Eritrean Christians and human rights advocates are cheering the release of 35 Christian prisoners as a new peace pact between Eritrea and Ethiopia takes hold this month. But hundreds remain imprisoned in Eritrea under harsh conditions stemming from a war in which members of Christian sects were targeted for mass incarceration.
For the last two decades, Eritrean authorities have persecuted religious groups, frequently arresting church leaders and detaining them in small shipping container prisons where advocates say they’re routinely deprived of water, food, proper sanitation and medicines. The roundup traces to a 2002 law that permits the operation of only a handful of religious groups: Orthodox Christian, Evangelical Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, along with Sunni Islam.
Since then, the government has cracked down on evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which are seen as foreign-influenced threats to security and Eritrean autonomy. Seen as relative newcomers to the religious landscape, they’re accused of using aggressive evangelistic tactics and causing social divisions.
At least 10 prisons around the country are holding hundreds of prisoners who have been detained for anywhere from a few months to 20 years, according to Release Eritrea, a U.K. charity that highlights Christian persecution in the country. Among them is the former Patriarch of Eritrea Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, who is in his 80s and has been under house arrest and incommunicado since 2007. He was deposed after complaining about the government’s interference with the church.
“We call for them all to be released,” said Berhane Asmelash, the director of Release Eritrea, in a statement in which he thanked God for the release of the prisoners.
The released prisoners — 11 women and 24 men – are not leaders of their respective groups and fellowships and were released on unclear bail terms. They pledged not to take part in worship practices of banned religious sects.
SOURCE: Fredrick Nzwili
Religion News Service