Christianity came to Ethiopia-Eritrea in the early 4th Century, brought into the court of King Ezana by two Syrian merchants, Frumentius and Aedesius. Today Eritrea is around 50 percent Christian, with more than 90 percent of all Eritrean Christians belonging to the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC). In recent decades a Biblical revival movement known as 'Medhane Alam' (lit. Saviour of the World) has grown within the EOC. While some priests and churches have been accommodating, even open, others have resisted, some aggressively, forcing those seeking a more evangelical Christianity to leave the EOC for Protestant fellowships. The exodus has caused great angst in the hierarchy of the EOC.
Following a second war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), the government cracked down hard in 2001 on anything it viewed as a potential threat to national unity. They cancelled elections, closed down all independent media, rounded up and imprisoned their political opponents and repressed all civil opposition. In May 2002, reportedly at the behest of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the government also cracked down on 'foreign' and 'non-traditional' religion, banning all churches other than the state-sanctioned Muslim, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Mekane Yesus (Evangelical Lutheran) denominations.
If the EOC thought it could support a cruel, totalitarian regime's religious repression and then trust that regime to protect it, then it was naive indeed.
". . .the traitor betrays, and the destroyer destroys." (Isaiah 21:2a)
By 2005 the regime was repressing the EOC, sending its priests into military service, and removing and detaining 'dissident' priests who objected to the persecution of Medhane Alam. When EOC Patriarch Abune Antonios protested the attacks on his own church, he was removed from office (defrocked). He was placed under house arrest in January 2006 and replaced with a government political appointee, Mr Yoftahe Dimetros. Today the EOC -- its priests, properties, funds and historic manuscripts -- is under the control of the regime.
Eritrea is now one of the most repressive, human-rights-abusing states in the world. The repression has created a refugee crisis, and many of them are Christians. The Army has orders to shoot to kill anyone who tries to flee across the border. An estimated 3000 Christians, mostly Protestants, are in prison for their faith. Some are in military prisons and some have been 'disappeared' into the State's network of secret underground prisons. Prison conditions are inhumane and torture is routine. A number of Christians have died in custody and many others have been crippled and scarred for life. Eritrean authorities arrested eleven more Christians on 9 May. International Christian Concern reports that Pastor Mesfin, Pastor Tekie and Mr Isaac and his four children were arrested, as well as four women while conducting a prayer meeting in a private home in the capital, Asmara. They are all members of Faith Church of Christ which has existed in Eritrea since 1950 but was banned in 2002.
Eritrea's President Isayas Afewerki denies there is any religious persecution in Eritrea. Because there is no free media, Eritrean Christians have to risk their life and liberty to leak information of their plight to the outside world.
For more information see:
Eritrea: 'You have no right to ask' - Government resists scrutiny on human rights
Index Number: AFR 64/003/2004
Date Published: 18 May 2004
This document reports on the human rights record of the Eritrean government. It covers such issues as torture, arbitrary detention, "disappearances", religious persecution, abuses of national military service conscripts, refugees and returnees, constitutional rights and international treaties and political imprisonment.
US Commission on International Religious Freedom
Annual Report 2010
Chapter on Eritrea
Christian Persecution in Eritrea
29 November 2007
This site contains a short video on religious persecution in Eritrea, featuring Eritrean gospel singer Helen Berhane, a victim of this persecution who now has asylum in Denmark.
(This post is a slightly extended version of Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 056 | Wed 19 May 2010)
 A World History of Christianity. Edited by Adrian Hastings. Cassell 1999, p197