Reaching the Nations


By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Area: 117,600 square km.  Consisting of a strip of coastline in Eastern Africa, Eritrea borders Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, and the Red Sea.  The Ethiopian highlands stretch into west central Eritrea, whereas hills, plateaus, and plains occupy other regions.  Hot, dry desert climate occurs along the coast whereas cooler, more temperate conditions occur in the highlands.  Semi-arid conditions are experienced in interior, non-mountainous areas.  Natural hazards include droughts and locust swarms.  Deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, and ongoing warfare are environmental concerns.  Eritrea is divided into six administrative regions.

Population: 5,647,168 (July 2010)       

Annual Growth Rate: 2.577% (2010)    

Fertility Rate: 4.6 children born per woman (2010)   

Life Expectancy: 59.71 male, 63.9 female (2010)


Tigrinya: 50%

Tigre: 31.4%

Saho: 5%

Afar: 5%

Beja: 2.5%

Bilen: 2.1%

Kunama: 2%

Nara: 1.5%

Rashaida: 0.5%

other: 0.3%

Most ethnic groups are nomadic and most the population resides in the Asmara area.  Tigrinya and Saho populate areas in central Eritrea, Tigre reside in the west, and Afar live in eastern coastal areas between Asmara and Djibouti.  Other ethnic groups reside in the west.  

Languages: Tigrigna (45%), Tigre (19%), Arabic (4%), Saho (3%), Kunama (3%), Bedawiyet (3%), Bilen (2%), Nara (1%), other or unknown (20%).  Tigrinya and Arabic are most commonly used languages for commerce and inter-ethnic communication.  English is widely spoken in urban areas.[1]  Only Tigrigna has over one million native speakers (2.5 million).

Literacy: 58.6% (2003)


Local or international powers in the Red Sea region controlled Eritrea throughout much of history until Italy colonized the area in the late nineteenth century.  The United Kingdom administered Eritrea following Italy's surrender in World War II.  The United Nations passed a resolution for Ethiopia to annex Eritrea, but stipulated that Eritreans would be entitled to some autonomy and enjoy democratic freedoms.  From the 1960s until independence in the 1990s, Eritrea fought to gain independence from Ethiopia.  Following independence in 1993, the government has become an authoritarian one-party state that severely limits civil liberties. A border war with Ethiopia occurred from 1998 to 2000 and neither country has come to agreement on where the disputed international border should fall.[2]


Islam and Orthodox Christianity heavily influence daily life, cultural customs, and social attitudes.  Religious feasts and holidays are widely celebrated.  Cuisine shares many similarities with Ethiopia and countries in the Horn of Africa, such as widespread consumption of injerra bread.  Italian cuisine is prevalent in urban areas.  Ethnic conflict has traditionally occurred between the Christian highland and the Muslim lowland ethnic groups.[3]  Alcohol and cigarette consumption rates are low.   The federal government does not allow the practice of polygamy with the exception of Muslims in administrative regions which follow Shari'a law.


GDP per capita: $700 (2009) [1.51% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.472

Corruption Index: 2.6

War with Ethiopia, high illiteracy, poor education, and the reliance of 80% of the work force on agriculture create significant obstacles for the Eritrean economy to overcome to experience greater economic growth and development.  Half the population lives below the poverty line and in recent years low food production caused by war and the troop mobilization of farmers has not satisfied the population's food consumption needs.  The government has been unable to increase the standard of living and attract greater foreign investment.  Natural resources include gold, potash, zinc, copper, salt, and fish.  Mineral resources have yet to be exploited.  Primary crops include sorghum, lentils, vegetables, cotton, tobacco, and corn.  Livestock and fish are also important to agricultural activity.  Primary trade partners include India, Italy, China, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. 

Corruption is perceived as widespread and especially prevalent in the government.  Democratic reforms have not been carried out and human rights violations have been widespread.  There is little government transparency and few crimes violating human rights are punished.  Reporters Without Borders  ranked Eritrea as the last among 175 countries in the 2009 Press Freedom Index, signifying that freedom of the press is virtually nonexistent.  Human trafficking is a major concern as many Eritrean migrant works are exploited for forced labor and sexual exploitation in the Middle East.  Illegal immigration frequently occurs into Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. 


