In the Horn of Africa, a minerals boom has begun and the tyrannical leadership of Eritrea, which regularly imprisons and tortures people on account of their religious faith, stands to reap a windfall of profits. Will the developed world – and the United States and Canada in particular – turn a blind eye to this repression in exchange for the modern-day equivalent of 30 pieces of silver?
Rich in base metals and gold, Eritrea has been granting licenses to foreign firms for exploration projects. The first of these projects, the Bisha mine, run by Canada’s Nevsun Resources, Ltd., is about to become a major gold producer.
With the price of gold hovering near record highs, there is money to be made for Nevsun and other companies – blood money.
We visited with two of Eritrea’s religious leaders. They are scared and beaten down. Extending an economic lifeline to Eritrea’s government can only make matters worse, bolstering an atrocious regime that abuses its people, denying them their fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.
The regime has controlled Eritrea since 1993, when, after a 30-year war, its leaders secured Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia. For many Eritreans, independence was a dream that came true. For the next few years, under President Isaias Afwerki and the revolution’s other leaders, Eritrea made positive strides, including the ratifying of a constitution in 1997 that upheld democracy and human rights.
That dream, however, soon became a nightmare. In 1998, war with Ethiopia suddenly resumed, exacting an enormous toll on Eritrea’s people and economy. Elections were postponed and mass conscription instituted. Although the war ended in 2000, Eritrea’s paranoid leaders moved to a permanent war footing. When others in the government called for change a year later, they were rounded up and detained and all independent media were shuttered.
Since 2001, human rights violations have escalated in every arena, from universal forced labor through middle age at near-starvation wages to the torture and killing of religious adherents and others deemed threats to the regime.
Eritrea recognizes just four religious communities: the Coptic Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and a Lutheran-affiliated denomination. In contrast, all other religious groups must register with the government. While some have applied for registration, no applications have been approved. Every religious group outside of the four recognized communities is considered illegal.
The implications for the excluded groups and their members are chilling. Members have been arrested and detained without charge. While imprisoned, they have been beaten, tortured, packed into crowded quarters and exposed to extreme temperature fluctuations. The regime has banned their public religious activities, disrupted their gatherings and closed their places of worship.
A number of groups, including Muslims and Coptic Orthodox, have suffered because of their objection to excessive state interference in their affairs. In May 2007, the government appointed a new patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Eritrea after deposing Patriarch Abune Antonios, who has been under house arrest since 2006 and is reportedly being denied access to a telephone and to medical attention.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have received some of the worst treatment. Thousands have been imprisoned and many of them tortured in order to compel them to recant their faith. In one instance, 20 individuals, mostly Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Pentecostals, were allegedly forced into a 20-foot container during their imprisonment. Because of their religious beliefs, including conscientious objection to military service, Jehovah’s Witnesses had their citizenship revoked in 1994. They are barred from obtaining government work, business licenses and identity and travel documents.
Due to Eritrea’s systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve as commissioners, has been recommending since 2004 that it be designated a “country of particular concern,” or CPC. Since that year, the State Department has followed our recommendation. In 2005, as part of this designation, the U.S. government did more than just “name and shame” – it denied the commercial export to Eritrea of defense articles and services covered by the U.S. Arms Export Act.
Given our concern that today’s minerals boom may strengthen tyranny’s grip on Eritrea, USCIRF has called on the U.S. government to prohibit any foreign company such as Nevsun from raising capital in the United States or listing its securities there until it ceases all engagement in developing the mineral resources or involving itself with the ventures of a world-class human rights abuser. Mindful of our good neighbors to the north and their commitment to human rights, we urge advocates in the Canadian government, legislature and civil society to join in this fight for religious freedom and related rights in Eritrea.
Let our message be clear: No partnering with Eritrea until it stops abusing religious freedom.
Rev. Richard D. Land and Imam Talal Y. Eid, commissioners for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.