In late October 2017, there was a report of rare protests in the Eritrean capital Asmara, leading the United States to issue a security alert to citizens in the country.
“The U.S. Embassy has received reports of gunfire at several locations in Asmara due to protests. The Embassy advises U.S. citizens to avoid the downtown area where protests appear to be more prevalent.
“Streets in the downtown area may be closed, and police continue to maintain a significant presence,” the statement cautioned back then.
Subsequent reports indicated that the government had carried out mass arrests over the incident. At the time the trigger of the protest was said to be a resistance on the part of a community-funded school against government regulation.
According to the government, that account was wrong because the school in question was a public facility which the administrators were wrongly running with principles contrary to Eritrea’s secular principles.
The government’s response which comes almost four-and-half months since the incident was contained in a Foreign Affairs Ministry response to a communication from the U.N. Special rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed.
The relevant portions explaining the October 31, 2017 affairs are as follows:
“On the early afternoon of 31 October 2017 around 100 youth (students from the Al Diaa Private School and others in the neighborhood) marched from Akheria, a neighborhood in the northern periphery of Asmara to the al-Khulafa’ ar-Rashidun Mosque in the center of the city.
“After the prayers, the unruly group, who were chanting sectarian and inflammatory slogans all the way, proceeded to Liberation Avenue and the Ministry of Education. At this stage, they began to throw stones and to attack the Police.
“In the circumstances, the Police fired warning shots into the air and dispersed the crowd before they could incur damage to lives and property.
“The Police subsequently detained, for questioning, several people involved in illicit acts of vandalism as well as principal culprits behind the whole episode.
“These are indeed normative measures that the police in any country would take to ensure public safety by, in part, dispersing and apprehending people who have willingly engaged themselves in offences including the public disturbance of an otherwise peaceful city.
“Al Diaa is a private school that falls within the administrative jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. It is not an Islamic School, as your letter insinuates, affiliated in administrative and policy respects to the Muslim Faith in the country. (Indeed, it was first established in 1969 as “Berhan Elementary School” open to all inhabitants of the Akheria community without discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity).
“In subsequent years, and especially after independence, Al Diaa School began to gradually introduce practices that were in breach of the country’s secular education policy.
“Among other things: access to the school was restricted to followers of the Islamic faith only; it introduced segregation of classes on the basis of gender; it stopped teaching on Fridays; and it breached national school guidelines on dress code and school uniforms; and it hired foreign nationals without valid permits and approval of the Ministry of Education regarding their qualifications.
“The Ministry of Education held a series of meetings, over several months, with all relevant stakeholders of the School, including the Parents Committee, to rectify the overall situation.
“When consensus was broadly reached, the School principal rejected the agreement and advocated for confrontational approaches. The incident happened against this backdrop of events.”