By Joseph DeCaro, International Correspondent BosNewsLife with additional reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife)– Human Rights Watch has described it as "a giant prison" and Reporters without Borders calls it "the most repressive nation on earth".
The advocacy groups speak about Eritrea where Isaias Afewerki is celebrating his 20th anniversary as president, though the United States described him in a 2009 leaked diplomatic cable as an "unhinged dictator".
He rules an African nation that is bounded by the Red Sea on the east, Djibouti on the southeast, Ethiopia on the south and west and Sudan on the north and northwest. Spiritually, Eritrea's diverse population is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, but Afewerki's own faith is disputed, with some saying his real 'religion' is Marxism.
What's not disputed is that Afewerki's regime has a "built-in hostility to all religion," according to religious rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
"It began in the 1990s by persecuting Jehovah Witnesses and Muslims before initiating a brutal crackdown on Christianity that has continued since May 2002 when it outlawed all but three denominations," it said, referring to the Eritrean Orthodox, the Catholic and the Lutheran-affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
Banned are all the Pentecostal and independent evangelical groups that had established missions in Eritrea, according to Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
That doesn't mean followers of state-approved churches are not persecuted, CSW claimed.
"Up to 3,000 Christians are thought to be imprisoned in Eritrea without charge or trial, including members of permitted denominations," CSW explained.
Additionally thousands of political prisoners are being held by Eritrea in "unimaginably atrocious conditions," yet not one has ever been charged with committing a crime, according to advocacy group Amnesty International.
Prisoners in Eritrea receive little food, water or medical treatment; many are locked-up in underground cells or inside metal shipping containers in the desert heat, according to rights activists and former Christian prisoners.
Several inmates are left for days in "the helicopter position," lying face down with their hands and feet bound together, rights groups said.
Amnesty said at least 10,000 people have been jailed for political reasons since Afewerki assumed the presidency in 1993. Many of those imprisoned are critics of his government, but some were jailed after they tried to flee Eritrea to avoid conscription into its military, the group added.
Additionally, many face a difficult time whole serving in the military service, which is both mandatory and indefinite, rights activists said. Eritrea's military spending is over 20 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, the highest percent in the world, according to CSW estimates.
Yet, in "one of the most repressive, secretive and inaccessible countries in the world" is it difficult for rights groups such as CSW to investigate religious persecution and other human rights abuses and suffering, rights investigators said.
Isaias Afewerki had denied wrongdoing in his one-party state, which is accused of both suppressing democracy and devoted Christians. He has said that his perceived tough stance towards especially evangelical believers has been wrongly understood.
In a statement, the president reportedly said that several faith churches were “duped by foreigners” to “distract from the unity of the Eritrean people and distort the true meaning of religion.” Open Doors, a Christian aid and advocacy group said Eritrea ranks 10th on its annual 'World Watch List' of "the worst countries for Christian persecution."
"The repressive nature of the regime has led to it being compared to North Korea," where at least some some 100,000 Christians are believed trapped in the country's feared prison camps, where they reportedly face torture, forced labor and possible execution.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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