May 13, 2024

USCIRF Highlights Religious Freedom Violations in Eritrea Amidst Two Decades of Pastors’ Imprisonment

Washington, DC – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urges the Biden administration to bring greater attention to religious freedom violations in Eritrea. This month and next mark the 20th anniversary of the arrests and imprisonment of three pastors in Eritrea who have been held under atrocious conditions. Meanwhile, hundreds are currently detained due to their religion or belief.  

Two entire decades have passed since the Eritrean government arrested Pastors Haile Nayzgi and Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel. It is unconscionable that these two men, along with Pastor Meron Gebreselasie who was arrested a month later, remain imprisoned under horrible conditions. Bishop Abune Antonios died at age 94 in 2022 while under house arrest. Other Eritrean church leaders should not suffer the same fate,” said USCIRF Commissioner Frank Wolf. “According to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Eritrean government does not generally take steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who commit human rights abuses. The safety and well-being of religious prisoners of conscience needs to be a priority for the international community. USCIRF urges the U.S. government to press for their immediate release.”

According to reports, prisons in Eritrea are horrifically maintained and those incarcerated endure physical abuse, sexual violence, and torture. As of 2023, Eritrean authorities were holding an estimated 500 Christians as prisoners, including nearly 40 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Last year, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) urged the Eritrean government to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief and to guarantee related freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Furthermore, the UNHRC exhorted the Eritrean government to release all those detained based solely on their religion or belief. In March 2023, the Eritrean government began the process of releasing some prisoners, freeing nine Christian prisoners, most of whom had been incarcerated for nine years including house church pastor Abenet Yemane.

Religious freedom conditions in Eritrea remain extremely poor. USCIRF was hopeful last year when Eritrean authorities started releasing some of those detained because of their faith or belief. Unfortunately, this effort included only a small number of prisoners,” stated USCIRF Vice Chair Frederick A. Davie. “USCIRF urges the Biden administration to engage with the Eritrean government to end religious persecution of unregistered religious communities and release the remaining religious prisoners. The U.S. government must also urge the Eritrean government to ratify UN conventions related to freedom of religion or belief.”

In its 2024 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended the State Department redesignate Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. The State Department has repeatedly designated Eritrea as a CPC since 2004, most recently in December 2023. In August, USCIRF released a report on religious freedom conditions in Eritrea. USCIRF also released a publication on freedom of religion or belief in the Horn of Africa, as well as a factsheet addressing refugees fleeing religious persecution in various countries including Eritrea.


The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on religious freedom abroad. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief. To interview a Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at [email protected].