UK joins calls to Eritrea to respect religious freedom

Christian migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia pray during the Sunday mass at the makeshift church in "The New Jungle" near Calais, FranceREUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The UK has added its voice to calls for the protection of religious freedom in Eritrea following the arbitrary arrest of Christians and the closure of multiple Catholic-run hospitals.

At the 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council, the UK said it welcomed Eritrea's increasing engagement with the Human Rights Council, but called on the country to respect freedom of religion and belief, and release all those in arbitrary detention.

"We welcome Eritrea's increasing engagement with the Human Rights Council and encourage the Government to strengthen its cooperation with the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in order to achieve improvements in the human rights situation in Eritrea," it said.

The UK said that Eritrea remained a "priority country" for its work on human rights.

"We renew calls for the Government of Eritrea to reform the national service system, implement the constitution, respect freedom of religion or belief, respect freedom of expression and release all those in arbitrary detention. We strongly support the Council's continued focus on these issues," it said. 

Christians in Eritrea continue to be targeted in recent months. Last month, authorities seized over 20 Catholic-operated hospitals after bishops spoke out against the regime of Isaias Afwerki, who has held office since 1993.  

Daniela Kravetz, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea said: "These actions show that, despite the improved regional climate for peace and security, the human rights situation in Eritrea remains unchanged."

On June 23, security officers raided a meeting at Faith Missions Church in Keren, the second largest city in Eritrea, and arrested several of those gathered, including pregnant women, mothers, children and an entire family, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reports. Property at the church was also confiscated during the raid. 

Also last month, five Orthodox priests were arrested. 

Eritrea's human rights record was being reviewed by the UNHRC on Tuesday as the country's one-year mandate is up for renewal.

CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said it was "essential" that the UNHRC speak up about Eritrea's "dire" track record on human rights.

"CSW is deeply concerned by this latest development in a crackdown on people of faith in Eritrea that has been ongoing since 2002," he said.

"We call for the immediate and unconditional release of all members of Faith Missions Church, as well as all other prisoners of conscience in the country." 

CSW was one of over two dozen organisations to sign an open letter to delegates at UNHRC 41 asking them to hold Eritrea to account on human rights.  Other signatories included Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the World Organisation Against Torture.

The letter reads: "Eri­trea has not adhered to its membership obligations and has nei­ther invited the Special Rapporteur nor accepted her request to visit the country.

"Eritrea is one of only 22 coun­t­ries that have never received a country visit from any Special Procedure, despite re­quests from nume­rous mandate-holders.

"Obstructionist behavior should not be rewarded. Eritrea's mem­ber­ship in the Council should be fully leveraged for improvements in the country's human rights situation and cooperation with the Council and its mechanisms. The Coun­cil should urge Eritrea to change course and engage with the UN hu­man rights system.

"At its 41st session, the Council should make clear that membership does not prevent, but rather triggers an enhanced responsibility to accept, scrutiny."