Freedom of religion must be protected, UN tells Eritrea after clampdown on Christians

Christian women from Ethiopia and Eritrea sing during the Sunday mass at the makeshift church in the 'Jungle' refugee camp near Calais, France. Thousands of Christians have fled Eritrea.Reuters

The UN has expressed serious concern about the clampdown on Christians in Eritrea following the closure of health centres and a string of arbitrary arrests. 

Authorities recently seized Catholic-run health centres without warning and removed staff who refused to give their consent. 

The Catholic Church operates around 40 hospitals and health centres around the country, including many in rural areas. 

The UN's Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, said the closure of the facilities would negatively impact people's access to health care, particularly in remote rural areas. 

"These actions show that, despite the improved regional climate for peace and security, the human rights situation in Eritrea remains unchanged," she said.

"I urge Eritrea to live up to its international commitments as a member of the Human Rights Council and allow religious institutions to operate freely and all Eritreans to exercise their right to freedom of religion within the country."

She continued: "The seizure of these health facilities will negatively impact the right to health of the affected populations, in particular those in remote rural areas.

"By curtailing the activities of the Catholic Church, the Eritrean authorities are restricting the right of their citizens to enjoy quality health care."

The persecution has taken place despite the fact that the Catholic Church is one of the three recognised denominations in Eritrea. The other two are the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Catholic bishops recently wrote to the government saying they wanted justice for all Eritreans.  However, their pleas appear to have fallen on deaf ears as the crackdown has continued.

On 13 June, security forces arrested five Orthodox priests, three of whom were over 70-years-old, from the Debre Bizen monastery. They were allegedly arrested for opposing the government's interference in the affairs of the Church.

Earlier this month, 30 underground Christians from a Pentecostal church were arrested and in May, another 141 Christians, mostly women and children were detained.   Around 50 of these detainees have reportedly since been released, while the others are said to still be in prison without charge.

Ms Kravetz added: "I urge the government to allow the Eritrean people to exercise their right to freedom of religion and to release those who have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs."