Eritrea has arrested more than 140 Christians who were meeting in private in the capital Asmara. Fourteen children are among the 141 detained, after the authorities raided a Christian gathering in Mai Temenai.The crackdown comes ahead of Eritrea’s Independence Day on May 24. Contacts of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, say the streets are filled with police and secret police who are trying to prevent protests. Some of those detained in the latest police action are believed to be in Adi Abeito prison, close to where they were arrested; others are still being held by police. Demonstrations by pro-democracy campaigners in neighbouring Sudan have led to the removal of the ruling dictator, Omar al-Bashir. As well as carrying out arrests, the authorities in Eritrea have shut down social media.
Eritrea is a one-party dictatorship, which has been ruled over by President Isaias Afwerki since 1993. The nation had been in a state of war with neighbouring Ethiopia for 30 years. Even though the two countries signed a peace deal last July, hopes that rapprochement with Ethiopia would lead to a freedom dividend have proved unfounded. One in five Eritreans is drafted into the armed forces for indefinite military service. And there has been no improvement in religious freedom or human rights conditions, either, according to the latest report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.The country has been described as the North Korea of Africa. It is one of the poorest on the continent. Around 1.5 million Eritreans have fled. And this growing diaspora is becoming increasingly vocal in its demands for religious and human rights freedoms.
Eritrea is evenly split between Muslims and Christians, but religion is tightly controlled. In 2002 Eritrea outlawed many Christian denominations and shut down Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Christians who worship in unregistered churches are regarded as enemies of the state. Any believers in the armed services caught practising their faith face imprisonment. Many Christians are jailed indefinitely without charge or going to trial. Some are kept in shipping containers, where they are exposed to the searing desert heat by day and cold by night. Some are beaten and tortured to try to force them to renounce their faith.
Dawit, an Eritrean refugee, described how he was tortured to Release International: ‘I was arrested because of my Christian faith. Each night I had to sleep on the floor with my arms and feet tied together tightly, they called it the Number 8.’ He said his legs were doubled up behind his back and lashed to his wrists. ‘Because of that I still have back pain.’ Sometimes prisoners are tied up and hanged from trees. One form of hanging is known as the Jesus Christ, because it looks like a crucifix.The Bishop of Truro’s recent persecution review declared ‘the torture of Christians is widespread in… Eritrean prisons.’ And a UN human rights commission noted attacks on protestants and pentecostals were ‘part of a diligently planned policy of the government.’Estimates vary as to how many Christian prisoners are being held in Eritrea. The authorities do not release records. Most are believed to be Pentecostal or Evangelical. Many have been held for more than a decade. The prison authorities ban praying aloud, singing, preaching or reading religious books.
Release partner Dr Berhane Asmelash was himself tortured in Eritrea. He says Christians inside the country are growing bolder as the Eritrean diaspora becomes more outspoken in calling for greater religious freedom. Says Dr Berhane: ‘People used to live in fear but since last July, people started to speak openly in the diaspora. Over and they are calling that enough is enough, and people inside Eritrea are communicating with them. ’‘Things have to change in Eritrea,’ says Paul Robinson, Release International CEO. ‘The country is no longer at war, but it still behaves as though it is – and the enemy is its own people.‘Release has long been campaigning for Eritrea to release its prisoners of faith and to grant freedom of worship. Please continue to pray for a radical change of heart in President Isaias Afwerki and his government, amid mounting international pressure for reform. ‘It’s time for the repression to end and for freedom to prevail.’
Release is supporting Christian prisoners and their families in Eritrea – many have been deprived of their breadwinners for years. Release is providing practical and spiritual support for Eritrean refugees who have been forced to flee, and is helping former prisoners get back into work. Through its international network of missions Release International is active in some 30 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.
21 May 2019