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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right in practice. The Constitution provides for the "freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice," and Islam and Christianity are practiced widely and tolerated throughout the country with persons free to worship at the mosque or church of their choice; however, the Government persecuted the small community of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Government does not require religious groups to register. However, because the Government owns all land, any religious organization that seeks facilities for worship other than private homes must seek government approval to use or build such facilities. There were no reports that the Government refused to approve the use or construction of facilities by any religious organization. Religious organizations, including religious nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), do not receive duty free privileges, although they sometimes are allowed to import items under the reduced duty structure used for corporations.

Although reliable statistics are not available, approximately 50 percent of the population are Sunni Muslim and approximately 43 percent are Orthodox Christian. The Christian population also includes a small number of Eastern Rite and Roman Catholics (3 percent), Protestants (2 percent), and smaller numbers of Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. A small minority, approximately less than 2 percent, practices traditional indigenous religions. Also present in very small numbers are practicing Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Baha'is. Generally, the eastern and western lowlands are dominated by Muslims, and the highlands are predominantly Christian.

The Government persecuted members of the small community of Jehovah's Witnesses, of which there are less than 1,500 adherents. In 1994 the Government revoked the trading licenses of some Jehovah's Witnesses and dismissed most of those who worked in the civil service. This governmental action resulted in economic, employment, and travel difficulties for many members of Jehovah's Witnesses, especially former civil servants and businessmen. In April 1997, the government labor office issued a form to all employers in Asmara and the surrounding area requesting information on any government personnel who were members of Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1998 one woman was denied a passport when, upon questioning at the Office of Immigration, she informed officials of her religious affiliation.

In 1998 three elementary school children who were members of Jehovah's Witnesses were expelled for refusing to sing the national anthem or honor the flag, and one secondary school student was expelled for refusing to donate funds to support the conflict with Ethiopia.

Members of Jehovah's Witnesses universally have refused, on religious grounds, to participate in national service or to vote in elections or referendums. This spurred widespread criticism that members of Jehovah's Witnesses collectively were shirking their civic duty. Some Muslims also have objected to universal national service with regard to the requirement that women perform military duty. Although persons from other religious groups, including Muslims, reportedly have been imprisoned for failure to participate in national service, only members of Jehovah's Witnesses have been subject to dismissal from the civil service, have had their trading licenses revoked, and have been denied passports for this reason. In addition to these measures, members of Jehovah's Witnesses also are denied identification cards, exit visas, trading licenses, and government housing universally, unless they hide their religion. In 1998 several members of Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested for failure to comply with national service laws and some were tried, although there is no information available regarding the verdicts or sentences in these cases. In March 1999, representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses reported that three members of Jehovah's Witnesses have been detained without trial or charge for more than 4 years, allegedly for failing to participate in national service. The maximum penalty for refusing to do national service is only 3 years.

Ministry of Justice officials deny that any members of Jehovah's Witnesses were held without charges, although they acknowledge that some members of Jehovah's Witnesses, and a number of Muslims, are in jail serving sentences for convictions on charges of evading national service. The Government does not excuse individuals who object to national service for reasons of conscience, nor does the Government allow alternative service. There is no indication that any persons are detained or imprisoned solely because of their religious beliefs or practices; however, the Government has singled out members of Jehovah's Witnesses for harsher treatment than that received by members of other faiths for similar actions. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses are not barred from meeting in private homes.

Authorities informed the Roman Catholic Church in April 1998 that all Catholic schools would be incorporated into the public school system. At the time it was not made clear whether the clerical authorities would continue to administer the curriculum with government oversight or whether the school faculty would be absorbed into the Ministry of Education. However, no action was taken to implement this initiative because of the outbreak of the border conflict with Ethiopia. In January 1998, religiously affiliated organizations were prohibited from operating kindergartens.

The Government has banned religious organizations from involvement in politics and restricts the right of religious media to comment on political matters.

The Government discourages proselytizing by members of one faith among adherents of another, particularly by Christians among Muslims, and also has discouraged foreign religious groups and NGO's from proselytizing, as it believes this could create unnecessary friction in the delicate balance between the Muslim and Christian populations. In a 1995 proclamation, the Government described specific guidelines on the role of religion and religion-affiliated NGO's in development and government, stating that development, politics, and public administration are the sole responsibility of the Government and citizens. As a result, religious organizations may fund, but not initiate or implement, development projects. The proclamation also set out rules governing relations between religious organizations and foreign sponsors.

Some foreign missionaries operate in the country, including representatives of Christian groups and the Muslim faith. There also are several international religious NGO's that provide humanitarian aid, including Caritas, Dutch Interchurch Aid, Lutheran Church Aid, and the Mufti's Relief Organization, the relief arm of the Muslim religion. However, in May 1998, the Government shut down the health clinic of a Presbyterian church and refused to renew the visas of foreign church members, effectively ending the mission work of the church.

The Government has created a Directorate of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Local Government to encourage cooperation and interfaith dialog. The Directorate helps coordinate interdenominational relations between the four major religious groups (Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and evangelical) and also monitors religious compliance with the proscription against political activity.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no persons detained solely on religious grounds. Representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses reported that three members of Jehovah's Witnesses have been held without charge for more than 4 years, but their detention allegedly is based on their refusal to perform mandatory national service and not because of their religious beliefs. However, members of Jehovah's Witnesses received harsher treatment than members of other groups for such alleged offenses.

There were no persons imprisoned solely on religious grounds. Some members of Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims have been tried, sentenced, and imprisoned for refusing on religious grounds to perform compulsory national service.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Citizens generally are very tolerant of one another in the practice of their religion. Mosques and Christian churches of all orders intermingle throughout the country, although Islam tends to predominate in the lowlands and Christianity in the highlands.

In Asmara, Christian and Muslim holidays are respected by all religions. Some holidays are celebrated jointly.

Societal attitudes toward Jehovah's Witnesses are the exception to religious tolerance. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses generally are disliked because of their refusal to participate in the independence referendum in 1993 and to perform national service, a refusal that is seen widely as unpatriotic.

Church leaders of most denominations meet routinely and engage in ongoing efforts to foster cooperation and understanding between religions, with the major exception of Jehovah's Witnesses. Leaders of the four principal religious organizations meet routinely and enjoy excellent interfaith relations. In 1998 in Oslo, Norway, interfaith cooperation was exemplified by the cooperative participation of Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and Muslim leaders in an ecumenical peace effort to resolve the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy meets regularly with leaders of the religious community and with the Government's Director of Religious Affairs. In March 1999, embassy officials met with senior Orthodox Christian Church officials, the Catholic Archbishop, and the Muslim Mufti to discuss church and public perceptions of the conflict with Ethiopia. Embassy officials also met with Eritrean delegates to the Norwegian-sponsored interdenominational talks between Ethiopian and Eritrean religious leaders on several occasions in 1998 and organized a meeting between U.S. Special Envoy Anthony Lake and the Eritrean delegation. In January 1998, the Embassy arranged a meeting between U.S. Senator Arlen Spector and Sudanese Muslims who have fled to Eritrea to avoid religious persecution in Sudan.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers have raised the special case of Jehovah's Witnesses repeatedly with government officials in the President's office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Justice.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 10-09-1999