By BosNewsLife News Center
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife) — Nearly two thousand Christians spent another Sunday, behind bars in Eritrea where they are allegedly subjected to torture and forced labor because of their religious beliefs.
A new list of names of prisoners, smuggled out of Eritrea, indicate that at least 1,918 Eritrean citizens are imprisoned because of their faith, reported Compass Direct News, a Christian news agency. 95 percent of these known religious prisoners of conscience are believed to be Christians.
Compass Direct News said a total of 35 pastors, priests and church elders are confirmed under arrest in Asmara's Wongel Mermera investigation center. An additional 1,758 Christians of both evangelical Protestant and Orthodox confessions are reportedly jailed in 14 other cities and towns.
"163 of these Christian prisoners have been put under arrest since the beginning of 2006. As many as a fourth of all those jailed are believed to have been incarcerated for two years or more," said Compass Direct News, quoting its own investigation.
Additionally, 69 Muslims are allegedly being held in Wongel Mermera for opposing the government-appointed mufti. They include Taha Mohammed Noor, a founding member of the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1961 and a member of the Islamic Awqaf, a religious foundation.
GOVERNMENT INTERFERENCE REFUSED
Arrested in Asmara on November 25, 2005, Noor reportedly has refused under torture to accept government interference with the religious affairs of Eritrean Muslims, who constitute half of the population.
At least 27 Jehovah's Witnesses are also imprisoned because of their conscientious objections to military conscription, which Eritrean law requires of all citizens, both male and female, according to estimates.
None of those imprisoned for their religious beliefs in the government crackdown begun more than four years ago have been brought before a court of law to be charged or tried, human rights watchers say.
Compass Direct News said the list shows that 475 Christians are jailed at Wi'a, 250 at Sawa, including 50 students arrested from Mai Nefhee Academy last May.
HUNDERDS MORE JAILED
In addition 192 Christians are jailed at Dongoloi Ai Ai, 130 at Mai-Serwa, 78 at Adi-Abyto, 55 inSembel Prison, 155 in various Asmara police stations, 37 in the Keren police station, 22 in the Mendefera police station, 115 at Assab, 97 at Gelalo, 21 in the Dekemhare police station, 56 in the Adi-Kualaa police station, and 75 in the Massawa police station, according to the detailed report.
In August another 29 Protestant Christians were reportedly arrested in the cities of Asmara, Keren and Massawa.
Ten evangelicals attending a home prayer meeting in Asmara's Edaga Arbi district were arrested on August 17, said human right group Release Eritrea. In similar raids in the cities of Keren and Massawa earlier in the month, Eritrean police reportedly jailed another 15 and 4 people.
The only known releases in recent weeks occurred in Wi'a, where a reported handful among the hundreds of Christian soldiers in a military jail were set free after signing statements to recant their evangelical beliefs.
PRISONERS HAVE ESCAPED
Other prisoners have escaped — into a dangerous desert, BosNewsLife learned earlier this year. Christian rights group Open Doors and local Christians said 15 of the 130 Christian prisoners being held in metal shipping containers at Assab's military prison camp managed to escape in the early morning hours of May 16.
The men fled south across the desert toward the border with Djibouti, but two days later, military police pursuing them found the bodies of five men who had died of exposure, Christians and other sources said. The fate of the other 10 Christians remained unknown, Sunday, September 10.
Since January 2006, Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios also remains under police guard in the capital Asmara, forbidden to leave his residence and now denied any visitors. His unofficial successor, Abune Dioscoros, has yet to be recognized by Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenoudah III in Cairo.
Since March, 65 leaders of the Medhane Alem renewal movement within the Eritrean Orthodox Church have been openly threatened with excommunication if they refuse to confess following "heretical" teachings, Compass Direct News said.
Patriarch Antonios is believed to have fallen out of government favor for protesting the March 2005 arrest of three Orthodox priests active in this Sunday School movement.
The Department of Religious Affairs has refused to allow the Anglican Church in Asmara to supply its own pulpit since October 2005, when the Rev. Nelson Fernandez was summarily ordered out of the country, news reports said.
To the "expressed dismay" of the Anglican congregation, control of the worship and activities of the church has been handed over to the government-registered Lutheran Church; Compass Direct News quoted a source as saying.
Since May 2002, the Eritrean government banned all independent religious groups not under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim confessions.
Eritrea's government has denied human rights abuses saying that no groups or persons are persecuted in the country for their beliefs or religion.
President Isaias Afworki has been quoted as saying that several religious groups have been "duped by foreigners" who sought to "distract from the unity of the Eritrean people and distort the true meaning of religion." Critics say the government's version of religion often leads to tensions with especially Christians who actively express their faith in Christ. (With BosNewsLife Research and reports from Eritrea).
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