Aliens for Their Faith
By Robert J. Hendricks III
July 19 2010
There is much religious intolerance in this new, twenty-first century. This is the tale of religious intolerance in an obscure country in East Africa called Eritrea. After fighting for its own freedom from Ethiopia for more than 30 years, this Marxist regime has forced a peace-loving community of Christians to become little more than aliens in their own land.
While known the world over as a group of devoted preachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea have been the target of a brutal and protracted government-sponsored campaign of terror. All Witnesses have been stripped of their citizenship and the rights that go with it, apparently with the intent of breaking their faith or of wiping them out as a presence in that country.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only faith under attack in Eritrea, independent human rights observers say the persecution of this group is particularly intense, extending over the better part of two decades. “Muslims and especially Jehovah’s Witnesses have suffered persecution as a consequence of their refusal to take part in compulsory military service. Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses is particularly pronounced given their refusal to vote in the independence referendum,” says the 2008 edition of the book Religious Freedom in the World, edited by Paul Marshall and published by the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank that reports on human rights violations around the globe.
“The government views not participating in military service as a threat to the state,” says Alan Gallina, a human rights specialist with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, and have more than 7 million members in 235 lands across the world. “But if that’s the case, why are there 2- and 3-year-olds in prison right now? Why are there 75-year-olds in prison? How can they be a threat?”
A country of about 5 million people on what’s known as the Horn of Africa, Eritrea shares borders with Sudan to the west, Ethiopia to the south, Djibouti to the southeast, and the Red Sea to the east. As of September 2009, 60 Eritrean Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to be imprisoned for reasons ranging from conscientious objection to military service, to participation in religious activity such as preaching, to meeting in a Bible study group. More than half of the arrests have had nothing to do with participation in military service. Three of the prisoners have been held since September 1994, spending the better part of their lives in prison.
On June 28, 2009, 23 members of one congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the capital of Asmara were peacefully meeting together for Bible study in a private home when Eritrean authorities raided the meeting and imprisoned Witnesses and interested persons alike. Three children ranging in ages from 2 to 4 years were among the group, which also included a child of 8, a woman over 70, and another over 80. The majority of these arrests were of women, since the government had long since arrested their husbands and sons. Most remain in prison today. This is the latest in a pattern of persecution extending back to 1994.
“There is a misunderstanding about who we are,” says Philip Brumley, general counsel for Jehovah’s Witnesses, in an interview from his office in Patterson, New York. “If the government would understand who we are, we are confident that this mistreatment will end.”
Yet, governmental officials have rebuffed most efforts by the religious group to foster any understanding beyond what’s already known by them. And the little that the government knows, they don’t like.
Jehovah’s Witnesses began showing up on the government’s radar in April 1993, when more than a million Eritreans voted for independence from Ethiopia in a U.N.-supervised referendum. That vote was the culmination of a battle between the two countries spanning some three decades and led by a man who would become president of the newly formed government. The referendum marked the embryonic stages of severe and protracted persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses—who, for conscientious reasons, elected not to participate in the referendum.
Their reasons for not voting are rooted in their stand of strict neutrality in political and governmental issues. This has been a tenet of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith for nearly 100 years, bringing them in harmony, they say, with both Jesus’ teachings and the model set forth by the first-century Christian congregation. They cite the words of Jesus Christ to Pontius Pilate as recorded in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”* Like Jesus, they obey the governmental authorities when the laws promulgated do not interfere with their obligations as set forth in the Bible.