Religious freedom hopes dashed in Eritrea as 35 more Christians arrested

ASMARA, Eritrea (Anawim Today)- Release International, a UK based charity has said that the arrest of another 35 Christians in Eritrea last weeks has further dampened the hopes of religious freedom in the country.


“The latest arrests dash hopes of a change of heart towards Christians in that country, where many have been imprisoned for their faith since Eritrea closed most of its churches in 2002,” said a Release International Press release released to Anawim Today on Wednesday, March 31.


Release International said the arrests took place last week, when the army raided a prayer meeting held by 23 women in the capital Asmara. Another 12 were arrested in Assab, some 660 miles south east of Asmara, near the border with Djibouti.


It said the women in the capital were praying in Mai Chehot, close to the army barracks, adding soldiers took them to Mai Sarawa prison.


According to Release International the 12 arrested in Assab were also caught holding a prayer meeting in a house, and were taken to a prison nearby.


Many Christians in Eritrea have been arrested without charge and jailed indefinitely, it said.


In Eritrea, citizens have a duty to report anything untoward happening in their community, it said adding this can turn ordinary neighbours into spies.


 “In some cases their own family members have reported Christians”, said Release International. “With these latest arrests, it is possible the Christians gave themselves away by the numbers turning up to pray or the sound of their singing.”


Repression continues


The news release said that some 171 Christians who were arrested for their faith have been set free in the past six months.  However, it quoted Dr Berhane Asmelash, a partner of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide as saying: “But this latest wave of arrests is proof positive there has been no change in the repressive government policy towards religious freedom”.


Dr Asmelash, according to Release International said: “Unless there is a change of policy these will continue to be dangerous times for Christians in Eritrea, where many are suffering for their faith.”


It said Release is particularly concerned for the women arrested at Assab, on the Red Sea, who have been taken to prison there. Conditions in the jail are known to be harsh.


The news release said Assab prison is in a remote port area which is now reserved for military use.


“Until recently, Assab prison held many Christians who had been detained indefinitely. Some had been behind bars for up to 15 years. Many have been released over the past six months”, said the release.


Release International said there are now an estimated 165 Christian prisoners in state jails in Eritrea.


“Many army conscripts have also been locked up for practising their faith”, it said.


Release International said its partners believe this number could be as high as 150.


The charity quoted its CEO Paul Robinson as saying: “Eritrea has been likened to the North Korea of Africa”.


 Robinson according to the news release said: “Release continues to press the government to release its prisoners of faith – every one of them. We urge Eritrea to repeal its restrictive religious laws and grant full freedom of faith to its citizens.”


Churches banned


Release International said Eritrea outlawed most religions in 2002, when the government banned every faith other than Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Sunni Islam.


It said many Christians who fled to escape persecution in Eritrea are now being caught up in the growing conflict in neighbouring Ethiopia, where Release International is providing support. Eritrean forces have joined forces with their neighbour against Tigrinya rebels.


The news release added that observers suggest a reason for the recent prisoner releases was to curry favour with the Ethiopian Prime Minister who is a Christian.


“Eritrea has recently announced it will withdraw its troops from the conflict. Its soldiers have been accused of attacking churches and systematic rape”, said Release International.


Editor’s note:


Photo caption: Doctor Berhane Asmelash (Credit: The Voice of the Martyrs, Korea)


Through its international network of missions, Release International is active in some 25 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.