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Religion, Repression, and Human Rights in Eritrea and the Diaspora

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AbstractThis paper analyzes the logic of the Eritrean state’s repression of religious identities and institutions from a historical and transnational perspective. It argues that contemporary religious repression expresses cultural, political, and generational conflicts related to the internal dynamics of Eritrea’s postrevolutionary transition, the transnational configuration of the nation-state, and larger preoccupations with the pressures of globalization. A key proposition is that repression of religion is related to both the modernist secularism of the nationalist regime and the ways in which human rights discourse intersects simultaneously with northern interventionism and transnational diaspora opposition to the Eritrean regime. Analyzing the Eritrean case with respect to contemporary critical scholarship on the tensions and contradictions inherent in secularism and human rights discourse highlights how their emancipatory potentials can be co-opted by regimes of power.

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96. FN1 1 Scholarship on Eritrea has since shown that these postindependence developments were deeply lodged in the political history of the nationalist movement itself, as this article also illustrates (see Connell 2005; Hepner 2009a; Kibreab 2008, 2009; Mengisteab and Yohannes 2005).
97. FN2 2 Among these instruments are the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights; the International Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
98. FN3 3 According to recent figures, 42.8 per cent of Eritrea’s population falls in the zero to fourteen age bracket, with a total median age of 18.4 years. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/er.html.
99. FN4 4 Different sources provide varying estimates. Amnesty International estimated Catholics at 5 per cent and the total number of all Protestant denominations, including new Pentecostal sects, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others at 2 per cent ( ai2005). The u.s.State Department’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report estimates Catholics at 13 per cent and Protestants at less than 7 per cent. It is tempting to take Kifleyesus’s higher 2006 figures for Protestants (10 per cent) as most accurate because he is writing from within Eritrea. However, political conditions in the country may in fact suggest the opposite: his figures may be exaggerated, especially given the absence of empirical census data. Although his essay was published four years after Pentecostal and other “new” churches had been forcibly closed and thousands detained, he never mentions this fact; rather, he writes in an ethnographic present suspended from contemporary political reality. This may also reflect the considerable constraints on academic freedom among Eritrean scholars.
100. FN5 5 For a richer and more detailed discussion of the role of religion in the Eritrean nationalist movement, see Hepner 2003, 2009a; Kibreab 2008; Markakis 1988; Pool 2001; and Woldemikael 1993. Kibreab (2008) has demonstrated that prior to the 1940s Eritrean Muslims and Christians enjoyed solidarity and peaceful, cooperative relations over the longue duree. However, as nationalism developed and political factions became entrenched, religion emerged as an important idiom through which political and class conflicts were expressed. This led to the impression among many observers that religious differences were themselves a cause of the conflicts.
101. FN6 6 In a recently circulated document titled ‘The Eritrean Covenant: Toward Sustainable Justice and Peace’, a transnational organization of Eritrean Muslims called Mejlis Ibrahim Mukhtar notes that struggles among Muslim nationalist leaders in the 1970s were exploited by eplfSecretary General and current president Isayas Afwerki to facilitate the ascent to power of highland Christians (see mim2009, section III). This view reinterprets the ostensible secularism of eplfas a mask for an anti-Muslim bias.
102. FN7 7 In the 1940s when Eritrea was governed by the British Military Administration and nationalism was gaining traction among urban intellectuals, a public sphere also developed for a brief period but was eroded from within and crushed from without as Ethiopian federation and later annexation bore down on the formerly autonomous Eritrean region (Hepner 2009a; Kibreab 2008).
103. FN8 8 As Harri Englund (2002) discusses with respect to the Catholic Church in Malawi, whose bishops released pastoral letters in the 1990s commenting on social and political issues, the Church’s critical response and engagement with rights-based concerns was part of the transnational character of the Church generally and its post-Vatican II mandates as they unfolded in neoliberal Africa.
