A new report from the United Nations says “systematic, gross and widespread crimes against humanity”, including abuses of religious freedom, have been committed in Eritrea and should be investigated by the International Criminal Court.

Only four religious denominations are tolerated in Eritrea: Eritrean Orthodox, Catholicism, the Lutheran church and Sunni Islam. All other denominations are strictly prohibited.

In its section on religious discrimination, the report, released on 8 June, states: “The Government controls freedom of religion tightly … Religious practice by members of non-authorised religious groups is prohibited and subject to repression. Following a 2002 decree requiring registration of all religions seeking authorisation to practice, a number of smaller religious groups attempted to register. To date, they have not received authorisation.”

The report adds that the government also continues to “control” authorised religious groups. It references the recent arrest and detention (in April) of 10 Orthodox priests for protesting against the continued detention of Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonio, who was arrested more than 10 years ago.

The Eritrean government claims religious freedom “is guaranteed by law” in Eritrea, and says Eritrea has “a rich history of religious tolerance, co-existence and harmony in a turbulent region that is often wracked by acute religious polarisation and strife”. It says its 2002 regulations were intended only to “request new faiths to declare their sources of funding. Most of the miniscule new faiths did not want to comply with the regulations because they have external funding”.

Read more: Eritrean pastor explains why he fled his country

The UN says between 300,000 and 400,000 people are “enslaved” in Eritrea, mainly through enforced and indefinite “national service”, including, but not confined to, military conscription.

The BBC’s Africa Editor Mary Harper told the World Service on 8 June that, in response to this report, “it is possible that certain individuals from Eritrea might end up being indicted by the International Criminal Court”.

But the Eritrean government’s Head of Political Affairs, Yemane Gebreab, said the allegations were “laughable”.

“There is no basis to the claims. Everyone who knows anything about Eritrea, including European governments, will tell you this is rubbish,” he told reporters.

The UN says it “recognises that there is a considerable degree of religious harmony among those religious denominations authorised in Eritrea. Nonetheless, Eritrea’s persistent discrimination against persons belonging to unrecognised religious groups constitute violations of Article 486 of Eritrea’s Transitional Penal Code, Articles 2, 18 and 26 of the ICCPR, and Articles 2 and 8 of the ACHPR”.

“Many of the acts of discrimination constitute the crime against humanity of persecution,” it adds.

Number of Eritreans who flee

In 2015, Eritrea, which has a population of only around 6 million, was the source of 25 per cent of the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, more than any other nationality.

In 2011, 659 Eritreans made the journey; in 2015, the number was 38,791, according to figures from Frontex.

The reasons for this are multifarious, but a lack of religious freedom has regularly been cited as one factor.

One Eritrean Christian gave the following account:

“I left Eritrea on 20 January 2016 because I was not able to practise my religion freely and I was detained many times for being a member of [a non-recognised religion].

“I was detained the last time on 9 March 2014. We were 58 people, including women and children, worshipping together when the military police stormed the premises and arrested us all. They took us to [the local] police prison.

“They beat us very badly and many of us sustained injuries. When we arrived at this prison, we met 50 other Protestants from [a banned church] detained for practising their faith […]

“On 29 March 2014, 11 of us refused to renounce our faith, so were transferred to an underground prison.

“On 27 April 2014, five persons agreed to renounce their faith and were released after signing documents saying that they were now members of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

“On 5 May 2015, we were transferred to a military prison […] In all, we were 108 religious prisoners in this prison. I was beaten once there because I refused to renounce my religion.

“On 12 November 2015, while working in the garden, I managed to escape. Persecution on religious grounds has not improved and people are still being arrested for worshipping. I know that many of those arrested have died in their respective prisons due to torture and pneumonia, for which some have been forbidden proper medical treatment. Protestants detained are only released after denouncing their faith and promising to worship in the Eritrean Orthodox Church.”

Smuggling ‘kingpin’ extradited to Italy

Meanwhile, an Eritrean believed to have masterminded the illegal migration of thousands of people across the Mediterranean has been arrested and extradited to Italy.

Mered Medhanie, known as “The General” for his idolising of former Libyan primate General Muammar Gaddafi, is thought to have arranged the transit of one boat which sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, killing at least 359 people.

Father Mussie Zerai, Chairman of the Habeshia Agency, which works on behalf of these migrants, told World Watch Monitor at the time that he believed the majority of those killed were Christians.

“I look at the list of the survivors and 90 per cent is Christian,” he said. “They are coming from Eritrea and Ethiopia. The situation is very bad because politically in Eritrea there is a dictator and they live without any type of freedom or democracy. Many Christians are persecuted because of their faith. It’s not easy for them to live in Eritrea at this moment.”

An Italian newspaper reported that Medhanie charged migrants up to €5,000 ($5,680) to travel to northern Europe. The BBC says prosecutors have accused him of running the network alongside an Ethiopian accomplice, who is still at large.

The BBC’s Mary Harper says the migration crisis has acted as a “catalyst for closer engagement [between Eritrea and] Europe”.

“Eritrea does not want to lose its youth, and Europe would prefer them not to come knocking at its doors,” she says.

Eritrea is No. 3 on the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian.