Jehovah’s Witnesses—Eritrea Country Profile


Jehovah’s Witnesses

Eritrea Country Profile
July 2007

Five years after the government of Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups not operating under the umbrella of the four government-sanctioned faiths, Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to face stiff opposition. Their worship, even in private homes, is considered to be outside the recognized religious institutions, making the Witnesses subject to arrest, torture, and severe pressure to deny their faith.


Five years after the government of Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups not operating under the umbrella of the four government-sanctioned faiths, Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to face stiff opposition. Their worship, even in private homes, is considered to be outside the recognized religious institutions, making the Witnesses subject to arrest, torture, and severe pressure to deny their faith.

As of April 2007, 24 of Jehovah’s Witnesses were still in prison for their religious beliefs. Some were arrested while attending Christian meetings, others while they were sharing their faith with others in public, and still others for conscientious objection to military service. Three imprisoned Witnesses are 60 years old or older. Two women are currently incarcerated.

Tekle Tesfai, an Eritrean by birth but a citizen of the Netherlands, was arrested and imprisoned on May 27, 2005. He is 73 years old. He is emaciated from malnutrition, and his health is poor. Tesfai’s relatives are working through the Dutch Embassy to try to have him released. Jailed members of Christian religions that have been decreed illegal are required to renounce their faith before they will be released.

In addition, those who remain politically neutral and will not serve in the military for religious reasons are jailed in poor conditions. This is the situation of ten of the Witnesses who are imprisoned. Three of these conscientious objectors have been in prison for well over 12 years, since 1994. Their “crime” is taking literally the Biblical directive not to “learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot receive more than an 8th grade education in Eritrea. When students register for high school in 9th grade, they are also required to register for national service. Upon completing the 11th grade, high school students are obliged to go to Sawa military camp to complete their 12th-grade education. The government recently established a school in Sawa, under military supervision, so that the students can finish the 12th grade while they get the military training. While there, the students remain separated from their families for the year. Furthermore, parents are expected to hand over to authorities any child who has registered for high school but is unable to complete his education through the 11th grade. If parents do not hand over a child to the authorities or if they refuse to do so, they are subject to detention or a fine of 50,000 nakfa ($3,333 U.S.) per child. Recently the authorities issued a decree that any male student who is more than 18 years old must leave his studies and report to Assab military camp. Therefore, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not register for a high school education in order not to compromise their religiously motivated stand to refrain from participation in military training or service.

For many years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have attempted to help their Eritrean brothers through visits and appeals to officials at the U.S. Department of State, European foreign ministries, and Eritrean embassies, particularly in Germany, Italy, and the U.S.A. The Witnesses have also made repeated attempts to send a delegation of Jehovah’s Witnesses to Asmara, without success to date.

Some have described the “siege-like” military atmosphere that Eritrea has experienced since 1993 and believe that the 1993 national referendum and the issue of military service are the two principal reasons for the government’s stance toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses are known internationally for being politically neutral and for their conscientious objection to military service. Their conviction consistently remains that love of neighbor is a core tenet of true Christianity.— Matthew 22:37-39; John 13:34, 35; 15:19.

Abuses of religious freedom

In 1994, Eritrea’s president decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses had revoked their citizenship by not participating in the national referendum and not participating in military service. He therefore decreed that Jehovah’s Witnesses were not allowed to work in any government offices; he revoked their business licenses and rescinded their identity cards and travel documents. This mistreatment continues until the present and has created great economic hardship and, in the case of some, long-term imprisonment. Then in May 2002, the government closed down all religious groups not part of the recognized Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim faiths.

Since 1995, approximately 250 families who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have fled Eritrea and sought asylum outside the country because of the hardships. At least 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses lost their employment because of their religion, and this has affected more than 300 persons. Thirty-eight Jehovah’s Witnesses were denied their business licenses. Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be issued national identity cards, and thus they cannot purchase land for homes, legalize their marriages, and receive driver’s licenses, passports, or other travel documents. At least 37 families have been expelled from their homes. And because of societal and governmental pressure, Jehovah’s Witnesses have problems renting homes.

Additionally, since 1998, 31 children who are Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from school because they refused to buy a membership ticket of the political party called NUEYS (National Union of Eritrean Youths and Students) and refused to salute the flag.

