsewhere’ in O’Kane & Hepner (n 2 above) 168.
5 D Mekonnen ‘Drivers of fragility and the perils of state failure in Eritrea’ paper presented at the International Conference on Human Security: Threats, Risks, Crisis 18-19 October 2012, Kadir Has University, Istanbul, Turkey.
6 D Bozzini ‘Low-tech surveillance and the despotic state in Eritrea’ (2011) 9
Surveillance and Society 104 110. Bozzini discusses the political crisis in Eritrea in
the context of one of the most controversial government policies, which is
mandatory and indefinite military conscription of virtually every adult member of
society. For more on this, see G Kibreab ‘Forced labour in Eritrea’ (2009) 47
Journal of Modern African Studies 41-72; SM Weldehaimanot ‘From prisoners to
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