104. FN9 9 Interestingly, defenders of the Eritrean regime have recently downplayed or denied any historical tensions between religious groups, including Muslims and Christians, portraying Eritrea as an essentialist haven for religious tolerance and freedom. As one regime supporter (who was also a member of a persecuted religious minority) wrote in a personal email in response to an earlier version of this article, ‘There is no evidence of any historic religious tension in Eritrea. Not even a single incident. We are talking of nearly 1400 years of unique co-existence’.
105. FN10 10 It is worth noting that the eplf’s position on ‘new religions’ in the late 1970s and ’80s strongly resembled those of the Ethiopian military regime known as the Derg, which took control of Ethiopia after 1974 and waged war against the Eritrean rebels. Even more striking is the similarity between patterns of religion repression in independent Eritrea and those in Ethiopia under the Derg in the 1970s and 1980s (see Eide 2000; Larebo 1988), widely understood as some of Ethiopia’s darkest days politically. I am indebted to Don Donham for this point.
106. FN11 11 According to Mejlis Ibrahim Muktar (2009), ‘Only two Islamic civil societies (Qur’an Recitation Group that teaches children the Qur’an and Awqaf (Endowments) Committee that provides funeral services) that have been in existence since the Italian rule have been allowed to operate in Eritrea while there are dozens of international and domestic Christian civil societies in Eritrea. Muslim Awqaf, administering real estate properties, has been long nationalized by the state under the pretext of inability to pay taxes. Christian institutions were able to claim their properties because they were able to raise funds from overseas while Muslims are banned from funding any kind of social or development projects in Eritrea.’ ( mim2009, Section IV, item 18).
107. FN12 12 The full text of the Proclamation is available through unhcrRefworld: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,NATLEGBOD,,ERI,,48aec42b2,0.html.
108. FN13 13 The term ‘Pente’ is an adaptation of the English word Pentecostal, though in Eritrea it can refer to any type of charismatic or fundamentalist form of religion. Its connotation is largely pejorative, though in more recent years people have begun to use it as a self-descriptor in a nonpejorative sense.
109. FN14 14 It is worth noting that soon after independence the government also began restricting all ngoactivity and presence (see Connell and Killion 2010).
110. FN15 15 Hearing on Human Rights in Eritrea at the European Parliament, September 18, 2008. See csw- hrce2009, 5.
111. FN16 16 A United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea was appointed in December 2012 but has not been permitted access to the country.
112. FN17 17 Interview, 28 June 2009.
113. FN18 18 According to a recent Wikileaks cable, in 2006 the Eritrea ambassador to the United States, Girma Asmerom, responded that the 2004 cpcdesignation by uscirfwas part of the United States’ ‘purely political’ attack on Eritrea, that the country was exemplary for its record of religious tolerance, and that because most Eritreans ‘live in mud huts, a [shipping] container is a luxury’ (Wikileaks 2011).
114. FN19 19 One official response to the split in Eritrean Orthodox Church in North America was provided by the Embassy of Eritrea in Washington dc. It cast the split in terms of disgruntled enemies within the transnational community who, in league with Ethiopia and other foreign powers, were intent on harming Eritrea’s sovereignty and integrity. See ‘Eritrean Embassy Incites Religious Intolerance’, an English translation of the statement of the Eritrean Embassy broadcast on Voice of Eritrea in Decatur, ga, on 30 September and 7 October 2007, www.awate.com, 30 October 2007.
115. FN20 20 The costs of refuge are indeed exorbitant. Many refugees report paying as much as $25,000 usdto migrate extralegally. In addition, the government regularly imprisons parents or other relatives of absconders and levies a fine of 50,000 nakfa, or approximately $4775 usdat the time of writing, for their release. Recent research examines how illegal exit from Eritrea has also generated huge profits for sundry traffickers and state officials engaged in corruption (Hepner and Tecle 2013; van Reisen et al. 2012).
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2014-05-21
2015-07-31

Affiliations: 1: Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Tennessee250 South Stadium HallKnoxville, TN 37996USAthepner@utk.edu

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