Muslim: 50%

Christian: 48%

indigenous beliefs: 2%


Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic   150,000

Seventh Day Adventists  516  3

Jehovah's Witnesses  less than 500

Latter-Day Saints  less than 10  0


Sunni Muslims constitute half the population.  Orthodox Christians account for 30% of Eritreans whereas Catholics account for 13%.  Christians primarily reside in interior highland areas whereas Muslims populate coastal areas.  All ethnic groups are active in their religious traditions.[4]  

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The government ratified a constitution which guarantees religious freedom in 1997, but the constitution remains unimplemented.  Human rights and religious freedom conditions remain poor due to government refusal to recognize additional religious groups, harassment of practitioners of unregistered faiths, and the incarceration of many religious prisoners under harsh and inhumane conditions. 

As many as 3,000 Christians from unregistered groups are held as religious prisoners.  Religious groups must register with the government, but no additional religious groups have been recognized since 2002.  Only the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Evangelical Church of Eritrea (Lutheran), the Roman Catholic Church, and Islam are registered.  Several other religious groups, such as Presbyterians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baha'is, have met all the qualifications for registration but the government refuses official recognition as their applications require the president's signature.  The government must approve the distribution or printing of religious literature or documents, the assembly of religious groups, and the construction of religious buildings.  Most the population exhibits religious tolerance, with the exception of widespread persecution of Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses.[5]  Jehovah's Witnesses have experienced the most severe treatment largely due to their noncompliance with mandatory military service which is regarded as disloyalty to the country.  In 1994, Witnesses were stripped of basic citizenship rights.  In 2009, 23 Witnesses were arrested while holding a worship service in a private home.  Several of those were mothers with young children who were still incarcerated as of April 2010.[6]

Largest Cities

Urban: 21%

Asmara, Keren, Assab, Afabet, Massawa, Agordat, Dekemhare, Mendefera, Adi Qayeh, Ghinda.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

None of the 10 largest cities have LDS congregations.  11% of the national population resides in the 10 largest cities.  

LDS History

There has been no reported LDS presence in Eritrea.  In 1998, Eritrea was assigned to the Africa Southeast Area. 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: less than 10 (2009)

Several Eritreans have joined the Church abroad, primarily in Europe and the United States.  Eritrean converts have visited their home country to visit relatives and to examine prospects for humanitarian work.  

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 0

There are no LDS congregations.

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Arabic, Amharic, English, Italian

All LDS scriptures and many church materials are translated into Arabic and Italian.  Only the Book of Mormon is available in Amharic.  Some of the LDS Church materials translated into Amharic include Gospel Fundamentals, Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society materials, and various Church proclamations such as The Family: A Proclamation to the World.  The Church has translated the The Prophet Joseph Smith's Testimony and Gospel Fundamentals into Afar.

Health and Safety

The government restricts the travel of all foreigners and in 2010 arrested several Eritreans which have dual citizenship in the United States and Eritrea.  Military skirmishes along the Ethiopian border have killed many in recent years.  The United States Department of State issued travel warnings for Eritrea in 2010, exhorting US citizens to avoid entering the country.[7]

Humanitarian and Development Work

Known humanitarian and development work carried out by Latter-day Saints is limited to a shipment of over 4,000 tons of wheat to Eritrea and Ethiopia to feed drought victims in 2000.[8]


Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

Current government policies and restrictions severely restrict the practice of unregistered religious faiths.There have been no reports of imprisoned Latter-day Saints in Eritrea.  Loyalty to one's government and compliance with mandatory military service are teachings of the LDS Church which may help Latter-day Saints gain a positive reputation and respect from government authorities.  Past humanitarian assistance may also improve government relations in the future. 

Cultural Issues

High levels of religious participation among Orthodox Christians and Muslims create cultural barriers which may be challenging for missionaries to overcome.  The religious tolerance exhibited by most citizens may allow the LDS Church to operate in the event that the government amends policies which severely limit the practice of non-recognized religious groups and begins to regularly recognize religious groups which meet registration standards. 

National Outreach

The entire population is completely unreached by the LDS Church.  The lack of any LDS mission outreach in Eritrea results from persistent military conflict with Ethiopia, distance from established mission outreach centers in Ethiopia, lack of church materials in local languages, poverty and poor living conditions, and little religious freedom. 

