By Joseph DeCaro, Worthy News Correspondent
ASMARA, ERITREA (Worthy News)– Human Rights Watch described it as "a giant prison" and Reporters without Borders called it "the most repressive nation on earth".
It's Eritrea, an independent state in Africa whose president, Isaias Afewerki, was described in a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable as an "unhinged dictator".
Physically, Eritrea is bounded by the Red Sea on the east, by Djibouti on the southeast, by 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, and though President Afewerki's own faith is disputed, some say his real religion is Marxism.
What's not disputed is that Afewerki's regime has a "built-in hostility to all religion," according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
"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(*). Up to 3,000 Christians are thought to be imprisoned in Eritrea without charge or trial, including members of permitted denominations."
In addition to Christians, 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 Amnesty International.
Prisoners in Eritrea receive little in the way of food, water or medical treatment; they can be locked-up in underground cells, or inside metal shipping containers that are left out in the desert heat. Some prisoners are left for days in "the helicopter position," i.e., lying face down with their hands and feet bound together.
Amnesty reports at least 10,000 people have been jailed for political reasons since Afewerki assumed the presidency 20 years ago; 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.
In Eritrea, military service is both mandatory and indefinite; Eritrea's military spending is more than 20 percent of its GDP, the highest percent in the world, according to CSW.
Finally, as one of the most repressive, secretive and inaccessible countries in the world, the closed nature of Eritrea has made it difficult for CSW and other human rights orgs to accurately gauge its internal religious persecution in the midst of the region's much wider human suffering.
(*) Those three denominations are the Eritrean Orthodox, the Catholic and the Lutheran-affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea; excluded are all the Pentecostal and independent evangelical groups that had established missions in Eritrea, according to The Christians.com.