USCIRF’s New Reports on North Korea and Eritrea

This week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released two reports highlighting the conditions of religious freedom in North Korea and in Eritrea, two nations which Jubilee Campaign and our partners have been focused on in recent years. In this article, we will summarize the main points.

North Korea

Korea Future Initiative experts conducted in-person interviews with North Korean defectors who had either witnessed, experienced, or perpetrated religious freedom violations during their time in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Together with USCIRF, these experts identified 68 cases in which individuals had been prosecuted by the North Korean government for either their own faith or their association with religious persons; 43 cases were of Shamanic practitioners, and 24 were of Christians.

The provision of rights and freedoms to North Korean civilians, while enshrined in constitutional articles, is in fact contingent upon the individual’s adherence to a document called the Ten Principles for Establishing a Monolithic Leadership. Pursuant to this document, citizens are required to align their thoughts, actions, and behaviors with the teachings and ideology of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. As expected, in a country where no entity can be put on a higher pedestal than the supreme ruler, religion is viewed unfavorable and even outright criminalized. For example, even though Article 68 of the constitution states that “citizens have freedom of religious belief”, the criminal code prohibits citizens from practicing their faith outside of government-approved “specialized cadres” and even criminalizes the ownership of bibles and other religious texts. In essence, the state “enforces the absolute denial of religious belief through the active mobilization of organs of the government” such as the Workers’ Party, Central Party Committee, and local Provincial People’s Committees.

Interviewed defectors listed several severe human rights violations that they were subjected to during their pre-trial detention: physical torture, inhumane treatment, insufficient food. These above violations, however, are imposed upon all prisoners regardless of their charges. Those who are charged with religious activities or association often face specific human rights violations on top of the aforementioned ones, including forced labor, prison sentences for three generations of the individual’s family, polluted food or water, forced nudity and humiliation, body cavity searches, being hung from the ceilings, positional torture, public or secretive execution, sleep deprivation, and more.


Eritrea has been referred to by numerous scholars and human rights activists as “the North Korea of Africa”, and rightfully so as, similar to the DPRK, there exists absolutely no press or personal freedoms in Eritrea and citizens are forced to participate in conscripted labor or military service for indefinite periods of time. Religious adherents, however, face a unique set of challenges ; in a nation whose 1997 Constitution enshrines the freedom of conscience and religion, only four faith groups – Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Evangelical Protestantism – are formally recognized from the government, and even those citizens from these protected communities face state-sponsored persecution.

USCIRF’s Eritrea Country Update highlights that, while the government of Eritrea has released on bail numerous prisoners to combat the spread of COVID-19 infections in prisons, there remain at least 500 religious adherents – Muslims, Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses – in prison simply for their faith. Moreover, nearly every instance in which a group of Christian prisoners is released from prison is soon followed by the arrest of more believers; in late March 2021, some 35 Christians were arrested for organizing and participation in prayer meetings.In May 2021, the Eritrean government arbitrarily closed nine Catholic schools and threatened another nineteen with closure. Furthermore, “Citing the fear of extremism and foreign influence, the government does not allow any religious organization to have external contacts with international religious institutions. Accordingly, the Eritrean government limits foreign funding to both registered and unregistered religious organizations and religious freedom advocates. Religious organizations are only allowed to receive donations from local followers and the government.”