Eritrean converts may assist in initial proselytizing efforts by introducing the church to relatives.  If political conditions improve, Eritrea may one day be assigned to the Uganda Kampala Mission due to similarities in language and culture with Ethiopia which is also part of the Uganda Kampala Mission.   

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Although no convert baptisms have occurred in Eritrea, a few native members have joined the Church abroad.  Most Eritrean Latter-day Saints have not permanently returned to their home country due to poor living and social conditions.  Activity among Eritrean converts appear to be moderate, as many known Eritrean converts have actively participated in church and doctrinal study.

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Ethnic tensions between highland and lowland ethnic groups may manifest themselves at church if LDS converts consist of both former Muslims and former Orthodox Christians.  However, as in other nations with large Muslim populations, it is likely that most baptisms would be among Christians, and there are likely to be few converts from Islam if proselytism of Muslims is permitted at all.  Multiple ethnic groups attending the same congregation may necessitate the use of a second language to conduct church meetings, such as English or Arabic, until a sufficiently large numbers of members require the creation of local language-specific congregations.  

Language Issues

Several languages spoken by large numbers of Eritreans have many church materials translated, namely Arabic and English.  Some individuals may be more proficient in Amharic or Italian and utilize these language materials.  Afar church materials provide outreach potential to Afar speakers which appear to constitute less than 10% of the population.  No LDS Church materials are translated into Tigrinya or Tigre, which will be needed to achieve greater outreach potential if the Church is established in Eritrea one day.  Converts living abroad may be capable of translating materials into these and other indigenous languages.  Low literacy rates challenge efforts for members to accurately learn about Church doctrine and to develop local, self-sustaining leadership, but also create an opportunity for teaching literacy skills as humanitarian service.

Missionary Service

Few if any Eritreans have served full-time missions.  No missionary activity has occurred in Eritrea as of 2010.  Eritrean converts living abroad may one day assist in conducting missionary activity in their home country if permitted by the government.


Eritrean converts have served in church leadership positions outside of their native country.  Eritrean-born Michael Isaac joined the church in 1991 in Poland and has since served in branch, district, and mission presidencies.[9]


Eritrea is assigned to the Johannesburg South Africa Temple district.  

Comparative Growth

Eritrea remains one of a few African nations with sizeable Christian minorities without an LDS Church presence; other such nations include Chad and Burkina Faso.  Eritrea, Somalia, the Maghreb countries, and Sudan (with the exception of Southern Sudan) rank among the least tolerant of foreign religious groups and exhibit the poorest religious freedom records in Africa.

Missionary-oriented Christians have gained thousands of converts despite local citizens and missionaries jeopardizing their safety and experiencing severe government persecution and social stigmatization.  Yet in comparison to other East African countries, these denominations gain dramatically fewer converts.  Seventh Day Adventists baptized 10 or fewer converts per year after 2003, and no increase in congregations has occurred. 

Future Prospects

Latter-day Saints appear to have no realistic hope of gaining an official presence in Eritrea in the foreseeable future due to severe government restrictions on religious freedom.  Several Eritreans who have joined the Church offer meaningful prospects for future outreach if religious freedom conditions improve one day.  Humanitarian work is greatly needed and may establish a positive relationship with the government, but as of 2010, international humanitarian groups were restricted in their activities. 

[1]  "Background Note: Eritrea," Bureau of African Affairs, 14 June 2010.

[2]  "Background Note: Eritrea," Bureau of African Affairs, 14 June 2010.

[3]  "Eritrea," Countries and Their Cultures, retrieved 2 October 2010.

[4]  "Eritrea," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.

[5]  "Eritrea," International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.

[6]  "Minority faiths in Eritrea have few choices," Jehovah's Witnesses Official Media Web Site, 19 April 2010.

[7]  "Eritrea," Travel Warning U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, 24 September 2010.

[8]  Weaver, Sarah Jane.  "Church sends wheat to Africa for famine relief," LDS Church News, 17 June 2000.

[9]  Scott, Taylor.  "LDS Church in Poland has had long, hard journey," Deseret News, 13 September 2010, p. 3.