By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
Home these days is Shimelba refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, close to the disputed border with Eritrea. Here, in the Ebenezer Evangelical Church on camp, Paulus is free to worship in a way that is unthinkable back in his homeland, says Tanya Datta, BBC News, northern Ethiopia.
Paulus is an Eritrean refugee whom Datta found lying contorted on the ground. Balanced on his belly, his hands clutch his feet behind his back, bending his legs back almost double. Paulus is demonstrating a torture technique known colloquially as “the helicopter.”
“It is one he knows well,” says Datta. “It was in this excruciating position, he claims, that soldiers left him tied up for 136 hours, in an attempt to force him to recant his faith,” Datta explains in the BBC World Service’s Assignment program which was broadcast on Thursday, September 27.
“They kept asking me to sign a document,” Paulus recalls, “and agree to not participate in church activities or express my faith in any form. I was told I would be untied and released the minute I agreed to their requests.”
During the past five years, a brutal campaign has been waged in Eritrea against Christian minorities, focusing mainly on the evangelical and Pentecostal movements, Datta reported.
“Weddings, baptisms, church services and prayer meetings have been raided by security forces. Guests or congregation members have rounded up and detained en masse,” she says.
According to Compass Direct, a non-governmental organization reporting on the persecution of Christians around the world, it is estimated that almost 2,000 people are being held in jails across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs.
The crackdown on Eritrea’s minority churches followed a government announcement in May 2002 that only its four oldest faiths — Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islam — would receive official sanction. The rest were invited to register and declare their sources of funding. To date, none has been registered.
Evangelical Christians who have been arrested face severe pressure to recant their faith. Some prisoners have been held in metal shipping containers, Datta says, adding that accounts of torture, lack of food and terrible conditions are commonplace.
Samuel (not his real name) is 24 and university-educated. Along with 19 others, he was arrested in 2005 when he attended the wedding of a friend.
For the next 12 months, he was imprisoned and forced to do backbreaking manual labor. He was also regularly beaten.
On one occasion, Samuel said, he was suspended by his arms from a tree for three days in the form of a crucifixion. He was also constantly pressured to leave his faith. “They asked me if I would like to leave it. They asked every night for four months,” he said. Some of his friends did recant after endless beatings.
Samuel, as well as Paulus, were repeatedly asked about their links with the US. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are widely perceived by the Eritrean authorities as having originated in the States, even though many fund themselves.
Datta reports that the US is threatening to declare Eritrea a rogue state for its alleged support of terrorists, and the mood of President Isaias Afwerki and his Marxist-oriented government is now openly anti-American.
“Yet even official, long-established faiths have not escaped government interference,” she says.
Patriarch Abune Antonios, the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church — a faith followed by more than 40 percent of Eritrea’s population — has been under house arrest for almost two years.
Four months ago, the 80-year-old who suffers from diabetes was moved to an undisclosed location. Since then, there has been little information about what happened to him.
No official reason has been given for his disappearance. His supporters, however, claim that he was arrested after he objected to the jailing of church leaders from the Medhane Alem, a spiritual renewal movement within the Orthodox church.
In May this year, Datta says, a new patriarch was installed with the support of some Eritrean bishops. But the new patriarch has not been accepted by the Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt.
Abba Seraphim is the head of the British Orthodox Church, which is launching an online petition to protest about the plight of the patriarch.
He told Datta the patriarch was put under house arrest after he refused to do the government’s bidding. “The only thing we’ve heard is that he’s being kept in a darkened room. He managed to get a message to someone complaining about this,” Mr Seraphim said.
“But, according to Girma Asmeron, the Eritrean ambassador to Belgium, the disappearance of Patriarch Antonios is far from sinister. The patriarch, he claims, has retired to an isolated monastery and is very much ‘alive, kicking and praying,'” said Datta.
Mr Asmeron denies that there is any repression of religious freedom in Eritrea. He says persecution claims have been made up. And allegations of torture, he says, are stories invented by refugees “simply as a certificate” to enable them to get political asylum.
Refugees certainly continue to pour out of Eritrea. In two years, the number of asylum applications by Eritreans to the West has increased by 57 percent. The UNHCR recently described the exodus as “one of the world’s most protracted refugee situations.”
Datta’s last contact with Eritrea’s persecuted Christians came in an e-mail sent to her last week.
“The situation in Eritrea is getting worse and worse after the president stated that the US is funding the Pentecostal church in Eritrea,” it said.
“Many Christians are suffering in military concentrations [camps] and police stations… Pray for the Christians in Eritrea, and pray for the prisoners and their families.”