Eritrea Frees 21 Christian Prisoners But Attacks Churches in Tigray, Killing 700

Church for Eritrean refugees in Mai Ayni camp, northern Ethiopia.

More Christian prisoners of faith have been set free in Eritrea, according to Release International.  The charity reports a further 21 women prisoners have been released, making 171 Christians freed since August last year.

At the same time, Eritrean forces have been accused of attacking churches in neighbouring Ethiopia – killing more than 700 civilians in what has been described as a massacre.

‘Despite the prisoner releases in Eritrea, these horrific church attacks suggest it’s far too soon to suggest a change of heart towards Christianity,’ says Paul Robinson of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide.

‘Stop the killing’

‘The attacks on churches in Tigray are appalling, and Eritrea continues to hold many senior pastors who have been detained indefinitely – some for up to 17 years. Until all are set free and the killing of Christians stops it’s too soon to talk of lasting change.

‘Any such change would have to be proven by giving full freedom of religion to all Eritrea’s citizens.’ 

The latest prisoners to be released have just set free from Dahlak Archipelago, an island prison on the Red Sea. The women, reportedly young mothers, were arrested in 2017 after the Eritrean authorities raided underground churches in various towns and villages. Many of their husbands were conscripts and their children were left without care.

The latest batch of releases leaves an estimated 130 Christian prisoners in state jails in Eritrea. There is also an unknown number of army conscripts who have been locked up for practising their faith. It is estimated a further 150 Christian prisoners are being held by the army, but little is known about them.

Churches banned

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

‘Our partners say the latest prisoner releases may be to curry favour with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who is a Christian,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘Eritrea has joined forces with Ethiopia in its fight against Tigrayan rebels in the north of the country. Our partners believe Eritrea is trying to extend its influence in the Horn of Africa.’

Tigrayans and other ethnic groups are calling for greater autonomy from Ethiopia. But the government fears ethnic divisions could lead to the break-up of the country. Ethiopia, which is militarily weak, turned to Eritrea for support to launch an attack against Tigray in November 2020.

That conflict has seen armed attacks against churches and civilians. They include a massacre in the sacred city of Axum killing up to 800, including many priests and church members. Ethiopia claims the Church of St Mary of Zion in Axum is home to the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments.

Eritrea has denied involvement in the fighting in Tigray, but reports say some troops in Axum identified themselves as Eritrean. Forces from Eritrea are also claimed to be hoisting their flag and distributing Eritrean identity cards to Ethiopians under their control.

There have been other documented attacks on churches in the region. According to unverified claims by Tigrayan activists, more than 1,000 priests have been killed in the violence.

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SOURCE: Assist News Service

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