Religious leaders representing Eritrea’s Christians and Muslims spoke passionately about the repression their people face today.
Speaking before MPs and members of the House of Lords at a meeting chaired by Lord Alton, they gave two hours of evidence.
Dr Berhane Asmelash, a vicar in the church of England, explained how dozens of men and women he knew personally had been jailed and tortured for their faiths.
He told of a woman who had explained how she had been infected with HIV during repeated sexual abuses by her jailers.
Dr Berhane’s testimony was supported by Sheik Mohamed Juma Aburashed, who teaches Islam and Family Law in Birmingham and is the Imam at the Uba mosque.
“The first imprisonment of a muslim took place within five months of Eritrea’s liberation in 1991,” he said.
“There are now over 300 muslim leaders now in Eritrean jails, we have no information about how most of them are surviving,” he told the meeting.
He explained that praying and fasting was not allowed in some places in Eritrea, like the military training camp at Sawa, and that this ruling applied to Christians as well as Muslims. Imams are forbidden from traveling around Eritrea; books cannot be imported or printed; teaching in Arabic is prohibited; new mosques cannot be built or old ones renovated.
Father Shenouda Haile, parish priest of St Mary’s Eritrean Orthodox church in London, described the crushing prohibitions that Christians are living under.
“The church under President Isaias has been infiltrated and monitored” he said, describing how senior officials had been imposed on the church.
Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the church, was deposed by the government in 2006 and imprisoned.
“He was suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes. The government expected him to die, but he survived we are still loyal to him.” But anyone who refuses to accept the government is labelled a “heretic.”
Father Shenouda explained how even monks have been forced to wear uniforms and perform military service, when they should have been serving the church and the nation.
Lord Ranbir Singh Suri, formerly the general secretary of the Board of British Sikhs, described how moved he had been by what he had heard.
He promised to support the Eritrean people’s attempts to regain their religious rights.
Lord Alton read a powerful statement, explaining how the violation of religious freedoms was an infringement of one of the founding values of the United Nations: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Article 18 of the declaration guarantees this right: “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.”
At the conclusion of the All Party Parliamentary Group meeting, Lord Alton called for action from the British government.
In view of the grave nature of the crimes underway in Eritrea, the ongoing and flagrant violations, and nation’s continual flouting of international human rights and humanitarian norms, we make the following recommendations to the UK government:
To champion the renewal of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea bilaterally, at the European Union and at the United Nations;
To Champion the findings of the 2016 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea;
Exert pressure on Eritrea to fulfil the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations to which it has agreed in a timely manner, and to implement the nation’s ratified 1997 constitution;
Challenge the normalisation of relations with Eritrea to diminish refugee flows;
Encourage the African Union to establish an accountability mechanism to investigate, prosecute, and try individuals accused of committing crimes against humanity in Eritrea, as recommended in 2016 by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea and the UN Human Rights Council;
Exert pressure on the Ethiopian government to implement the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission ruling of April 2002.
To put pressure on the Eritrean government to adhere to its obligations under article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing religious freedoms.