By BosNewsLife News Center
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife) -- Security forces have detained dozens of devoted Christians, including government workers, in the East African nation of Eritrea, a Christian news agency reported Tuesday, January 23.
Compass Direct News, which investigates reports of persecution, said the 68 Christians
were taken into custody following three "round-up operations" conducted in the first week of January.
In an apparently unprecedented arrest police officials in the northern town of Keren on January 5 also detained eight staff members working in government ministries.
The Keren police station commander reportedly told families of the eight imprisoned government staff members that the arrest order had come from higher authorities.
â€œThis is a new strategy of the government,â€ one local Christian speaking on condition of anonymity was quoted as saying. It was believed to be the first known arrest of government ministry staff solely for their religious beliefs.
The wave of arrests of both Protestant evangelicals and Orthodox renewal movement church members marked the Eritrean governmentâ€™s "widening crackdown against Christians" whose faith and freedom to worship have been outlawed for nearly five years, Compass Direct said.
The jailed Christians are all members of Medhane Alem, a renewal movement within the Coptic Orthodox Church. Police have reportedly forced eight detainees, five men and three women, to identify local leaders of their movement and to name everyone known to be supporting them.
Three Medhane Alem priests have been jailed for nearly two years, and 10 months ago 65 of the groupâ€™s lay leaders were excommunicated from the church by government order, investigators said.
On January 5, security police in the southern port city of Assab reportedly detained 25 Christians from their homes, workplaces and schools. All 25 prisoners were incarcerated at the Wiâ€™a Military Camp and allegedly subjected to harsh pressures to recant their religious beliefs. Seven of the 25 Christian prisoners are reportedly women.
Officials in Assab have apparently indicated that the roundup of local Protestants was expected to continue. In a separate incident, hundreds of Bibles were burned by this month at the national Sawa Military Center by military personnel as part of what they termed a â€œrandom check-up on the activities of Christian extremists" among student conscripts on January 4, news reports said.
In total 250 Bibles that the Christian students were using in their personal devotional time and commanders detained 35 of the teenage students and ordered them subjected to "severe military punishment, including physical torture," Compass Direct said.
Military and government officials were not immediately available for comment. The Eritrean government has denied human rights abuses.
However church leaders and human rights groups point out that in May 2002, Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups not operating under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths. Anyone caught in Christian activities outside the 'official' groups faces detention.
Over 2,000 Christians, including pastors and priests from both Protestant and Orthodox churches, are now detained in police stations, military camps and jails, including in containers, across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs, Christian rights groups and church leaders say. Although incarcerated for months or even years, none have been charged officially or given access to judicial process, according to human rights groups.
In a statement monitored by BosNewsLife, human rights group Eritrea Release said it believes one in 10 evangelical Christians are now imprisoned in the country.
The US State Department in its 2006 religious freedom report named Eritrea a 'Country of Particular Concern,' designating it one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.
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