The national identity card application requires that the applicant identify his religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot write “Jehovah’s Witnesses” because the government has banned their religion. If Jehovah’s Witnesses fill in “Christian,” which correctly characterizes their beliefs since they strive to live as footstep followers of Jesus Christ, the Eritrean authorities reject the application. The authorities accept only Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant religions as “Christian.”

Another requirement that bars Jehovah’s Witnesses from receiving the national identity card is the requirement to complete national service. Since the Witnesses do not train for war, they are denied the identity papers.

Plight of conscientious objectors

The national military service requirement has no regulations or provisions for conscientious objection. To avoid being arrested by the ever-present MPs who patrol the streets, most young men who are Jehovah’s Witnesses between the ages of 18 and 40 are in hiding. If arrested, they are taken to a military camp, where they are detained, severely beaten, and are forced to undergo various other forms of torture.

Three of Jehovah’s Witnesses—Paulos Eyassu, Isaac Mogos, and Negede Teklemariam—have been imprisoned since September 24, 1994. They are in the Sawa prison camp because of their conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons. The usual prison term for such a “crime” is three years. They are denied any visitors, including their families. No charges have been filed against them and they have never been given a trial. If they had been brought to trial and convicted, they would have been long-since freed.

They and the other 21 prisoners shown on the last page of this report wish only to be productive, useful members of their communities, while still having their Christian beliefs and consciences respected.

The UN Commission on Human Rights issued Resolution 1989/59, on March 8, 1989, which stated: “The Commission on Human Rights (1) recognizes the right of everyone to have conscientious objections to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as laid down in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; (2) Appeals to States to enact legislation and to take measures aimed at exemption from military service on the basis of a genuinely held conscientious objection to armed service . . .”

Eritrea’s lawful obligations

International and domestic laws already in place relevant to conditions in Eritrea

  • The Eritrean Constitution, adopted in July 1996, guarantees in Article 14 (2): “No person may be discriminated against on account of . . . religion . . . or any other factors.” Article 19 (1) states: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief.” Article 19 (4) guarantees: “Every person shall have the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice.” (These quotes are from the draft text of the Constitution.)
  • UN Resolution 1466 (2003) (adopted by the Security Council at its 4719th meeting on March 14, 2003) states: “The Security Council . . . reiterating the need for both parties [Eritrea and Ethiopia] to fulfil their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, human rights law . . .”
  • The Eritrea government considers that Jehovah’s Witnesses have no rights since they are considered to have renounced their citizenship by not participating in the national referendum nor in national service. However, notice the emphasis on the rights below guaranteed to all without distinction of having citizenship or not.
  • Eritrea became a member of the United Nations and accepted the obligations contained in its charter on May 28, 1993. The Charter states in Article 1 (3) that one purpose of the United Nations is to promote and encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees in Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 2 states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as . . . religion . . . or other status.” And Article 18 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
  • In the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ratified by Eritrea on January 14, 1999), Article 2 guarantees: “Every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as . . . religion, . . . or other status.” Article 8 guarantees: “Freedom of conscience, the profession and free practice of religion shall be guaranteed. No one may, subject to law and order, be submitted to measures restricting the exercise of these freedoms.”
  • The President of Eritrea was among 53 heads of African States who agreed to and adopted the Constitutive Act of the African Union on July 11, 2000. (This Act entered into force on May 26, 2001.) Article 3 states: “The objectives of the Union shall be to . . . ‘Encourage international cooperation, taking due account of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; [and] (h) Promote and protect human and peoples’ rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other relevant human rights instruments.’”


The foregoing shows that a mechanism is already in place internationally and domestically for justice in the form of freedom of worship to exist in Eritrea. Nonetheless, Jehovah’s Witness families are still fleeing the country for asylum; severe torture and extreme brutality are even now being reported.

Of the most egregious long-term infractions Eritrea has yet to answer for is the incarceration of Paulos Iyasu, Negede Teklemariam, and Isaac Mogos. All three men are Jehovah’s Witnesses who are conscientious objectors to military service. They were imprisoned in September 1994 and are in the notorious Sawa Prison Camp. Eyewitnesses and former inmates of the Sawa Camp describe the harsh prison conditions as those most often associated with a concentration camp. The confinement of these three men is now four times the maximum sentence outlined by Eritrean law for refusing to perform military service. The release of these men is long overdue!

Name of Prisoner Age Gender Prison Date of Imprisonment Reason for Arrest

Country Report Prepared by:
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