In 2002, for reasons that are still unclear, Eritrea’s secretive dictator, Isaias Afwerki, declared all independent Protestant churches enemies of the state. Speculation centers around whether he was concerned that he could not count on Protestant Evangelicals to join the army and fight effectively in this highly militarized state. In subsequent years Eritrea became notorious for jailing thousands of persecuted Christians in metal containers parked in the jungle, where prisoners would boil by day and freeze at night.
Despite a resolution to a conflict with Ethiopia in 2018, there are thought to be between 400 -1000 prisoners of faith in the country. While Pentecostals and Evangelicals on the whole have no alternative than to form home churches away from the prying eyes of the state, life is not easy even for the recognized religions. The Patriarch of the Orthodox church, Abuna Antonios, was abruptly placed under house arrest in 2006 and later died. Other high-ranking clerics have been subject to harassment and arbitrary arrest. The state is highly controlled.
The law prohibits any involvement in politics by religious groups, but approved religions may build and hold services in churches, and under strict supervision run schools and some social work. Christians remain very sealed off from the rest of the world. It is virtually impossible to send assistance from abroad. The country is so difficult to live in that a fifth of the population has fled, most making the hazardous journey to Europe in hopes of asylum.
President Isaias Afwerki
“Eritrea is like a giant prison. The country is filled with jails. It is like North Korea.”
DR. BERHANE ASMELASH
History of Christianity
The country is evenly split numerically between Muslims and Christians today, but the Christian faith arrived very early, and the territory was part of the ancient kingdom of Aksum, the first African kingdom to adopt Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. Indeed, present day Eritrea is home to Debre Sina, one of the oldest monasteries in the world.
While the majority of Eritrea’s Christians belong to the Orthodox faith, roughly 10% belong to the Catholic church, which was favoured by Italian overlords in the 20th century. Protestants are less numerous, numbering around 100,000. One denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is recognised, but the rest are independent and unrecognised.